Photo Credit: Peter Cai
Each issue of STEPS! we celebrate a unique dance style from the parade. In May of 2016, the Texas Aggie Wrangers from Texas A&M University popped up all day–They graced the parade with their bold moves, performed on the main stage at DanceFest, taught 100+ how to 2step and got down with us at the After Party.
Texas Aggie Wanglers at Dance Parade (photo Anna Massimino) and teaching at DanceFest 2016 (photos Josef Pinlac)
Western couple dancing is a form of social dance.Many different dances are done to country-western music. These dances include: Two Step, Waltz, Cowboy or Traveling Cha Cha, Polka, Ten Step (also known as Ten Step Polka), Schottische, and other Western Promenade dances, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, and Nightclub Two Step. The Two Step and various Western promenade or pattern couples dances are unique to country western dancing.
Western group dances include the following:
Country dancing is informal. Because of cowboy boots, country western dance is more likely to feature a flat-footed glide with some heel and toe touches rather than a lot of “toe type” dancing. In addition to a quiet upper body, there is very little hip movement. Pumping of the hands, bouncing, and waddling are not encouraged.
Cowboy, or “country” waltz consists of gliding steps that are consistent with wearing cowboy boots, rather than “on the balls of the feet” quick steps of the classic version. Neither foot is lifted completely from the ground. Steps should be a light footed glide rather than a flat footed shuffle.
There are many versions of each dance. They may go by different names depending on the area of the U.S., and even in the particular dance hall. There may be no one “correct” way to a particular dance.
Dance floor etiquette
Several types of dancing may take place simultaneously at country western dances. Progressive dancers use the outside of the floor. Swing and other non progressive dancers are found either in the outside corners, or in the center of the floor, along with line dancers.
Lead and follow
Traditionally the man set the pace, established the length of stride, and decided when to change step, and the woman followed. A woman having more dance skills sometimes provided a tactful guiding push or pull, as long as it wasn’t obvious. As soon as the man learns the routine, he takes the lead by combining firm, but gentle (never obvious) pushes and pulls. The leader should move assertively, and the follower should duplicate the counter movements, or perform her part of the dance. A photograph from one early “stag” dance shows a “closed” dance position, with the “man’s” right arm around the back of the “woman”.
In frontier days men danced with each other when women were not available. According to an early settler in Texas, “The gentle sex were few in number at the dance… Two men had to dance together to make a set.” Another account states that “due to the scarcity of young women, a number of young bachelors who were either smooth shaven or wore polished shoes were designated as ladies.” There were also “stag” dances with no women. “Heifer branded” men, those dancing the woman’s role, wore handkerchiefs tied around one arm. At other times men dancing the role of the woman wore aprons. Miners in the California Gold Rush danced with one another if ladies were not available.
From the earliest days, the dances and the music that accompanied them were brought to The United States by the people of the British Isles, continental Europe, and Africa. The Virginia Reel, based on the “Sir Roger de Coverly” became popular after the French Revolution. Quadrilles, too, including the cotillon, anglicized as cotillion, were brought to America by French dancing masters. Their influence survives in terms used in square dancing. One 1774 account states that “Betwixt the country dances they have what I call everlasting Jigs. A couple gets up and begins to cut a jig (to some Negro tune). Others come and cut them out, and these dances always last as long as the fidler can play.” Another author wrote of whites doing “giggs”. Southern wrote that “the whites themselves, and especially the younger ones, were apt to move into reels and jigs at their own dances after a few perfunctory bows in the direction of “society sets” such as minuets and cotillions.
In the early 19th century larger farm houses had dance rooms built in along the back of the second story. In smaller houses the kitchen was used for dancing. “Junkets” (sometimes known as “heel-burners”) were casual affairs. Town halls were also used for gatherings. These dances would last from mid-afternoon through the next morning.
Early solo dancing was composed mostly of extemporaneous jigging done by men. The term “jig” has been used to describe various forms of solo dance steps, as well as music, and has not been well defined. Jigs, clogs, shuffles, leaps, heel clicking, hornpipes and other step dances may have come from various ethnic traditions, or nothing more than an individual improvisation. Other early terms used to describe either solo dancing or steps done as part of a circle or square dance were buck-and-wing, flat-footing, double shuffle, hoedown, and breakdown.
In the early 19th century Richmond, Virginia held an annual event at the conclusion of a week of horse racing, the Race Ball, which began with a stately minuet, immediately followed by “the reel, like a storm after a calm.” Music provided by two black musicians was quite “fast and furious” with the dancers doing “all sorts of capers” to reels, contradances, congos, hornpipes, and jigs.
Dances on the prairie frontier included the scamperdown, double shuffle, western-swing, and double shuffle.
“Making the splinters fly” along with rapid clatter and thumping was often heard at frontier parties, either as side entertainment at the dance parties, or in contests. A Texan “stag dance” held in 1829 included jigs and hornpipes accompanied by patting juba. Music was often provided by fiddlers, many of whom were black, or with improvised “instruments”: clevis and pin, scraping on a cotton hoe with a knife, patting of the foot, blowing on a comb through a thin piece of paper, tapping against drinking glasses, or even blowing on a peach leaf. Military bands and string bands were used in larger towns and/or on special occasions.
“Frolics” were community events often associated with events such as corn shucking, house raising, etc., with a feast and dancing at the end of the labors. A fiddler, often a black man, was the main source of music for dance music. The banjo, too, derived from earlier African instruments, was also important. Reels, square dances, waltzes, polkas and other couple dances were performed with a spirit of freedom and improvisation, “all so mingled that it is a dance without name”.
Popular reels, danced with a partner, included Lady Walpole’s Reel, aka Boston Fancy, Lady Washington’s Reel and Speed the Plow. In the 1890s the Devil’s Dream was popular, and bore a decided resemblance to the “Old Zip Coon”. In the late 19th century a type of dance known as “swinging” appeared. It involved couples who danced with their hands on each other’s waists or shoulders and twirled around the floor at a breakneck pace. The dance was frowned upon by etiquette experts.
In West Texas dances were referred to as “country dances”, or sometimes “ranch dances” because they were held at ranches, and were a significant institution in the life of many Americans. Dances for people in very small areas lasted the evening, whereas “all night dances” involved people who could not return home the same day. While children slept, adults danced and socialized until morning. Cowboys did the cooking at these events, serving a midnight meal. Musicians usually played where several rooms in a house came together, often facing the two “main rooms”. When crowds were large, dancers would take turns dancing, paying a fee each time they danced so that the musicians could be paid.
“House parties” featuring music and dancing were common in the South through the 1920s, the dawn of commercialized country music. Popular tunes played by fiddlers such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe, or “The Virginia Reel” were increasingly divorced from the dances that bore the same names.
In the late 1930s through the 1950s millions of Americans in the Lower Great Plains danced to Western Swing at roadhouses, county fairs and dance halls in small towns. The music was strictly for dancing, and included mostly the simpler one and two step dances with quite a few foxtrots along with both “cowboy” and “Mexican” waltzes.
Cain’s Dance Academy opened in 1930 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. People danced to “hot hillbilly music” or “hot string-band music”. Bob Wills and Texas Play Boys played Western Swing nightly from 1934 until 1943. Crowds at Cain’s Ballroom were as large as 6,000 people. Regular shows continued until 1958 with Johnnie Lee Wills as the bandleader.
When Wills played, people danced simple couple dances: two-step, the Lindy Hop with a few western twirls, schottische, and Cotton Eye Joe. Jitterbug arrived in the mid-1930s, but the western styling was smooth and more subdued than that of the east.
During the early days of WWII National Guardsmen patrolled the beaches of Venice, California in search of enemy submarines and ships. During the daytime, Venice became a major draw for sailors and soldiers on weekend leave. Country Western and Swing music echoed from the dance halls and casino lounges.
Bands playing Western Swing attracted “people (who) were top-notch jitterbugging, jumping around, cutting loose and going crazy” during the 1940s and into the 1950s. In the Los Angeles area, the Venice Pier Ballroom, the Riverside Rancho in Los Feliz, and the Santa Monica Ballroom were all homes to popular Western Swing bands.
World War II resulted in worker migrations and troop movements that spread country music and dance into other parts of the country and abroad.
After the war the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco hosted a syndicated radio show featuring Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. Wills opened the Wills Point nightclub in Sacramento.
400 South Long Beach Boulevard in the suburb of Compton in Los Angeles, California was the site of California’s largest barn dance. The Town Hall Barn Dance ran on Friday and Saturday nights from 1951 through 1961. Over 2,000 people paid to attend, and over 1,000 people danced to live performances of popular entertainers. The shows were broadcast both on radio and television.
During the 1970s and 1980s Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas, with its Texas-size bar and a Texas-size dance floor could hold 6,000 people in its 48,000 square feet (4,500 m2), and was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest nightclub.
One writer, Skippy Blair, noted in 1994 that, “At this writing, Country has become the dance of the decade.” Blair lists Two Step, Waltz, East Coast Swing and West Coast Swing as the most popular couple country dances.
Clogging is a step dance which is usually danced in groups to bluegrass music. It originates from the Appalachian region and is associated with the predecessor to bluegrass — “old-time” music, which is based on Irish and Scots-Irish fiddle tunes. It could be described as a more animated version of Irish step dance or a country version of tap dancing. There are dance competitions for clogging.