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A Guide to Learning Western Square Dancing for TraditionalDancers

Bill Ackerman, March 1993

The way one teaches western square dancing to experienced traditional or contra dancers can be very different from the way one teaches it to beginners. With experienced dancers, it is worthwhile to point out the the differences in styling, flow, phrasing, and music between western and traditional, whereas with beginners one just lets the dancers absorb the necessary information through the (necessarily lengthy) teaching process.

These notes are written to help you take advantage of your traditional dancing knowledge, by pointing out which parts of traditional dancing are the same and which are different.

The most obvious differences between western and traditional dancing, aside from the much larger number of calls in western, are:

  • Dancing to the *phrase* of the music in traditional, but dancing to the *beat* of the music in western.
  • Live music at traditional dances and recorded at western, usually.
  • Pre-written dances in traditional, vs. extemporaneous in western, and no large-scale structure to the choreography in western.
  • Different styling, particularly in handholds.

Dancing to the beat vs. dancing to the phrase

This is by far the most important difference.

In traditional choreography, every call takes a number of beats of music that is totally obvious to everyone involved. It may not be possible to look it up in a book -- a "swing" may take 4 beats, or 8, or whatever, depending on the particular dance -- but, once the dance is known, everyone knows how many beats each call takes. For a dancer to swing, but not know where in the music the call will end, is unthinkable.

The phrase of the music is divided into little boxes, typically adding up to 64 beats, and each call goes into its box.

     | balance | |       swing         | | right and left thru |
     |_________| |_____________________| |_____________________|
         4                 8                      8

      V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  --> music
Dancers adjust their speed so that each call fits neatly into its box. It is the responsibility of the author of the dance to write it so that this is natural and comfortable.

In western dancing, the emphasis is on gluing the calls together smoothly and seamlessly. In a well-called and well-danced western dance, a spectator often cannot tell where one call ends and the next begins. It is the responsibility of the caller to glue together calls that flow smoothly from one to the next.

             swing thru     spin the top           recycle

      V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  V  --> music
The number of beats of music that each call takes is not very well defined, and the dancers are not aware of it, though the caller must have a lot of knowledge about how to time things to make them work smoothly. There is simply no point in writing down, in a book for dancers, the number of beats that each call takes.

So what function does the music serve? It does not time the *calls*. It times your *footsteps*. Do not attempt to fit your execution of the calls into the phrase of the music. Just move your feet to the beat of the music.

This difference between traditional and western dancing is perhaps the most disconcerting for traditional dancers encountering western dancing for the first time. Be assured that each of the styles is sensible and enjoyable in its own way.

As a consequence of this difference in the role of the music, western square dance music is much less strongly phrased. It has a strong beat, that in many cases is quite monotonous. With a few exceptions, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to listen to a western square dance record for its own sake.

In both traditional and western dancing, the caller must say each call a few beats before it is to begin, so that the dancers have time to react. This causes no problems for the traditional dancer, since he/she knows, from the music, just when the next call is to begin. It might cause some concern to a new western dancer. Hearing the next call while the current call is still in progress might lead the dancer into thinking that he/she is falling behind, and must rush to catch up with the caller. Relax. Do the calls at a natural and comfortable speed. Good dancers do not rush, and good callers do not rush the dancers. It is the caller's responsibility to time the calls properly.

Recorded vs. live music

This is actually a much less significant difference than phrasing, but it is more often cited by casual observers.

Many traditional dancers enjoy the live music (as well they should) so much that they can't imagine enjoying a dance with canned music. There is not a whole lot I can say in defense of canned music except that

  • because of the differences in phrasing pointed out above, it's not as serious a disaster as one might otherwise think.
  • most western square dancers don't mind, and would probably find live music too distracting, if you can imagine such an attitude.
So it's not all that bad, though there is no denying that people who have never danced to the music of Mary Lea, Kerry Elkin, or Peter Barnes, to name just a few, don't know what they're missing.

Extemporaneous choreography, and lack of large-scale structure

Western square dance choreography is extemporaneous, or at least it should be. (Some callers are lazy.) The dances are not pre-existing "old favorites". It follows that there are no walk-throughs. The dancers do not know what call is coming next, and, surprising as it may seem to a traditional dancer, this is one of the things that makes western square dancing exciting.

A traditional square has a large-scale structure to it -- the same sequence is repeated for each couple in turn, or for heads and then sides. There are "break" sequences at predictable places (sequences 1, 4, and 7, usually), and the sequences are generally 64 beats long. In a western dance, the sequences have no similarity to each other. Their length and content are not known in advance, even to the caller. The caller simply invents and calls sequences until 7 or 8 minutes have elapsed.

Actually, the preceding description is only half correct. A western square dance is divided into segments (10 to 12 minutes or so) called "tips". Each tip has two parts, with different music, but without re-forming new squares between the parts, just as at a traditional dance. The first part is called a "patter" dance or "hoedown" (no, I don't know what the word really means) and is extemporaneous and unstructured, as described above. The second part is called a "singing call" and is fairly highly structured (7 sequences, of which 1, 4, and 7 are break sequences) but may still be largely extemporaneous. The "singing call" is actually very similar to the "singing square" in traditional dancing. In some cases it may use a well-known "standard" figure (the one that comes on the cue sheet with the record), or the caller may improvise.

In the hoedown, everyone promenades home with their own partner after each sequence. In the singing call, the men and women progress through different partners in sequences 2, 3, 5, and 6. (They promenade to the men's home position.) This pairing of a dance that progresses through partners with one in which everyone keeps their own partner should be very familiar to traditional dancers.


The most obvious difference that people typically observe is the difference in hand position. But before discussing that, there is a more fundamental difference.

In traditional dancing, there is a huge amount of what is called "giving weight". Dancers frequently exert pushing and pulling pressure on each other. This happens both in the call "balance" (which is really just a stylized exertion of pressure) and in left and right allemandes. It is common for a caller to teach or demonstrate that the dancers should lean back and pull on each other while doing allemandes, to "help each other around". This is *almost never* done in western square dancing. You should maintain your center of gravity over your own two feet. While doing left and right allemandes, you exert only a very slight pressure on the other dancers, so they know they are working with you, but you don't go into orbit. The only exceptions are the usual (slight) leaning back during a swing, and a show of exuberance at the start of a right and left grand.

In western square dancing, one spends a lot of time in the formation known as a "wave". (This is what traditional callers refer to as a "wavy line", sometimes indicating that it is very common in western square dancing. They're absolutely right.) When in a wave, the hand position is what is known as the "forearm grip". The forearms of the two dancers overlap -- each dancer's hand is on the other dancer's forearm. The hand pressure is extremely light -- "grip" is the wrong term. The most common things to do in a wave are various forms of "arm turns", done with the forearm grip. Other arm turns, like left allemande, are done the same way. The "thumbs up" or "pigeon-wing grip" is not used. Needless to say, if dancers were to lean back and give weight while doing a left allemande with a forearm grip, they would fall over.

Whenever you are in a formation next to someone, you should take some kind of grip with them. If the other person is facing the opposite direction from you, you are in a wave (or, if it's just two people, a "mini-wave") and should use the forearm grip. If the other person faces the same way as you, you should use the normal couples handhold, which is the same as in traditional dancing. That is, it is the same handhold you take with your partner in a squared set. How you should do this if the setup doesn't have a man on the left and a woman on the right is the subject of as much controversy in western square dancing as in traditional. No one has figured it out.

Actually, the issue of hand position is more complicated than this, and the discussion of the pros and cons of various hand positions goes on endlessly. There are regional differences, there are differences between mainstream and advanced dancers, and there are a few calls for which many western square dancers use the hands-up grip. Attempts by "standardization organizations" to bring consistency to the situation do not seem to have the desired effect. When I dance, I try not to think about it too much. There is really a lot more fascinating stuff going on in a western square dance than fussing over hand position.

Specific styling differences

In addition to the wave and its forearm grip, a common action in western dancing is the "pull by" which uses the handshake grip. One call that uses this is right and left grand, which is done exactly as in traditional dancing. Actually, there is a difference, though it isn't in hand grip. Going all the way around on a right and left grand is not done in western dancing. You promenade home the first time you meet your partner, which is the fifth hand. In traditional dancing, this is called going halfway around. In western, it is considered to be going all the way around, and there seems to be no point in going around twice. It's all relative.

In western square dancing, the first part of right and left thru is a right pull by (with the handshake grip), not just a pass thru. (This, incidentally, is how I identify closet western square dancers at a traditional dance.)

The courtesy turn at the end of a right and left thru is alway a courtesy turn. In traditional and contra dancing it is common, when the two people involved are of the same sex, to use the "arms-locked-behind-each-others-back" turn. This is never done in western dancing. Actually, right and left thru with other than normal couples (man on left, woman on right) is hardly ever done in mainstream western dancing. For all of western square dancing's claims of a much wider and more interesting variety of positions than in traditional dancing, the positions are in some respect more restricted. It's all a matter of taste.

The call "swing" is seriously watered down in western dancing. It is generally used only in singing calls, and is very short, and people don't do it very well. It is not treated as something that people should really be expected to enjoy. Because traditional dancers do this call so well in comparison to western dancers, you will repeatedly be complimented on how well you swing. They have no idea what a great call it is.

The call "balance" is even more pathetic. Because western dancers don't give weight, and balance consists of giving weight in a stylized way, the call is meaningless. In my opinion (others undoubtedly will disagree with me), it has no place in western dancing, and should not be used. If you are at a western dance and balance is called, do nothing, or just shuffle your feet a little bit. DO NOT stomp your feet loudly, ogle other dancers, or engage in other exuberant activity. The other dancers will think you have lost your marbles.

Customs, costumes, and clubs

Warning -- serious expression of personal opinions ahead. Proceed at own risk.

The most visible, vocal, and well organized contingent of western square dancers imposes some rather anachronistic and irrelevant customs on its adherents. The most notorious of these is a dress code that mandates pseudo-cowboy outfits for the men and outrageous 1950's party dresses for the women. They also usually make it a couples-only activity, sometimes even requiring the couple to be married to each other and to have the same surname. I wish I could say that you can ignore all this and still have lots of places to dance, but it isn't true. There are places for normal people to dance, but not many. The best places to look are college groups and offshoots of same.

Western square dancing is often called "club dancing" by traditional dancers. That term is incorrect and misleading. It refers only to an administrative and legal arrangement, not to the dancing itself. It is far better to use a term that is independent of the administrative arrangement. "Western" seems to be the designation of choice. After all, the style of dancing is really independent of whether the dance is run by the caller or by an organization that pays the caller a salary. Many western square dances (most of the ones that I go to) are run by the caller, and some traditional dances are run by clubs. It just happens that the most visible, vocal, and well organized contingent of western square dancing runs dances through clubs.

You have probably been given a booklet from the American Square Dance Society expaining the mainstream calls of western square dancing. Please ignore the silly costumes. Also, you will find an absurdly large amount of space devoted to "styling tips". Take these with an enormous grain of salt. I do not know what planet their author comes from, or why he or she has nothing better to do than wax eloquent about how the woman ruffles her skirt during a pass thru or right and left grand. Western square dance styling really isn't that complicated. In fact, it's just plain common sense.

The booklet also explains such silly things as the number of beats each call takes. As explained previously, that number doesn't mean the same thing in western as in traditional, and, furthermore, it can vary depending on the preceding and following calls. Leave those considerations to the caller. Relax and enjoy the dance.

From the Western Square Dancing Web page. Copyright notice.
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