In 1957 S. Foster Damon put out a short square dance book.
The History of Square Dancing by Samuel Foster Damon, Barre Gazette, Barre, Massachusetts, 1957. Published with the permission of the Author and of the American Antiquarian Society. You can read the book here:
Damon was writing during a boom time of SD revival but wanted people to know about how it had started and about the many changes it had gone through. Whether or not he was a square dancer himself, he was a good researcher and a pretty good writer, too.
Mr. Damon describes his approach to square dance history:
“For some years now, I have been gathering information from old dance-books, town-histories, travellers’ chronicles, newspapers, novels of the old times, even poetry and sheet-music, with results which have fitted together into an outline-history of this forgotten phase of our culture.”
He presents many of the tidbits he found. These are presented chronologically although some items are grouped more by subject. He is quite clear about his sources. But he goes further than a mere listing of facts. He weaves his facts together to form the “outline-history” he speaks of. The facts seem to tell a story which he amplifies. The square dance story he tells certainly does fit his data and his data fits his story.
Mr. Damon accomplished something I think is quite extraordinary. He delves into the dance manuals of the 19th century ballroom and quotes from them. What he concludes from these quotes makes sense.
In the process of telling the history he identifies many important pivot points in SD history. Each of these are backed up with the earliest known documentation. Here they are:
King Charles I was killed
In the ballroom as on the battlefield, the people routed the crown. There was a vacuum left by the disappearance of the imported, complicated dances favored by the court. But revolutionists must dance; and when they defy the rest of the world (as the Puritans did in killing their king), they dance their own national dances.
English Dancing-Master by John Playford
Playford used the term “Square-Dance” (in which couples danced with their opposites) in contrast to “Round for 8″ (in which one danced with one’s corner).] There are also fourteen rounds (or circle dances), three squares, and one a single line.
English dances exported to France
The English restoring the throne to its legitimate heir, Charles II, these “English dances” swept the continent and became a craze. For details, see Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, New York, 1937, pp. 397-401, 414-24.
Presently newly appointed ministers were giving “Ordination Balls.” The earliest yet traced was given by the Reverend Timothy Edwards (father of the famous Jonathan) in 1694.
Chase the Rabbit figure in longways
In the Spectator for May 17, 1711, is a glimpse of a London dancing-school. It is written in the character of the Indignant Father, concerned over his darling daughter; thus the essay ridicules gently those moralists who objected to dancing. The Father approved wholly of the “French Dancing” at the start, and solemnly endorsed “Hunt the Squirrel” (a dance still performed in America)” for its ethical content. (The gentleman pursues the lady; but when he turns back, she pursues him.) However, he was shocked by the hearty freedom of the other country-dances.
The French adapted the name “country-dance” as “contre-danse,” a term which later got translated back into English as “contra-dance,” or “contra” for short. They also developed a type of their own. Their sense of form was not satisfied with the long double lines of an indefinite number of couples, so they concentrated on the square limited to four couples. These squares were known at first as “French contra-dances,” or more simply as “French dances”; then, as they were still rural in concept, they acquired the name “cotillon” (anglicized as “cotillion”) meaning a peasant girl’s petticoat. The inspiration may have come from their little girls’ ring-around-a-rosy:
Ma commere, quand je danse,
Mon cotillon va-t-il bien?
Il va de ci, il va de ca
Comme le queue de notre chat.
The French call “queue de chat” (half promenade, half right and left) may also come from this rhyme.
These French squares were the origin of our own squares, and have nothing to do with the modern “german” or “cotillion,” a dance characterized by the distribution of favors.
Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution was cultural and affected all dancing profoundly. The enormous hoops and headdresses of the old regime were swept away in a fervor of fashion, a reaffirmation of the human form, which went as close as it decently could to the ideal of Greek nudity. The result was the charming “chemise gown,” a simple tube of muslin or other soft material, cut low at the neck and girded high beneath the bosom. A single garment underneath was deemed quite enough, with a shawl for out-of-doors. The girls swore they weren’t cold, although young Charlotte (in the old American ballad) froze stiff in the sleigh on the way to a ball. The men’s nether garments were reduced to skin-tights.
1794 Mania for balls
Then, when the Reign of Terror ended with the fall of Robespierre on July 27, 1794, France was swept with a mania for balls, – the dance of Life at the passing of the shadow of imminent Death.
And how they could dance in their simplified costumes! The music speeded up, leaving little time for the more complicated elegances of deportment.
The craze spread instantly to America. Only one dancebook had been published here before 1794; thirty that we know of appeared, mostly in Puritan New England, before the end of the century: at Northampton and Greenfield in 1794; at Walpole, (N.H.) in 1795; at Philadelphia, Hanover, Boston, and Baltimore in 1796; at Hartford, Baltimore, Rutland and Worcester in 1797; at Philadelphia, Amherst, Brookfield, Norwich and Stonington-Port in 1798; at Philadelphia, Walpole (N.H.), New Haven, Hartford, Brookfield, Leominster, Newport, and Boston in 1799; at Worcester, New York, Harvard, and Philadelphia in 1800. [See "American Dance Bibliography to 1820," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, LIX, 217-20, Worcester, 1950.] There may have been as many again, which were used to bits, then thrown away without leaving any traces for the bibliographer.
1797 Printed dance instructions
Fans on which the steps and music of the new dances were printed became fashionable in England in 1797.
“Changes” are introduced into cotillions
But after 1800, the dancing-masters worked out a sequence of “changes” – all hands round, balance partners, grand right and left, and so forth – which sequence the dancers memorized once and for all. Then these “changes” were danced as though they were the verses of a song, with the “figure” (or cotillion proper) taking the place of the chorus. Thus the cotillion was made to last about as long as the country-dance.
The device was ingenious, but died out when calling was invented. The “changes” survive as the introductory part of almost every square dance of today; but the word itself is now applied to the dance proper.
These changes appear first in Mr. Francis’s Ball Room Assistant, Philadelphia, . “Saltator’s” Treatise on Dancing, Boston, 1802, lists ten changes; A Selection of Cotillons & Country Dances, [Boston], 1800, lists only seven; but Willard Blanchard’s Collection of the most Celebrated Country Dances and Cotillions, Windsor, 1809, lists fourteen.
Lilting of fiddle tunes
[In Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Madelon (New York, 1896,) a novel about a New England town in the early nineteenth century, the heroine, in the absence of the usual fiddler, is persuaded to “lilt” the tunes, which she does “in a curious disyllabic fashion.” This would seem to be the Irish lilting of tunes on meaningless syllables, without using the calls. If so, this is the first instance of an Irish influence on American dancing, — a rare event, as the Irish usually excluded all others from their dances, and thus neither influenced nor were influenced.
Quadrilles introduced to London
In France, the craze for new cotillions wore itself out, and the best five or six of them were organized into a suite called “the quadrilles.”
It was the War of 1812 which ensured the popularity and development of the square-dance in this country. The pro-English New Englanders kept on with the English contras, and indeed invented one of the best, “Hull’s Victory,” But the rest of the nation refused to dance the English dances, and would do nothing but the French squares, as various English travellers noted with contempt.
1815 Quadrilles caught on in England
Lady Jersey introduced the suite at Almack’s in 1815, where immediately it swept all the old cotillions into oblivion. Now one needed memorize only these particular figures. In this country it was called the “French Quadrille” or the “Plain Quadrille”; it is still danced occasionally, though much changed by time, and I think improved.
After the French Quadrille was introduced into England in 1815, the word “quadrille” replaced “cotillion,” which, however, continued for long to be used in America, as the English travellers complained.
The “lascivious” waltz had long been looked at askance. Actually to clasp a girl close in your arms and then revolve dizzyingly seemed to many people the depth of wickedness. There were such possibilities of contact! Club-foot Byron’s vulgar satire is known to scholars, but the same thing is said more neatly in the following poem from a Vermont songster of 1815:
What! the Girl I adore, by another embraced?
What! the balm of her lip shall another Man taste?
What! touch’d in the twirl, by another Man’s knee?
What! panting recline, on another than me?
- Sir, she’s yours – from the Grape you have press’d the soft blue.
From the Rose, you have shaken the tremulous dew.
What you’ve touch’d you may take! – Pretty Waltzer – Adieu.
[Songster's Companion, Brattleborough, 1815, p. 213.]
The next year, 1816, the popular Emperor Alexander of Russia made the waltz socially acceptable by dancing it publicly in Paris and London; but even his imperial prestige could not quell the qualms of those who had never waltzed; and to this day, waltzing is banned by certain sects. The youngsters, of course, adored it the more.
(see Phil Jamison’s research for proof)
At this point, some smart American invented “calling,” which made it unnecessary to memorize the dance beforehand. Like all great inventions, it was simple: the fiddler or the leader of the orchestra merely kept telling the dancers what to do next. After calling was invented, the ordinary leader was content to “prompt” the dancers by naming the next step. Nobody who knew the six or eight fundamental calls could go very far wrong. The fiddler thus ceased to be an accompanist: he became the creator of the dance. He could vary the figures at any moment, just to keep the dancers on their toes; he could invent new dances; he could even call at random anything that happened to pop into his head. These “fancy-figures,” when nobody knew what was coming next, became popular as the last dance in a “sett.” The prompter could and eventually did sing the calls, weaving rude rhymes, and filling out the calls with comments on the individuals present. Thus the ancient trio of melody, verse, and dance was identified once more; and the caller was the modern equivalent of the antique choragus. But most important of all: he kept square-dancing alive, fluid, growing, at the very time it was becoming formalized in Europe.”
Calling introduced in London
[An American dancing – master evidently tried to introduce calling in London. Thomas Wilson, ballet master of the King’s Theater, mentions him in The Danciad, London, 1824, p. 11, a satire against rival dancing-masters:
With nasal twang, I heard this creature call
The quadrille figures at his last grand ball.
The words which Wilson italicized indicate his victim’s nationality.
The first reference to calling in this country, as far as we know, occurs in Travels through North America, During the Years 18251828 by Bernard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Philadelphia, 1828, I, 2I2; he attended a ball at Columbia, S. C., where the figures were called by a fiddler.
Play party singing of calls
The sects which prohibited all instrumental music considered a dance not a sinful dance but an innocent game when the spectators sang and clapped. Hamlin Garland (A Son of the Middle Border, p. 184) describes such an occasion, when “Weevily Wheat” was performed.
country dances die out
1841 Ball Room Instructer [sic] of New York announced that “quadrilles and cotillons have completely taken the place of all former dances which enlivened our ancestors.”
The polka, which reached England in 1844 and was promptly banned (in vain) by Queen Victoria and by the Empress Eugenie.
The “German Cotillion” was brought to New York in 1844, where, to avoid confusion, it was known simply as the “German.” (Allen Dodsworth, Dancing, New York, 1885, p. 145.)
We find the climax of Victorianism in the “Lancers,” the most fashionable quadrille of the half century. It was popularized in 1856 by the Empress Eugenie, who in the same year reintroduced the hoop-skirt, to conceal her pregnancy.
The Lancers was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the minuet. It was all bows and courtesies, airs and graces, an elegant exhibition of deportment. There was nothing in it which could put the most delicate lady in the slightest glow. Originally it had been an English dance, which went unvalued until the French toned it down and polished it up. [It was named for the lancers of the regiment at Fontainebleau, who thereafter were admitted to all the balls. The music came from England. The first number was by Paolo Diana Spagnoletti (1768-1834), conductnr at the King's Theater for thirty years; the second came from the opera Lodoiska (1791) by Rudolph Kreutzer, to whom Beethoven dedicated a sonata; the third was an old folk-tune used in the Beggar's Opera (1728); the fourth has not been traced; the fifth was by Felix Janiewicz (1762-1848), a Polish violinist, and an original member of the London Philharmonic Society.] It set a style; there were many imitations, some of them quite successful; but the original Lancers outlived them all, except the `Loomis Lancers,” Invented by the New Haven dancing-master, which is still done in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
American dancing influences Paris
But now Paris began to look at America. As early as 1857, the famous Cellarius, with the aid of one J. Martin, had contrived a lively “quadrille gallope” called “L’Americain,” in which the couples were renumbered counter-clockwise (American style?) instead of by opposites.
Patter call introduced
When the prompter began to improvise patter is not known, but it must have been long before a patter-call actually found its way into Howe’s Complete Bali-Room Hand Book (1858), where it may be found in the “Punch and Judy Set” (pp. 52-3. I quote from the second number.
First lady balance to right hand gentleman, swing the gentleman with big feet — pass on and balance to the next gentleman, swing the gentleman with the long nose — pass on and balance to the next gentleman, swing the gentleman with the red hair — balance to partners, swing the best looking gentleman in the set . . .
Fancy steps abolished
Edward Ferrero (The Art of Dancing, New York, 1859, p. 121) remarked that “the quadrille of former times was adopted as a medium for the display of agility and the indulgence of violent exercise,” but now that the difficult steps had been abolished, anybody who knew the figures could do the dance.
“Square dance” comes into common usage
And thus, with the contras technically eliminated, the word “square-dances” began to be used. [Beadle’s Dime Ball-Room Companion, New York, c. 1868, uses “Square Dances” as a heading.
By the 1870’s, the nadir of “delicacy” was passed. Hoops shrank to bustles; croquet, followed by lawn tennis, gave the girls something like out-of-door exercise. But their chief exercise still took place on the dance-floor. It was in this situation that some Yankee invented “swinging,” which revolutionized square-dancing in the north-east.
“Swinging,” in the old dance-books, meant simply joining hands with one’s partner, and revolving once around. In the parlor “carpet quadrilles,” nothing could be more decorous; but in the kitchen junket or barn dance, one went around twice, in a brief burst of speed that momentarily caught something like the whirl of the waltz.
Singing calls introduced
After this, the time was bound to come when the caller actually sang to the music, filling out with extra words or nonsense syllables. The earliest reference I have found to this practice occurs in Hamlin Garland’s recollections of his boyhood – about 1870 – in A Son of the Middle Border (New York, 1917, p. 94):
At this dance I heard, for the first time, the local professional fiddler, old Daddy Fairbanks … His queer “Calls” and his “York State” accent filled us all with delight. “Ally man left,” “Chassay by your pardners,” “Dozy-do” were some of the phrases he used as he played Honest John and Haste … dally-deedle-do-do — three hands round” — and everybody laughed with frank enjoyment of his words and action.
It is impossible to guess how long this practice had been going on without being mentioned in print.
Quadrilles got dull, waltz quadrille, polka quadrille
Meanwhile the city youngsters were protesting against the dullness of the quadrilles. The formula (the head couples did a figure, which was repeated by the side couples, the whole then being done all over again) could be cut in half by forming squares of two couples only, or by straightening out the square into two lines of four each. Often two or three of the five figures were omitted. But better yet: waltzes or polkas were woven in at the end of each figure, a practice so popular that the Congress of the Episcopal Church in America debated in 1877 whether or not to ban all square-dancing (hitherto the bulwark against the wicked round dances) because they now had “a resistless tendency to round off into the waltz.” [Harper's Magazine, LIX, 302-3, Jan. 1878. The matter, it seems, had also been brought up in the Congress at Washington.] The Episcopalians decided, however, that it was a matter of taste and not of morals, so the ban was not passed.
Buzz step 1878
The earliest reference which I have found to this modern step occurs in a song, “Dancing in the Barn,” by Turner, Orrin, and McKee, New York, c. 1878:
Den swing your partners all together,
Kase now’s the time for you to learn.
And now the anonymous Yankee invented a new grip, which made the dangerous contacts of the waltz impossible, also a new position of the feet.
[Left hands were joined (thus keeping a fist between the couple); right hands were placed on opposite right shoulders (thus strong-arming the partner away); and the two leaned away from each other, to get the full advantage of centrifugal force. (Later, in many places, thc waltz position was used.) Meanwhile the right feet were placed outside each other, the little toes almost touching; then one revolved on the right foot, using the left to propel one, much like a kid on a scooter.
Modern swinging, be it noted, is the only square-dance step which requires practice.]
The result was the “buzz step.” Never before had dancers twirled so rapidly. It was bacchanalian, a terpsichorean cocktail. It was such fun, one did it, not once or twice, but as long as the music allowed. It invaded all squares (except the formal quadrilles) and some contras. Dances like the “Spanish Cavalier” (the music is dated 1878) consisted of little else, being devised to make the girls dizzy. I may add, they like it.
Swinging to the buzz step is still unknown in parts of the south and the west, though in a few years it should be universal.
French dance based on American dance figures
But not until 1880 (or perhaps a year or so earlier) did Monsieur Fr. Paul create “Polo, le quadrille americaine,” the third great quadrille, based on American figures. It was a sensation. French-poodled though it was, the inherent vigor of the dances could not be repressed. At private parties, the music was played faster than indicated, and the squares whirled until the ladies’ coiffures came to pieces. Consequently it could not be performed at the grand balls, and it did its bit in confirming the European belief that the Americans were a wild bunch. Today it seems tame enough. Its ingredients were rudiments of our “Back to Back,” “Forward Up Six,” “Grande Allemande,” the old “Basket Cotillion,” and what we now call the “Texas Star.”
C. E. Ward’s “Cowboy Songs and Dances” (Pearson’s Magazine, Jan. 1903) is valuable for containing accurate transcriptions of the calls for “Split the Ring,” “Birdie in a Cage,” and others.