Chris calling a dance

Traditional American Community Dance

It would happen on a Saturday night, or maybe a a Grange hall or church basement. Young people would come, and their moms and dads, and maybe Grandma and Grandpa, too. There might even be a few babies or toddlers who would fall asleep in the corners of the room on blankets and coats. But the rest kept dancing. There were squares, reels, a mixer or two, a waltz, a polka or a schottish, maybe a few couple dances such as Rye Waltz or the Varsovienne, and there might even be a contra or a Lancer. They were our American community dances. We called them square dances, or barn dances. There were no lessons, or square dance clubs. There was a caller and a band. Since it was a community event, halls were often donated, or perhaps there was a small fee. Dancers were asked to pay a few bucks at the door to pay the musicians and caller. Maybe there was a cakewalk or a raffle to raise a few extra dollars.

Does this sound familiar to you? Or not? This is the way things were in the late 1930's and early '40's in most communities around the country. Not everyone went, of course, but these dances were very popular. In fact, they were so much fun that many folks wanted to dance more often than once or twice a month. Sometimes a neighboring community would organize a dance on alternate weekends. And there were folks who would travel there to dance. After the end of the World War II, several things happened that would forever change these community dances.

Starting with time. People had more of it. They were working fewer hours and had more time for leisure activities. And more mobility. Automobiles were becoming more affordable and roads were getting better. People were starting to go out on weeknights. Young men coming back from the war were getting married, and there was an influx of young couples into the community dances. A few midweek dances were organized, usually by groups of dancers, and the first square dance clubs came into existence.

Then there was the phonograph record. Many bands and callers were eager to record. They could usually sell enough recordings to break even, and it enhanced their reputations. Most bands and callers still didn't travel very far from their home turf. Then a few callers realized they could have a dance without a band. This changed the economics of the dance considerably. Many of the more popular callers found that it was now possible to make a living calling square dances. This gave birth to the traveling caller.

Some of these early traveling callers were really good, and there were dancers eager to have an out-of-town caller. More clubs were being organized and there were now some weeknight dances. So it was now possible for a caller to organize a short tour, almost always by car. All that was needed was a box of records, a decent sound system, and a dependable automobile. But these callers were under pressure, too.

People were dancing more often, and were becoming better dancers. And they were getting tired of doing the same old things that they had always done. And the professional callers were eager to please, and started creating new dances with new combinations of figures. Then they started creating brand new figures. During the 1950's, there was an explosion of new figures. Things just got more and more complicated. You can now see where all of this is headed: square dance clubs, lessons, outfits, badges, Callerlab (to try and control this explosion of figures), dance weekends, dance camps, dance cruises. If this now seems more familiar, it should be. This is modern square dancing, or club squares. But what happened to the traditional dances?

In many communities, they died out. In many communities, they continued until the band died out. That is to say, there weren't many young people interested in learning to play the traditional tunes on the traditional instruments. They were more interested in playing rock'n'roll. A very few traditional dances tried to continue with recorded music. In some rural communities, the traditional dances simply continued, pretty much the same as they had always been. Then a very interesting thing happened – the folkies came!

In the late 50's and early 60's, there was a huge revival of interest in folk music in America. Many young people especially, were learning to play acoustic instruments – guitar, banjo, and fiddle. They were searching out the older musicians and learning from them. Folk Festivals and Bluegrass Festivals were springing up everywhere, along with jam sessions, sing alongs, and open stages. So what does a great fiddle tune make you want to do? Why, move your feet, of course. But the rock 'n' roll moves didn't seem just right. Pretty soon, young people rediscovered the traditional dances.

The New England contra dance, which was already undergoing a revival of interest at that time, was the greatest beneficiary of this renewed interest in folk music. In New England there were still many active community dances, and there were many young musicians interested in learning these traditional tunes. Soon young dancers and musicians became regulars at the local dances across New England. When young people who had learned these dances moved to a new community where there wasn't a dance, they started one. If there was a dance, they joined in. Soon the traditional square dances started incorporating more contras into their programs.

By the early 1980's, there was a live music dance in just about every large or medium-sized city in America. And in many smaller ones. This represented a great revival for the traditional dances, but these dances were changing, too. In many cases, particularly where a new dance was started from scratch, they danced mostly contras. There were two reasons for this: First was the growing popularity of the New England contras. Secondly was the demand for new callers. When a group of dancers wanted to start a dance in a new community, they first had to find musicians. Then a sufficient number of dancers. And then a caller. Frequently the caller was one of the dancers who had learned to call a dance or two. Or one of the musicians, who wanted to make the dance succeed so that there would be an opportunity to play all these wonderful tunes for an appreciative audience. Since contra dances are much easier to learn to call than squares, these new callers started with contras. Most of the contemporary American community dances now feature more contras than squares.

These traditional dances have been tenacious in their need for live music. That's simply part of the excitement of the event! It's homemade, it's traditional, it's low tech, it's interactive – the dancers and the musicians together making it happen. In a high tech society, it's refreshingly old-fashioned. I think this is part of the appeal to the current generation of dancers.

— Chris Kermiet