The Optimist Daily is taking a journey into ideas and symbols that shape the world with our our mini-series True American. Our first episode explores what many consider a cornerstone of American culture: Square dancing.
Square dancing, contrary to popular belief, is not just a “Southern thing.” Many of us who grew up in the United States have memories of learning the square dance in grade school gym class. Believe it or not, over half of the states in the US have adopted the square dance as their official folk dance.
Square dancers have even brought the square dance before Congress, arguing not once, but twice that it should be made the National Folk Dance of America. One of these attempts was successful, leading to the declaration of the square dance as the country’s official National Folk Dance between 1982 and 1983.
But who really invented “the square dance”? Is it quintessentially American? And how did Americans react when the square dance was elevated to a national symbol?
The history of the square dance in America
Observing today’s headlines, the current state of the United States of America feels especially divided. However, this is not the first time the nation has struggled with questions of identity. In the late 1800s, for instance, a surge in immigrants of Irish, Italian, Slavic, Polish, and Jewish heritage (not to mention the Chinese who arrived to help build the Western US) rushed to the American continent to seek their fortunes. Earlier immigrants or “old-stock” Protestants whose heritage could be traced to Britain, Scandinavia and Germany saw these newcomers as different and pushed back against their presence. In the rhetoric of the day, there was simply no way these newbies were “American” enough (whatever that means).
This divide sparked a national conversation about who was really “American”. According to musician and scholar of traditional Appalachian dance Phil Jamison, the answers to this question came from English-born ballad collector Cecil Sharp.
Cecil Sharp, an English musician, teacher, and folk collector traveled through the southern US Appalachian mountains between 1916 and 1918. He journeyed with Maud Karpeles, his companion in song and folk dance collecting, and together they gathered people’s songs and musical traditions. On his travels, he was surprised that southern Americans were still singing old British ballads that had died out in England nearly a century earlier.
Sharp understood the (white) inhabitants of the southern Appalachian mountains as “isolated” from the rest of the country. This isolation in their rugged terrain made them, in Sharp’s mind, the keepers of the “purest Anglo-Saxon heritage” in America. Sharp’s travels eventually took him to eastern Kentucky, where he found this “pure heritage” represented once again in dance form—the square dance, to be precise.
The square dance Sharp witnessed was influenced by French dance traditions such as cotillions and quadrilles, Old Scots and Irish dances that involved couples with linked arms skipping around each other and creating arches for other couples to duck through, and English country dances.
Despite the varied elements that made up the square dance, Sharp assumed that what he saw were purely Anglo-Saxon dances. He overlooked the fact that the population of Appalachia was a diverse one—not solely made up of people from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, but included Native Americans and enslaved people who had ancestors from Africa.
Sharp’s anglo-centric orientation informed his characterization of square dancing as “quintessentially American”, and he became a vocal proponent of the cultural form. The music and dancing he publicized found an eager audience in cities, towns and counties around an America seeking a central tradition. Following Sharp’s travels and documentation of Appalachian music and dance traditions, schools began including square dancing in their curriculums.
School square dancing as an “Americanizing” force
The mass introduction of square dancing in schools is largely attributed to Grace Laura Ryan, a dance educator in Michigan. Following Sharp’s descriptions of square dancing, Ryan also saw square dancing as a tool that could help the children of Southern and Eastern European (Italian, Slavic, Polish, and Jewish) immigrants assimilate into “true” American culture.
Ryan began a square dancing movement that spread quickly among other educators. What we may think now as we look back on the assimilation goals of teaching these dances, Ryan had intuited the way that dance can braid people together. By the 1930s, square dancing was popularized not only in schools but was all over the radio and television. It was also danced in community centers, public squares, barns, and even churches.
This was only the beginning of American square dancing. By the 40s and 50s, square dancing was even more of a phenomenon, and in 1951, the Kansas Square Dance Association was established.
The Kansas Square Dance Association organization hosted national square dancing conventions where tens of thousands of people from across the country would come together to square dance. The movement picked up so much speed that square dancers sought to make square dancing the national folk dance of America. A mission that was, as mentioned before, successful from 1982-83.
The reaction to square dancing as America’s national folk dance
It may come as no surprise that there was considerable backlash when square dancing was appointed the country’s national folk dance. Dance historians, music historians, and folklorists argued in front of Congress that the square dance fails to capture the fullness of our nation’s dance traditions for a country made up of diverse immigrants.
That the square dance, a tradition that prioritized and elevated the dances that hail from certain Northern European regions, was commemorated as the national folk dance of the entire country was seen as denigrating to other traditions that were arguably as essential to the American experience.
Many were left wondering, what about the hula dance? Or tap dance? Or even break dancing as a form of urban folk culture that arose in American cities?
Perhaps even more interesting, recent scholarship has highlighted the role that enslaved African-Americans played in the origins and practice of Appalachian square dancing. Next week we will delve more deeply into this unraveling of the myth of the “whiteness” of square dancing.
Dancing over the past
One testimony from the 1988 hearings on the controversy over the elevation of square dancing to the national dance of the United States, acutely illustrates just how offensive the decision felt to many. Given by Rayna Green, who was the head of the American folklore society at the time as well as a member of the Cherokee Nation, the powerful testimony focused on her grandmother’s life. Green’s grandmother only ever participated in square dancing while at school—meanwhile, she was forbidden to do any of her own tribal dances.
As Green and others pointed out, square dancing was historically utilized as a form of suppression and resulted in the violent erasure of First Nations’ culture. Celebrating it as a national symbol dishonored today’s Native American communities, their ancestors, and the lives of all the past and present marginalized communities that make up America.
In short, the overall feeling around square dancing in the 80s was that it was a divisive tradition that excluded many Americans from the American Identity and symbolizes a painful history in America.
Next week, we learn what square dancers hope for their beloved activity in contemporary times, and whether they believe it should still be recognized as the nation’s folk dance. We will also uncover the hidden history of square dancing and the colorful origins of “the caller” in square dancing tradition. For those who aren’t aware of what a square dance caller is, check out this video for a prime example.
Could it be that widely disseminated knowledge and history of square dancing isn’t as it seems? Find out next Friday on the second installment of True American.
Editor’s note: This article was edited on 20 July 2023 to include links to the Kansas Square Dance Association’s and the United Square Dancers of America’s websites.