by Chip Hendrickson
reprinted with permission from the
Country Dance & Song Society NEWS
Issue 82, May/June 1988
CDSS NEWS Editor's note: "Among the callers who attended the Ralph Page celebration in January [this was the first of what is now called the Ralph Page New England Dance Legacy Weekend] was Chip Hendrickson, who later wrote an article about the weekend for the Sonneck Society Bulletin (Vol XIV, no.1). "There was a great deal of discussion (among the dance leaders in attendance) about the present Traditional Revival (of country dancing)," Chip wrote, "which a number of leaders felt was now at the same point of development as was square dancing in the 1950s." The discussion led Chip to think of what he had seen over the years as dance groups, club squares, in particular, had grown, and what they had gained or lost. The following is excerpted from the original article, and is reprinted with permission."
February 25, 2005 — Another link to the past gone: Chip's Obituary
My calling career began in 1951 and the dance history that follows is based on my personal experiences and observations over the past thirty-seven years.
After World War II, there were many dances held in small communities, usually on Saturday nights. These dances featured live music, a limited repertoire and were held in unused barns, lodge halls, commercial establishments, and sometimes schools. Alcohol was a part of many of the events, and all reports indicate these dances tended to be rather rough and rowdy affairs.
Gentler folk who enjoyed the dancing but not the presence of alcohol at square dances formed social clubs, usually called "The Such-and-Such Country Dancers." Dress codes were minimal, if they existed at all. No alcohol, before or during the dance, was an absolute and strictly enforced rule. On the darker side, there were a few instances of ethnic and religious prejudice but this faded as the activity grew.
Some of these dance groups started using name tags at dances, but this was not an important factor in the early 50s. Live music was used at most events, but the smaller groups allowed the callers to use recorded (78 rpm) music due to budget considerations. There were a number of recording companies in the east, but leaders generally agreed that some of the best traditional music put on disks came from California. Two notable companies were Windsor and MacGregor Records, with others establishing prominence as the 60s approached.
The dance clubs grew in size and number through the 50s, and the dancers became very proficient in learning and following the calls. The number of basic figures was still limited, and callers were ingenious in finding new ways to maneuver eight people through a square dance.
Contra dances were interspersed throughout the evening as were polkas, waltzes, schottisches, hambos, and international folk dances. These dances were simple and could be learned by following others on the floor although there were lessons being held for such purposes.
Square dance lessons, when held, consisted of ten-week courses which usually included learning ten or so of the most popular singing calls. These dances were sure to be done at almost any event one attended. A person could frequent most of the open dances and pick up the calls just by dancing. Experienced dancers for the most part were eager to assist the newcomers and show them the figures, steps, and fine points of styling.
The Introduction of New Material
As square dancing spread across the country, a different style of dancing began to emerge towards the end of the decade as these organized and experienced dancers presented an inviting opportunity for a leader to introduce new material.
In 1958 a square dance figure called Square Through (later written as Square Thru) was introduced. This is the 18th-century English country dance figure Right and Left, or Right and Left Quite Round, with two differences. First, instead of the dancers ending facing, as at the start, they ended facing in a new direction. The second difference was that the strict four- and eight-bar phrasing which had been a hallmark of the dance movement, especially in the east, had to be ignored to use this new basic.
Square Thru took eleven steps, which doesn't phrase at all, but it offered the caller so much in the way of new figure combinations that its use became universal very quickly as the big-name travelling callers spread the figure from coast to coast. Three-Quarter Square Thru took eight steps and could be phrased.
Soon after that, the "invention" of new figures became the rage among callers. A caller who came up with a universally accepted new basic gained almost immediate fame and increased bookings. America's highway systems were improving, the population was on the move, and the epitome of success was to be a travelling caller and recording artist.
As access to the established record companies was limited, vanity labels began to appear. These featured the owner(s) of the company, or a caller could buy his or her way onto a recording. At first, both sides of a recording were instrumentals with a corresponding record having the same dances called. This practice was dropped in favor of having the instrumental and called versions back-to-back on the same disk.
Many of the better callers, who had called in the traditional style, began to drop strict phrasing and limited basic as they switched styles and entered the "western" square dance world. This practice began to appear on the called sides of new recordings.
Growing, But Something Is Lost
Attendance at this new form of square dancing was phenomenal. New clubs, classes, and callers seem to appear overnight all over the country. Many of these caller/teachers learned by reading books, by doing, and by imitating what they saw. Many skilled callers developed, but the majority were not well versed in true dance and music skills of any kind. The loss of phrasing was accelerated as the number of new callers soon outnumbered the holders of the phrasing tradition.
The length of lessons increased as did the need for regular attendance at club dances in order to keep up with the latest dance figures. Tempos increased in the east, to match the western style; complexity became the norm.
This was exciting for many leaders and dancers. Others, however, were not pleased. The relaxed atmosphere, they felt, was gone and it wasn't fun anymore. Dancers and leaders drifted away from traditional activity, which seemed to be eclipsed by western-style club dancing. In terms of numbers, club dancing was "in" in a big way.
Traditional new England dancers probably didn't notice the change very much as they always had a place to dance and their tradition went on without much hoopla. Club dancing (the "western" term was not universal and is not accurate) became more and more organized as dancer and caller associations were formed. Rules were written on just about every aspect: dress codes, leader's ethics, traveling club rules, etc., with standardization of figures and establishment of dancer ability-levels being the most important subjects. This highly-organized, technological approach to square dancing is a characteristic of club dancing.
The modern activity was unknowingly limiting its share of the public market as it became more and more complicated. At this writing  as many as forty plus lessons are recommended to become an acceptable (not accomplished) dancer. There are thousands of basic figures, and a complicated dancer ability-level system is in place.
At meetings and conferences, modern callers continually lament the decline in attendance at dances. Classes are small in many areas, and the activity is no longer growing with the population. In southwestern Connecticut, for example, there has been a nearly twenty-five percent population increase over the past twelve years, yet there are fewer modern square dance clubs in existence. Attendance figures do not match the percentage of the population increase. By any logic this is not growth, not even a maintaining of dancer activity over the past two decades. The club dance movement had changed from an all-encompassing relaxed social activity to that of a dedicated hobbyist endeavor.
Club dancing has many recognizable traits of traditional dance, and for years has touted itself as "real square dancing" which imp[lies that anything else is inferior. There was a tendency upon the part of some traditional leaders to continually defend their beliefs, dances, and music. Ralph Page was not one of those leaders, and he continually commented on what he saw as the great fallacies in club dancing. he did this by way of editorials and articles in his Northern Junket magazine.
In the 1970s the Traditional Revival began to gain momentum. Connecticut had perhaps two or three surviving regularly scheduled traditional dances (but) by the mid 1980s a dancer could dance to live music somewhere in the state every Saturday night.
The characteristics of the traditional dance continue: live music, street clothes, no lessons, no alcohol, and the emphasis on sociability. The public, at all ages, is responding to this renewed opportunity to come together and dance.
The quality of live music improves as each year goes by and more and more music from Anglo-American tradition moves from the dusty pages of old publications and manuscripts and comes to life as a major factor in the traditional revival.
New dances and tunes are continually being composed within the framework of the traditional style. Good music and dance material become part of the overall repertory and will someday be studied by folklorists of the future. The present dance leadership is quite aware of the danger of introducing new basic figures to the activity, and calling, programming, use of music, good teaching, and smooth choreography are the subjects of workshops being held throughout America.
The traditional and the club square dance disciplines have similarities, but they actually represent different lifestyles. for that reason, both styles of dance will continue to go their separate ways, and will remain independent and loosely connected activities.