Fifteen years ago I wrote an
article for the Dance Beat (Vol. 1 No. 6 , November 1988) titled,
"Community Dances in the Eighties: Dare To Be Square!"
In it I described changes that I was observing at community
dances; squares were on the decline and "contra-mania"
was spreading across the country. In looking back over what
I wrote in 1988, while there are a few things that I would modify
slightly, or articulate more clearly, for the most part I stand
by what I said back then, but even more so! I know that writing
in the Old-Time Herald, I was for the most part,
"preaching to the choir," and while I received much
support from the old-time music community, some people in the
contra dance scene were offended and angered by what I wrote.
I was accused of being "divisive," and I was unwelcome
as a dance caller at a number of venues. Robert Reed, a contra
dancer from Portland, Oregon, responded in the Bay Area Country
Dancer in 1989. Both "Dare To Be Square," and
Robert Reed's response are still available for reading on the
internet. My original article can be found at the Old-Time
Herald website <http://www.oldtimeherald.org/dare-to-be-square>.
Robert Reed's response is at Bill Tomczak's contra dance website
I had always intended to write a follow-up, so now fifteen years
later, here it is.
In the 1970s, with the growing interest in traditional music
and dance, many new square dances started up around the country.
Many of these dances were extensions of the old-time music community,
functioning as gathering places for musicians as well as dancers.
Except in New England, where contras became the dominant form,
traditional southern squares were common thoughout the country,
and the music was primarily southern old-time. Outside of New
England, contras were also danced at Berea, Brasstown, and other
affiliates of the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS), but
these dances were often separate from the thriving old-time
music and dance scene.
In the fall of 1982, I helped start the weekly dance here in
Asheville, called the Old Farmers' Ball. From the beginning
there was a mix of squares and contras, the latter reflecting
the influence of Berea and Brasstown. The music was more-often-than-not
southern old-time music, and every Thursday, members of Asheville's
old-time music and dance community gathered to dance, play music,
or just hang out.
Over the years, what I used to refer to as our "square
dance," evolved into a "contra dance." Today
contras are the norm, and it is rare that a square is called.
Southern old-time stringbands are now infrequent, having been
replaced by contra dance bands. There are fewer banjos, and
more keyboards and various forms of percussion, including drums.
Musical styles have become eclectic, drawing from the New England,
Celtic, and old-time repertoires, with a few newly-composed
tunes mixed in. Our dance, like many others, has grown in attendance
and is thriving, but now those of us who prefer squares and
southern music have become alienated and have quit attending.
However, I believe that the dance abandoned the old-time music
community, rather than the other way around, and I have witnessed
that what started out as a "community dance" for the
community has now become a "dance community" for contra
dancers. And this has, I believe, led current dancers to have
more of a consumer attitude. The "professional" contra
dancers seem to be annoyed by beginners and other "bad"
dancers who get in the way, avoiding them as partners, and pushing
them around in the contra lines. Contra dance bands now delight
the dancers with rehearsed musical arrangements and tune medleys.
New callers, all from the ranks of the dancers, cater to the
dancers' demands, calling all contras and no squares.
Although I have been calling dances for almost thirty years,
and do it well, I am now seldom asked to call at local dance
events, perhaps because I insist on calling squares as well
as contras. I have been hassled, and even booed, by rude contra
dancers, who object if I call more than one or two squares during
an evening. I have even had dancers call me at home before a
dance, to see if I was going to call any squares, and if so,
they were not going to come. It is discouraging, to say the
least, and makes me speculate whether I am a dance leader or
just an employee of the dancers.
What I have portrayed here is not unique to Asheville. The
contra-mania that I first described fifteen years ago is flourishing
and continues to spawn new contra dance events across the country,
while only a few old-time square dances survive. Some contra
dance callers do attempt to include some squares, but these
are vastly outnumbered by the predominance of contras. I used
to believe that squares and contras could exist side-by-side
and that squares would eventually regain their popularity, but
I now have begun to wonder if they might both be better off
at separate venues.
The Rise of the Contra
Competition between contras and squares is nothing new; these
two rival dance forms have been contending for popularity for
centuries. Contra dances developed from the longways country
dances that became popular in English upper-class society as
early as the seventeenth century. The dance trends of that era
can be ascertained by looking at the hundreds of country dances
described in successive editions of John Playford's English
Dancing Master. During this period "Longways for as
many as will," gradually became the dominant country dance
form, replacing earlier squares, rounds, and longways sets for
four, six, or eight dancers. In Playford's first edition of
1651, longways sets make up only about one third of the dances.
In later editions they became more prevalent, as dancing masters
devised new ones for their clientele, and by the final edition
of 1728, 98% of the dances are in the longways [contra dance]
form. Cecil Sharp accounted for this change, noting that "...in
the Longways dance the professor of dancing found a form easily
adapted to the genteel style which he affected. Attracted, therefore,
by this form alone, he forced it into prominence to the exclusion
of the earlier and less flexible types." English dancing
masters also taught contra dances throughout colonial America,
and they remained the popular dance form, along with reels and
jigs, into the early years of this country.
The War of the Quadrilles
Another chapter in the history of the contras vs. squares rivalry
occurred two hundred years ago, in 1804, in New Orleans. It
has been described by dance historian, Maureen Needham Costonis,
as "The War of the Quadrilles." In December 1803,
New Orleans became United States territory as part of the Louisiana
Purchase. Prior to that time, the favored dances among the city's
predominately French-speaking Creoles were French Quadrilles,
referred to at that time as "French contredanses."
French Quadrilles had not yet come to the United States, where
"English contredanses" [contra dances] were still
in fashion. On January 8, 1804, only a few weeks after the transfer
to the Americans, a quarrel between the Creoles and the Americans
broke out at a public ball, over which type of dance should
be done. According to one account of the incident: "Two
quadrilles, one French [a square], the other English [a contra],
were formed at once. An American, taking exception, brandished
his stick over a fiddler, and there was at once, great turmoil..."
Eventually, after much persuasion, "...the French quadrille
[square dance] was allowed to go on, but the American interrupted
it on its second time around with an English quadrille [contra
dance], taking his position on the floor; some one cried out:
‘If the women have a drop of French blood in their veins, they
will not give in!'"
The contra-square controversy continued and erupted into a
brawl at another public dance later that month. As reported
by the New-York Herald on March 10, 1804, the dancing began
with cotillions [squares], followed by a country dance [contra]
for twelve couples. The musicians were instructed to end
the contra after all of the couples had been active, but six
additional American couples joined the end of the line and demanded
that the music continue. In the ensuing ruckus, fiddles got
broken, swords were drawn, and dancers were arrested. In an
effort to resolve the issue and let the dances continue, the
New Orleans City Council stepped in, prohibiting citizens from
carrying arms to the dances, assigning policemen to keep order,
and legislating a rotation of dances: two "French contredanses[squares],"
followed by one "English contredanse [contra]" limited
to twelve couples, and then a waltz, to appease those of Spanish
Following the War of 1812, with the exception of New England,
which remained pro-English, Americans completely abandoned the
tradition of English contra dances in favor of the French quadrilles.
Quadrilles were promoted as being "new" and "fashionable"
and contras were seen as "rustic" and "old-fashioned."
While remnants of some of the formal quadrille figures remain
in New England squares as well as western squares, they had
less influence in the South and mid-West, where visiting couple
squares became the popular form.
So now, after almost two hundred years as the prevailing dance
form, squares are no longer in fashion, and contras have made
a comeback. But not the old traditional contras that were displaced
by the quadrilles in the early nineteenth century; almost all
of contras at today's dances have been composed since the 1970s,
in a modern form. Most of the old contras were danced in triple-minor
proper sets, involving groups of three couples taking hands-six,
rather than pairs of couples taking hands-four (duple-minor
form). Dance calling was not yet commonplace, so the dance would
be led by the top couple, with each successive couple following.
All other couples were inactive until they arrived at the top
of the set. And despite limiting sets to twelve couples, contras
were often described as seeming "never-ending," not
finishing until the original leading couple had made it back
to the top of the set.
Modern contra dances are choreographed to keep all the dancers
moving all the time, with no inactive couples. Duple-minor dances
have replaced the less-active triple-minor form, and to accommodate
today's longer lines, "unequal" figures (in which
one couple is more active than the other) have been eliminated.
(The equivalent in the square dance world are the modern western
square dances of the 1950s.) These modern contras, prompted
by a caller, make use of only a dozen or so interchangeable
figures in repetitive permutations, and they are easily mastered
by new dancers in a relatively short time.
Contemporary Contra Dancers
In an attempt to better understand the contemporary contra
dance culture, I recently posted a survey on the internet to
several dance communities in the southeast asking about motivations
for dancing, as well as musical preferences and opinions concerning
squares vs. contras. Close to sixty contra dancers responded
and the results are informative.
Dancers attend contra dances for various reasons. The most
common response (76%) was a social reason, which included the
"need for community," "physical and social contact,"
and opportunities for "safe flirting." Due to the
brevity of the interactions in a contra dance, dancers interact
with large numbers of people without fear of commitment, or
even having to talk. One dancer from Atlanta said that contra
dances "serve my need to be physically creative and connect
with other people. Verbal interaction is not always expected."
Almost half of the dancers (47%) are attracted to contra dancing
for aerobic exercise, which may account for the water bottles,
spandex, running shorts, and head bands seen at many dances.
Slightly over one-third (34%) mentioned the music, and about
one-in-five (19%) said they enjoyed dancing and physical movement
in general. Many dancers (39%) refer to the fun and the exhilaration
of dancing. A dancer from Knoxville wrote of "the ‘dancer's
high' that comes with the triple combination of dance, people,
and great music." Another from Chapel Hill spoke of
"being drunk on the ecstasy of dancing." For many
others (27%), contra dancing goes beyond simply recreation,
and is perceived as being "therapeutic" or even "spiritual."
These dancers speak of the importance of "centeredness"
and "getting into a trance." One dancer in Atlanta
said, "I don't think about anything else when I am dancing
and am as much ‘in the moment' as I ever am." Obviously
contra dancing is fulfilling a need in peoples lives, and even
though there is no single reason why dancers are drawn to contras,
and it appears to be more than just an alternative to the gym
or singles bars.
Many contra dancers are new to dancing. Of the 57 dancers who
responded to my survey, the majority (54%) have "discovered"
contra dancing since I wrote "Dare To Be Square"
in 1988. Dividing the sample into two groups, those who have
been involved in dancing for less than 10 years (40%), and those
who have been involved in dancing for more than 20 years (25%),
reveals a polarization of dance preferences. Of the more experienced
dancers, 43% prefer squares, 7% prefer contras, and 50% like
both. Of the newer dancers, 70% prefer contras, 30% like both,
but 0% prefer squares.
It is no surprise to learn that newer dancers overwhelmingly
prefer contras to squares. Many of these folks sound like ones
I have encountered at dances, who are almost belligerent in
their attitude toward squares, and believe that squares have
no place at a "contra dance." It is not uncommon for
a caller to hear moans or boos from the dance floor at the suggestion
of doing more than just a token square in an evening. Typical
of the comments I received from dancers were, "I can endure
one square a night, or possibly two, but never any more,"
"One square during a contra dance would be more than enough,"
and "I have left a dance because the caller called too
many squares." Maybe I should look on the positive side
and be encouraged that 30% of the new dancers do tolerate squares.
For many though, this means one, or at most two, during a full
evening of contras "regardless of the caller."
One dancer in Florida posed a question that had never occurred
to me, "If you agreed to dance a contra with someone, and
the caller makes the next dance a square instead of a contra,
would you still dance?" Independently, another dancer from
Knoxville provided the answer, "There's sort of an understanding
among contra dancers that an invitation to dance the ‘next dance'
isn't binding if the next dance turns out to be a square."
I was surprised to find out that according to many of today's
contra dancers, "squares don't count as dances!" If
you ask someone to be your partner for the "next dance,"
this means the next contra dance. One dancer from Atlanta declared,
"The only real benefit of a square is to give me a chance
to change my shirt or go to the bathroom...I can certainly tolerate
squares at a contra dance. After all, I do need time to change
my shirts and go to the bathroom."
When asked about musical preferences, the contra dancers surveyed
preferred New England or Celtic music over old-time music almost
two-to-one. The banjo is cited by several dancers as their least
favorite dance instrument. The rhythms, tempos, and 32-bar format
of New England or Celtic tunes are perhaps better suited to
the requirements of contras than are many of the great southern
dance tunes. A few old-time tunes, however, have met the criteria
and have been adopted by contra dance musicians, becoming a
part of the standard repertoire. Regardless of the style, though,
the dancers seem to care little about traditional music, and
more about bands that offer "variety." In addition
to dynamic medleys of tunes, this often means the use of drums,
percussion, and unusual instruments, or other "cheap tricks
that make the dancers yell." Perhaps these so called "bells
and whistles" wake up and energize contra dancers, lost
in trances induced by the repetitive figures of the contra dance.
A number of contra dancers specifically mentioned not liking
old-time music, finding it "boring" and "monotonous."
While it may be monotonous (but no more so than the repetitive
contra dance figures), this same quality makes it so appropriate
and good for fast-paced southern squares. Medleys and contra
dance band gimmicks do not work well, but instead can be a distraction
to dancers who need to stay focused on the free-form calling.
Squares vs. Contras
So what is it that contra dancers dislike about squares? Unfortunately
this question doesn't take into consideration that there are
many different types of squares (southern, New England, western,
singing, etc.), and dancers may like one kind but not another.
The traditional old-time southern squares that I love seem to
be the least favorite.
One of the most common criticisms I heard was that squares
take too long to teach. A longer walk-through means less time
for dancing, or as several dancers put it, "bad talk-to-dance
ratio." This is often true, but part of the blame lies
with the dancers and their lack of experience and familiarity
with squares. If squares are not part of the regular program,
dancers have little exposure to them. As a caller, I know to
expect a longer walk-through when people do not already know
such basics as the Grand Right and Left. Also many squares have
unique figures that may show up in only one dance. It is
harder to teach a square; it often involves some actual teaching.
By comparison, most contras are "taught" by merely
announcing the sequence of the figures and having the dancers
walk through them; new figures are seldom taught. This of course
leaves beginners feeling lost.
Another shortcoming of squares is the necessity for eight dancers
in each set which can add to the time it takes to organize the
sets (but not if dancers are eager to dance them). As one dancer
from Asheville pointed out, "You could conceivably have
up to seven dancers wanting to dance, but unable to because
they cannot find an eighth person. In a contra line the most
you would ever have forced to sit out is one dancer." In
my experience, with a little creativity, even an incomplete
set can still dance most of the figures of a square, and they
usually have fun giving it a try.
A number of dancers complain that squares are "boring."
This has as much to do with the dancers' attitudes as with the
caller's choice of choreography. I admit that some squares are
more interesting than others, but even simple traditional visiting
couple squares can be enjoyable. Having met the same fate as
traditional squares, "Rory O'More," "Chorus Jig"
and other traditional contra dance "chestnuts," in
which one couple is sometimes inactive, have also been eliminated
from today's contra dance programs.
Many contra dancers find squares "confusing." They
are discouraged if they are the ones who are confused, or a
more common complaint, they are irritated if they "get
stuck" in a square with inexperienced dancers. As one dancer
pointed out, "If you are in a ‘bad' square, you are in
it for the whole dance. You don't simply move on to new neighbors
like you would in a contra." Confusion can sometimes be
the result of the caller's inexperience, which can manifest
itself in unclear teaching or "bad calling." Contras
are straightforward and easy to prompt, but many contra callers
have little understanding of the timing of calling squares.
One other drawback to squares, that several dancers pointed
out, is that contras make "more efficient use of floor
space" in a crowded hall. This may be true, but is efficiency
of space a major consideration at a dance and a reason to dislike
I have observed that some of the same characteristics of squares
that one dancer dislikes are exactly what another dancer likes.
Some dancers like the challenge and variety of figures offered
by squares. This, however, does not satisfy those contra dancers
who want to get into a "trance" or "the right
brain ‘Zen' state that is sometimes possible in contra dancing."
The challenge, sometimes bordering on confusion that these dancers
dislike, is enjoyed by others who like the faster pace and spontaneity
characteristic of squares.
Some contra dancers object to dancing with only seven other
people in a square set, but others enjoy the "great sense
of teamwork" and "synergy of eight people working
together" in a square. One dancer pointed out that "...you
spend enough time with the people in your square to get to know
them, unlike a contra where the interaction is fleeting and
While some contra dancers will tolerate a few token squares
as "a nice change from dancing up and down lines,"
these dancers tend to prefer the squares that are most "contra-like."
In other words, not southern squares, but ones that are phrased
to the music and use contra dance figures in a square formation.
Some dancers think a square is fun if it has challenging, intricate
figures that force you to think and work as a team. Though complex
squares can at times be fun, other dancers find them too "cerebral,"
lacking much of the essence of what squares, southern squares
in particular, have to offer.
Dare to be square!
Contra-mania has become more widespread and established thoughout
the country since I wrote "Dare to be Square" in 1988.
While some callers do include a few squares, many dance organizers
discourage squares, and today's contra dancers seem more intolerant
than ever. In many locations, the old-time music community,
offended by fanatical "contra nazis," has parted ways
with the contra dance scene. One dancer from Lynchburg, Virginia
suggested that the controversy results from "an intersection
of subcultures...Square dancing seems like more of a local community
gathering to me while contra dancing is more cosmopolitan."
In spite of this, I urge contra dancers to have an open mind
toward squares; they can be wonderful and just as exhilarating
as contras. A dancer from Chapel Hill wrote, "I didn't
like them up until about 12 years ago. I was so greedy for my
dance buzz, I couldn't tolerate the times that squares wobbled,
broke down, were badly called, or were too ‘corny' for my taste.
I wanted non-stop exciting dancing with fabulous partners and
neighbors. Needless to say, I danced in the center set during
contras and ignored beginners. Friends who loved squares influenced
me to be more open minded, I matured, I started caring more
about the overall group experience rather than my own pleasure,
and I danced enough squares to be able to help when they wobbled
and laugh when they fell apart."
In some places around the country, in particular in Denver,
Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, new old-time square dances have
started up, completely independent of the contra dance scene.
As a contra dancer from Knoxville pointed out, "Neither
contra dancing nor square dancing is for everybody... I'd rather
see contra dances and square dances billed separately than to
try to force the two into the same venues, that way each can
appeal to its own set of people and use the music that suits
Perhaps this is the best way to go, if the contra dance community
continues in its current direction. Rather than trying to force
hardcore contra dancers to loosen up and appreciate traditional
squares, the re-establishment of old-time square dances, separate
from the contra dance scene, would benefit musicians, as well
as dancers and callers, and make for a stronger old-time music
community. This may be easier said than done, but it would revive
one of the main functions of old-time music, which is playing
for dancing. It would also provide family and beginner-friendly
dances for all ages, where callers could call squares, and the
community could come together to dance, socialize, or just enjoy
Costonis, Maureen Needham. "The War of the Quadrilles:
Creoles vs. Americans, 1804." New York Public Library Bulletin
of Research in the Humanities 1 (1986-87): 63-81.
Sharp, Cecil J. The Country Dance Book, Part II, 3 ed.
London: Novello and Company, 1927. Reprint, Wakefield, Yorkshire:
EP Publishing, 1975.
Thanks to Larry Edelman and to all of the contra dancers who
took the time to answer my dance survey.
Phil Jamison is an old-time musician, flatfoot dancer,
and dance caller, who has been calling squares since 1975. He
is assistant director of the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson
College in Asheville, NC
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