Last Friday we shared the fascinating history of the square dance in the United States of America. Together, we traced back how it became an emblem of American society that forced so many school kids to endure the often awkward square dancing lessons. Do-si-do anyone?
We also discussed the controversy born when the square dance was briefly elevated to the national dance, considering its narrow focus on what makes up “real” American culture. Despite the controversial past, however, new scholarship and new dancers are uncovering a more interesting and inclusive history and current practice of square dancing in the USA.
So let’s dive into the square dancing subculture of present-day. Do square dancers still believe their dance should be America’s dance?
The National Square Dancing Convention, 2019
As part of her work for the Radiolab podcast episode “Birdie in the Cage” (on which today’s article is largely based), reporter Tracie Hunte went to visit the National Square Dancing Convention in Kansas City Missouri in 2019 to see what square dancing is like in more contemporary times.
Hunte, a Black woman herself, was not surprised to see only about 11 Black square dancers amongst a throng of approximately 3000 participants at the convention. What did surprise her, though, was the music.
Instead of the traditional fiddle and banjo bands one would expect at a square dancing convention, she reported hearing quite a diverse soundtrack while wandering around. She saw people dancing to 80s pop music, Leonard Cohen, and even J.Lo’s top hits.
The musical expansion appears to echo the true goals of square dancers today.
The drive to keep square dancing alive
It is undeniable that historically, square dancing was used as a mechanism for cultural erasure and assimilation. However, as Hunte made her way through the convention, chatting with whoever was willing, she realized that square dancers weren’t pushing for their dance to be made the national folk dance anymore.
One square dancer named Roy explained: “After a while, I think the square dance folks decided, you know what, let’s … not stir up trouble, let’s keep a positive image and attitude for our activity.”
To Hunte, this indicated that square dancers had heard and understood the backlash. Roy expanded on this sentiment, saying that “there were times when the square dance activity, to be perfectly honest, for a long time it was a white activity.”
For Hunte, this acknowledgment was important as it validates the feelings of exclusion that other Americans of different backgrounds would have felt should square dancing have remained America’s national folk dance.
Roy’s hope is for square dancing to evolve from a tool for cultural erasure and the exclusion of Others, into what square dancing truly is to those who love it today—“the one dance form that hopefully transcend[s] all of that because it is all-inclusive, [even if before] it wasn’t.”
Now, square dancers aren’t concerned with enshrining square dancing as a national symbol of white culture—instead, they are working to make square dancing an inclusive activity that invites everyone. This is of particular importance to square dancers today because numbers are declining and they need to generate fresh interest to keep the activity alive.
Square dancing is about being open
According to Dana Schirmer, the former president of Caller Lab (where square dancing “callers” learn how to call all the dance moves), square dancing is about being open and working as a team, no matter who you’re dancing with.
“What makes it unique to us, when you hear the music, the first time you step in there and touch hands, the magic just goes right through your hands and you just feel the warmth and the friendliness of all the people in the group with you,” Schirmer expressed.
Usually, nobody knows anything about the people they’re dancing with, and despite that, everyone has to work together—In this way, the square dance can become an equalizer. “It’s the teamwork. You’re doing something together as a team.”
Another square dancer said that when dancing, “you don’t worry about sexual orientation, you don’t worry about color, you don’t worry about where they’re from. All you worry about is can they square dance? Can they help me have a good time square dancing? That’s all that matters.”
Square dancing—still “their” dance?
So, Hunte’s visit to the national square dancing convention confirmed that today’s square dancers weren’t about exclusion. In fact, they were quite the welcoming bunch. Still, Hunte couldn’t shake the feeling that square dancers were inviting people to do “their dance.” It was hard to see the square dance as something that could become “hers,” especially as a woman of color.
This feeling is perpetuated by the fact that square dancing books only trace back the tradition to the British Isles and the French, English, and Irish pioneers venturing out to the American frontier with their music and their dances.
Musician and scholar of traditional Appalachian dance Phil Jamison upends this idea by truly digging into the diverse peoples that had a hand in forming American square dancing—because the population of Appalachia was never purely white.
Consider the Native Americans who were already on that land and the enslaved people who came with the earliest European settlers.
Even though historians like English-born ballad collector Cecil Sharp only mentioned how people in the Appalachian mountains were carrying on European vocal traditions by singing old British ballads, there were also people singing gospel, blues, and minstrel songs. These traditions incorporated the banjo, an instrument with African roots.
Square dancing’s colorful heritage
Speaking of African roots, the evolution of square dancing during the 19th century tied together a wide variety of musical and cultural hybrids. Yes, the square dance certainly has elements of dances from the British Isles, but it wasn’t just one community participating in the dance culture of Appalachia. Everyone was dancing, which created a mix of shared culture and infused the square dance with African American and Native American flare.
For instance, a classic move in square dancing that involves a single square dancer in the middle of the group is said to be related to the “ring shout,” a traditional dance from West and Central Africa.
On top of that, one of the key things that makes square dancing square dancing, the practice of calling moves, is not historically evident in any European dances. Call and response, however, is common in African dances.
Another fact that is often missed in the chronicling of square dance history is that the earliest dance callers were all Black fiddlers, and the need for callers was something particular to Europe’s colonies in America.
In Europe, people learned how to dance through dancing masters and schools. However, in the colonies, there weren’t enough dancing masters to go around, so calling the moves made dancing more accessible (and inclusive) for those who didn’t go to dancing schools.
Once the 20th century came around, the square dance became whitewashed and the richly diverse history that was connected to it was forgotten.
Unearthing this erased history can guide America through yet another identity crisis, and perhaps help Americans face (and embrace) what makes the nation so beautiful—the medley of cultures, community, and collaboration.
The unlearning and relearning of American symbols also allows for those who have been pushed into the periphery a chance to reclaim the traditions that they have had a hand in making but have been unjustly erased out of their histories.
Jake Blount—balancing traditionalism with progressivism
One American musician who is proudly embracing traditional folk music from the Black and Indigenous perspective is fiddler and banjoist, Jake Blount.
Blount, who hails from Providence, Rhode Island, reaches back into the past with song and brings his own roots to the forefront of traditional old-time music, all while connecting historic narratives with present-day events.
In an interview with American Song Writer, he says of the track “The Angels Done Bowed Down,” “the song is a cry for vengeance. When we listen to these old spirituals, not only do we need to listen to the lyrics because they tell you a story. But you also have to consider the subtext. This song is very much about somebody who has been unjustly killed. It creates a cause-and-effect between the death of the innocent and the purging of the earth.”
For contemporary listeners, Blount’s music can be read as a sort of parable for the aftermath of the unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. However, the message remains impactful even when applied to the past four hundred years of American history.
The role of music and musicians in the unraveling of a skewed and biased history is invaluable. In Blount’s words, “one of the great merits of working in traditional music the way I do is that you can pull people in who maybe are unwitting, who wouldn’t necessarily come to otherwise have that conversation.”
Music also reaches those who are less likely, for whatever reason, to read through academic articles and history books. Music also has the power to produce a visceral, physical, and emotional reaction from listeners in just a few minutes, making it a powerful way to disseminate meaning and knowledge.
Check out all of Blount’s impressive work on his site.
In today’s installment of True American, we mentioned briefly that the banjo actually has African roots. Next Friday we will be looking more at the history of the banjo and how it made its way into the hearts and minds of Americans. We will also be highlighting another incredible American musician, Rhiannon Giddens, who happens to be a friend and mentor to Jake Blount.
Join us as we delve into the importance of revolutionary artists that bring the voices of the periphery to the fore so that America can forge a fuller, richer, and more complex understanding of itself.