The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 3

Dance Beat/Issues in Old-Time Music
Old-Time Square Dancing in the 21st Century: Dare to be Square!
By Phil Jamison

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 <http://www.northwindvt.com/contradance/articles/dare-reed-response.html>. 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 descent.

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.

Modern Contras

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 squares?

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 superficial."

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 it best."

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 the music.

References:

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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