Uncovering the slave roots of square dancing

The Bent Creek Ranch Square Dance Team dancing at the Mountain Music Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. Image via Wiki

It is documented that a square dance is an American folk dance form involving four couples in a square formation dancing to a specific sequence or series of steps announced or cued by a caller. For decades, square dancing has been a popular pastime for many people in America. During the second world war, millions of participants breathed new life into the dance after it had become unpopular in the 1800s.

Square dancing is derived from many cultures and pasts as history shows. Scores of European dances are believed to have inspired the dance. According to History.com, these include the quadrille and the cotillion dances performed in squares by French couples in the 1700s; folk dances in Scotland, Scandinavia and Spain; and Morris dance from 15th-century England.

“When Europeans began settling England’s 13 North American colonies, they brought both folk and popular dance traditions with them,” History.com writes. “French dancing styles in particular came into favor in the years following the American Revolution, when many former colonists snubbed all things British. A number of the terms used in modern square dancing come from France, including ‘promenade,’ ‘allemande’ and the indispensable ‘do-si-do’–a corruption of ‘dos-à-dos,’ meaning ‘back-to-back.’”

Besides European dances, African American and Native American dance forms influenced square dance, said Phil Jamison, who is a square dance historian. In his book, “Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics”, he argues that distinctive folk dances like square dances are not the unaltered jigs and reels of the early British settlers, but hybrids that developed over time by adopting and incorporating elements from other popular forms.

The African-American history and slave roots of dances like square dances have been overlooked. “Designated as the official state folk dance of 31 states, square dancing is not exactly revered for its racial diversity—and pop culture portrayals lean heavily on a mythology of reeling white farmers, not people of color,” an article by JStor Daily says.

Black Americans however contributed significantly to the development of the dance. The dance is in fact rooted in a legacy of slavery, per the article. It says slaves were usually used as the “callers” who prompted dancers to adopt different figures like the “do-si-do” and “allemande”. Musicians who were Black also performed or created the songs that dancers moved to. Over time, enslaved men and women “also started to adapt these popular dances,” the article adds.

Enslaved people could even call out to White dancers and in such instances, dance instructors were not needed, according to Jamison. The square dancing tradition continued to spread across America as the country grew but presently, not many people are aware of the immense contributions made by Black people to develop the dance. This is partly because White square dance callers knocked out the Black ones, as stated by Jamison.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 20, 2022


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