Dance Genre Buzz : The Flourishing Tradition of Modern Western Square Dancing

In this issue of STEPS! we will be exploring the American classic of Modern Western Square Dance. Watch out for this traditional style in our upcoming International Dance Day fundraiser as well as at the 7th annual Dance Parade on May 18th, 2013!   Find out more about our International Dance Day Gala and grab tickets here!

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Modern Western square dance (also called Western square dance, contemporary Western square dance, modern American square dance or modern square dance) is one of two American types of square dancing, along with traditional square dance. As a dance form, modern Western square dance grew out of traditional Western dance. The term “Western square dance”, for some, is synonymous with “cowboy dance” or traditional Western square dance. Therefore this article uses the term “modern Western square dance” to describe the contemporary non-historical dance which grew out of the traditional dance.


Modern Western square dance, like traditional square dance, is directed by a square dance caller. In modern Western square dance the caller strings together a sequence of individual square dance calls to make a figure or sequence. These calls are the building blocks of the choreography that is danced by the individuals, square dancers, in the squares. There are eight people (four couples) in each square; at a dance there may be many squares. Generally speaking, each of these squares dances independently of each other, with the exception of specialty or “gimmick” dances, where there might be some crossover of dancers from one square to another.


The square functions as a “dance team” for the duration of a square dance tip, a group of dances usually separated from the next tip by a pause during which the dancers regroup into new squares. A square dance tip is usually composed of a combination of patter calls and singing calls, the two types of square dance calls.


Learning modern Western square dance


Dancers learn the individual square dance calls required to square dance at classes, which are usually taught by square dance callers, and are usually sponsored or organized by square dance clubs. In addition to sponsoring classes, clubs also sponsor special social and dance evenings, as well as larger dances, which are usually open to the general square dance community.

The individual square dance calls are categorized as belonging to a particular dance program, or level of difficulty. Each dance program has a list of defined dance steps, which is associated with it. These lists of dance steps are managed, and universally recognized.


Callerlab, the International Association of Square Dance Callers, the largest international square dance association, manages the most universally accepted and recognized lists. There are four main levels, some of which are divided into sublevels: Mainstream, Plus, Advanced (2 sublevels), and Challenge (5 sublevels, the top two levels of which are not managed). In general, the first three levels are more physically active than the challenge level (often referred to as challenge square dance). Challenge square dance is more cerebral, and focuses on problem solving.


When one learns modern Western square dance one learns all the steps in a specific dance program over a period of time. There are many opinions as to how long it should take to teach and learn a dance program, and as to what is the best teaching style. Callerlab recommends that the mainstream program be taught in no less than 56 hours. Depending on the length of the individual class and how often one meets, it can take a half year or longer to learn the full program. Some clubs, especially those with younger or more motivated dancers teach at accelerated rates.


Regardless of how long it takes to learn a dance program, there is, generally speaking, universal agreement that the result should be confident dancers that can handle themselves on a public dance floor with a variety of callers, unfamiliar choreography, and the challenge of dancing with strangers at the learned level.


It is generally recommended that after one learns all the steps in a specific dance program, that one dances at that level for a year before advancing to another dance program, if one desires to advance at all. It is important that the dancer is thoroughly comfortable with all the steps in a specific dance program, and that the dancer can apply these steps in many different positions and situations, before advancing, because advanced dance programs are built on the foundation of previously learned programs.


Because there are so many different dance programs from which to choose, dancers have many options as to how far up the dance levels they want to advance. There is no requirement to progress to more advanced levels. One is encouraged to dance the program in which one is comfortable, and only to progress to another program if one has a real desire to do so.


At the non-challenge square dance levels the dancer is introduced to many square dance calls. A few of the most fundamental and well-known calls are Dosado, Promenade, and Right and Left Grand. Among other things, the dancer is additionally trained to move smoothly and rhythmically, to appreciate timing, to execute the steps from many different positions and in many different formations, and to cooperate effectively with the others in their square so that they get the most out of their dance experience.


Starting at the Advanced level the square dancer is introduced to square dance concepts, an addition to a call which modifies it in some way. Concepts often generalize more basic notions of square dancing and are an important aspect of challenge square dance.


Dancing modern Western square dance

Each dance round, called a tip, typically consists of two dances. The first dance part is known as a hash call, which is characterized by its unstructured and often puzzling dance choreography. The music is usually instrumental and the calls are typically not sung, but rather rhythmically spoken. The second dance part of a square dance tip is a singing call. The dance instructions are sung as well as the lyrics during the long duration calls. The music are often popular songs and the calls are timed to fit. During a singing call the female dancers temporarily switch partners in a counter-clockwise order around the square until they return to their original partners. The caller restores the original order of the square both at the end of the hash and the singing call. The duration time of a tip may vary, but is usually between ten and twenty minutes. Between tips, dancers are generally encouraged to find other dance partners and form new squares for the next tip.


Dancing well requires more than attendance at class, it requires practice. The more often the dancer can train the better their skills become. Clubs generally provide their students the opportunity to dance outside of the class situation. Clubs commonly hold “club nights”, which are informal dance evenings for club members. These often allow those learning a new level to dance at their class level, and often with more experienced dancers. Clubs also commonly hold special dances, which are often open to members of other clubs.


Dress code

Modern Western square dance has developed a “look” that has become known as “traditional square dance attire”, a “look” that has nothing really to do with traditional square dancing. This style of dress developed when square dance’s popularity in the United States increased after World War II, and began soaring during the ’50s and early ’60s. Several factors may have helped influence the look that has become known as “traditional square dance attire”. These include the visibility and popularity of square dance performers such as Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw‘s traveling troupe of “teenage cowboy square dancers”; the way square dancing and the west were portrayed in western movies and early television; and the popular clothing styles of those times, for example poodle skirts.


At the non-challenge levels of modern Western square dancing participants are often expected to wear western-style square dance outfits, or “traditional square dance attire”, especially at large dances. Over the years, there has been much discussion within square dancing circles about relaxing the dress code, and this has led to the adoption of alternative less restrictive attire designations— “proper” attire and “casual” attire. Clubs that sponsor dances are free to select a less restrictive dress code and are encouraged to advertise the dress code that is appropriate for their dance. Some clubs drop the “traditional” dress code requirement for classes and for their summer dances, and some, like challenge groups, gay square dance clubs and youth square dance clubs, have never had a dress code.


Traditional square dance attire for men includes long-sleeved western and western-style shirts, dress slacks, scarf or string ties (bolos) or kerchiefs, metal tips on shirt collars and boot tips, and sometimes cowboy hats and boots.


Traditional square dance attire for women include gingham or polka-spotted dresses with wide skirts or a wide gingham or patterned skirt in a strong dark color with a white puff-sleeve blouse. Often dancers wear specially-made square dance outfits, with multiple layers of crinolines, petticoats, or pettipants. Partners might have color- and pattern-coordinated outfits. Both sexes might wear boots.


Flourishes, sound effects, and games

There are many additions to or variations from standard square dancing, which have gained headway over the years. These are not universally recognized, and they are not all equally accepted or considered acceptable under all circumstances, or in all areas. Some of these are of local nature, and others are more widely known.


These variations fall into the following basic categories:



Movements either in addition to or replacing the standard movement as defined. There are certain accepted flourishes in most communities, which may be limited to a club or geographic region, or be common among members of a group such as youth square dancers or gay square dancers. Common flourishes include replacing the dosado with a “highland fling” move, or twirling at the end of a promenade. Flourishes which are very common in a geographic area may be known informally as “regional styling differences”. Flourishes are usually omitted with those just learning to dance, as they may obscure the standard movement. Occasionally flourishes provide an opportunity for dancers to interact with adjacent squares.


There is a lot of controversy about flourishes, including from some square dance leaders who feel that flourishes divert dancers from dancing according to the standard. Unusual, unknown or uncommon flourishes may disturb dancers unaccustomed to them, or might be considered disruptive. Some flourishes can be physically challenging and are therefore potentially damaging, such as unexpected twirls and rough handling, especially for older people. Some flourishes are perceived as not fitting to the expected timing, giving some dancers a less than optimum dance experience. At higher dance levels, differences in body flow due to a flourish can interfere with proper execution of a call, as with “dosado three-quarters”. For any of these reasons, dancers may ask that flourishes be limited while they are dancing.


Sound effects


Standard responses to the caller. These include vocalized sounds, hand claps and foot stomps. Sound effects are generally well accepted, as they do not change either the timing or the execution of the step, although they may surprise and/or amuse newcomers to a club. The sound effects often serve as a mnemonic device, in that dancers associate the execution of the step with the particular sounds. A rhyming or punning word-play on the name of the call is common. For example, the response “Pink Lemonade” mirrors rhythmically and rhymes with the call “Triple Trade”. Since some dancers respond “Boom!” to the call “Explode”, the call “Reverse Explode” may elicit the response “Moob!” (that is, “Boom” reversed right-to-left).


Problems with sound effects can occur when they make it difficult to hear the caller’s cues, or are shouted painfully close to other dancers’ ears; however, in practice such situations are rare.




Rule bending games that increase the difficulty of a dance. These include dancing with fewer than 8 people in the square, changing partners in the middle of a tip, and changing squares in the middle of a tip. Playing games without the permission of the entire square (and often the caller) can be considered extremely rude, and may confuse other squares as well. Games can, however, be an excellent tool for improving square dance skills, especially in class or club situations, and often have the function of allowing dancers who otherwise cannot form a complete square to participate in a dance.


History of modern Western square dance

Traditional western square dance

Preserving the heritage

Keywords: Henry Ford, Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw, the publication of Cowboy Dances, saving the form from extinction, Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw‘s Cheyenne Mountain Dancers, courses for square dance teachers


The square dance boom

Keywords: World War II‘s returning veterans and the home/family culture of the 1950s, “transition from the traditional, visiting couple type of dancing into all-four-couple-working kind of dancing in the 1950s” (Herb Egender), the amplifier, phonograph, square dance records, Square Dancing Magazine (formerly Sets in Order), Step By Step Through Modern Square Dancing (Jim Mayo)


Square dance’s maturity

Keywords: Callerlab, the greying of the dance community


Square dance today and the future of square dance

Keywords: New markets/dancers: youth square dance and gay square dance, other new developments, competition from other forms of recreation/entertainment, increased expense, elimination from public-school curricula, changed society, changes in music and recording (personal computers, laptops, personal recording of music), impact on square dance music “industry”







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