Written by Jim Mayo
The history of modern square dancing begins in the late 1940’s. Callers and dancers who were influenced by the Lloyd Shaw Institutes in Colorado returned home to start classes and form clubs. Club dancers learned new styles of dancing. Callers began to experiment with routines that changed as they were danced. Over the next fifty years the modern form of this traditional folk dance became much more intricate and explosively more popular. This book traces the development of modern square dancing through the last half of the twentieth century.
New styles of choreography and a flood of new calls increased the intricacy of the square dancing experience. American square dancing became popular in may countries outside North America. Festivals and conventions combined with vacation travel and dancing in retirement parks and modern square dancing was everywhere. As the dance became more complicated, recruiting new dancers became more difficult. Today modern square dancing is at a crossroads. The decisions ahead and the path we took to get here are discussed in detail by a caller who lived through it all.
Jim Mayo has been a part of modern square dancing from the beginning. As a teenager he made the transition from a traditional square dancer to a modern caller. He has shared in the founding of local caller associations in New England and in 1975 was elected the first Chairman of CALLERLAB, The International Association of Square Dance Callers. He has called and taught callers throughout North America and in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He helped to write the book on training callers and has been a member of the CALLERLAB Board of Governors since its formation. He is one of a very small group of callers who have been actively calling for fifty years and are still at it.
Square dancing has a long history. Humans have danced almost since the first beings stood on two legs. Rhythm was created by banging a stick on a hollow log or some other primitive means and, as soon as there was rhythm, people tried to match their movement to it. Dancing by groups of eight people arranged on the sides of a square can be traced back several centuries. This form of dancing came to North America with the earliest settlers and became part of the social life of both the United States and Canada. These earliest “square” dances were complete routines. They were learned by the dancers and danced without a caller. S. Foster Damon, in his book “Square Dancing, A History” published in 1957 suggested that the creation of the caller happened in the early 1800’s. He also noted that some attempts to introduce this approach in England met with disdain. In the beginning callers were referred to as “prompters.” Their job was to remind people of the steps of a dance routine they had learned.
The traditional form of square dancing continues to be popular and has changed little from the way it was done in the past. Traditional square dances are complete routines done in the same way each time they are danced. When dance routines pass from one caller to another they are sometimes modified. An individual caller, however, usually presents them without change each time they are done. The history of traditional square dancing has been well documented. Books that have been written about square dance history have, with few exceptions, made no distinction between traditional square dancing and what has come to be called modern western square dancing, even though the modern form of this recreation is significantly different from its traditional counterpart. This book will describe and define that difference. It will also trace the popularity of this new way of square dancing and the changes that have occurred as it continued to develop over the last fifty years.
Modern western square dancing has existed for only a brief period at the end of the centuries-long history of square dancing. The main path of development for “traditional” square dancing continues without interruption and with only minor change. The modern variation is different in significant ways. During the last half of the twentieth century its popularity and growth far outstripped that of its traditional parent. There are areas where traditional square dancing, or its sibling, contra dancing, is quite popular but it never experienced the wild growth of modern club square dancing. As we enter a new century that growth has faded and it is clear that the modern style of square dancing is experiencing difficulty. Many reasons are put forth to explain that difficulty. None of these, however, have been based on a thorough examination of the changes that have taken place in the dancing itself. I hope this history will help us better to understand those changes.
The most fundamental difference between traditional and modern square dancing is the changing of the dance routine as it is being danced. The details of that process and the nature, timing and extent of the change will fill a substantial portion of this book. It is clear that the idea of changing the dance routine did not happen over a short period of time. In fact, the ways in which the dance patterns are changed are still being modified today. There is a tendency among both dancers and callers to regard the activity as static. A casual look at history, however, quickly shows the error of such a view. Unfortunately, few in the modern square dance world have taken even a casual look at history. Perhaps this has been partly because no comprehensive historical document has been available. For most dancers and many callers, square dancing began the night they first walked into beginners’ class. There has been no easy reference available to help them learn how square dancing became such an important part of their lives and that of so many other people. This book will be such a reference.
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