Dance Square Dance Revolution
December 8, 2017 5:50 AM   Subscribe

PUT YOUR TIN FOIL HATS ON, we are about to go on a VERY wild ride.

I haven't been this excited since I first found out about the incredibly strange world of quicksand porn.
Let Robyn Pennacchia tell you about the conspiracy to make square dancing the national dance of the US and how it originated as part of an even madder ploy by Henry Ford to destroy Black, Jewish jazz with folk music. Quicksand porn briefly discussed here.
posted by MartinWisse (99 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wait. For reals?
posted by 2N2222 at 5:56 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Ohhhh. Is that why we spent half a year of 8th grade PE doing square dance?
posted by palomar at 6:08 AM on December 8, 2017 [35 favorites]


It appears the answer is yes! Washington made squareness the state dance in 1979. Insert eyeroll emoji here.
posted by palomar at 6:10 AM on December 8, 2017


Someone should do raw milk next.
posted by gauche at 6:15 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Henry Ford wasn't the worst person to ever live, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
posted by tommasz at 6:20 AM on December 8, 2017 [60 favorites]


The History Channel did a pretty interesting six-hour documentary series on the history of the American auto industry recently. I knew Henry Ford was an asshole, but God, I didn't know just how bugfuck crazy he really was. Check out Harry Bennett for one thing (a bit from the documentary not mentioned in that link is that when Henry Ford II finally fired Bennett, it ended with John Bugas and Bennett literally drawing guns on each other.)

And now this. Boy, the hits just keep on coming with that jackass.
posted by Naberius at 6:31 AM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


I found a list of official state dances. There are a whole lot of states that have square dancing as the official state dance, but the trend seems to have petered out after the mid-90s, which is good, because it certainly sounds like some bullshit. Fun fact: last year, Delaware designated Maypole dancing as its state dance. And our British friends will be amused to learn that the official popular dance of North Carolina is shagging.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:31 AM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


Virginia enshrined square dance as the state dance in 2011 according to Wikipedia.
posted by palomar at 6:33 AM on December 8, 2017


My Italian-immigrant grandfather worked for decades for the parks & recreation department. He used to (in the early '80s) come into my classes in elementary school every year and teach square dance for a day. So I guess he was an unwitting arm of the conspiracy. He loved dressing in cowboy shirts and boots for these things, little faux-pearl snaps.

He ran the other public dances at local rec centers as well. I loved looking through his crates of records. He had a Madonna record that was crystal, transparent blur. He had the soundtrack to Breakin', which came with its own instructional poster (now framed in my house). Louis Prima, all these Lawrence Welk-style compilations. Kurtis Blow, George Michael. Somehow square dancing just shouldered up alongside all the other stuff and danced. Henry Ford would have been so fucking pissed.
posted by penduluum at 6:37 AM on December 8, 2017 [26 favorites]


Wow. Mind, blown. The detail explaining that we did this shit in gym because of Henry Ford's racism is just insane. Capitalism and racism and the fascistic threads of US educational policy, especially before we started systemically de funding schools, make a terrible combination.
posted by latkes at 6:37 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


"Everybody come on down to Fordlândia, the random city I built in the middle of the Amazon jungle! We have square dancing!"


I swear, if Ford hadn't been so good at industrial process management, he would have been a cult leader.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:40 AM on December 8, 2017 [18 favorites]


The only thing surprising about this is how unsurprising it is. I mean: capitalists and governments colluding to stifle the cultural influence of minorities?! Shocked! Shocked, I tell you!
posted by pompomtom at 6:41 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


just in case you thought that twitter thread couldn't get any weirder after the part about quicksand porn...

https://twitter.com/RobynElyse/status/938975275651620864

@RobynElyse
Replying to @JessicaWakeman @xoamelia
People think a cat can have sex with a raccoon????
posted by sio42 at 6:41 AM on December 8, 2017


This is one of those things where I saw the post and thought maybe some rando spam keyword thing made it past the filters for five minutes, and then realized, nah, this is from an established poster, maybe he has a brain cloud? and then I read the post content and felt grateful to be alive to witness it. So thank you.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:43 AM on December 8, 2017 [10 favorites]


"Send in the clowns," said the quicksand.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:47 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


> And our British friends will be amused to learn that the official popular dance of North Carolina is shagging.

Locals can declare their love for shagging on their license plate.
posted by ardgedee at 6:51 AM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


Ohhhh. Is that why we spent half a year of 8th grade PE doing square dance?

We were doing this in my Maryland junior high school in the mid-80s. This provides some useful context to a tweenage mystery for me - thanks.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:02 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


Lost the tweet, but from the main thread:I now remember square dancing in 5th grade gym and now I feel kinda violated.

Kinda?
posted by loquacious at 7:04 AM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


Isn’t there a good amount of African American influence on square dancing though? Given the heavy debt owed to gospel and blues by country music, and by the apparent African origins of bluegrass, it would be very surprising if square dance was somehow a product of whiteness alone.
posted by chrchr at 7:04 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


History is just milkshake ducks all the way down, isn't it?
posted by Chrysostom at 7:09 AM on December 8, 2017 [14 favorites]


Isn’t there a good amount of African American influence on square dancing though?

The dance forms, I believe, are strictly white European in origin, but when I was forced to do it, we were dancing to banjo/fiddle music that definitely has an African / African-American history. That's obviously commonly overlooked or not even understood, though.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:18 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


In grade school in the 80s we learned square dancing, waltzes, the schottische -- but this was in Minnesota and These Were The Dances Of Our Peoples.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:26 AM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


Isn’t there a good amount of African American influence on square dancing though?

There are two answers to that question, the official one and the unofficial one,

If you read up on histories of square dancing, there will be not one mention of African influences, so, officially, no.

Unofficially, of course there is. There is no unbroken line from European contra dances to American line dances, and the break in that line includes that fact that the popular culture of the 1800s was, to a massive extent, the minstrel show, which flooded African-derived elements into just about every aspect of White culture.

So we end up with a dance that often features the banjo, an African instrument, a fiddle and mandolin, which was popularized in American folk music forms by Bill Monroe, who was hugely influenced by African-American fiddler and guitarist Arnold Shultz, a guitar, the use of which was heavily influenced by the Carter Family's Maybelle Carter, who borrowed heavily from African-American guitarist Lesley Riddle.

As for the dance steps, they borrow from European influences, but the truth is there were a lot of African-American bands, callers and dancers in the early history of the movement, which all had its influence, as did the cake walk, which was originally a plantation dance.

But as goes with these things, the dance was selected not because it had no African-American influence, but because that influence could so easily be written out and a false history could be written in which this was an authentic, European-based white folk form.
posted by maxsparber at 7:27 AM on December 8, 2017 [36 favorites]


Interestingly, my friend recalls doing mandatory square dance in grade 8 P.E. in B.C., Canada (it doesn't seem to have spread to Ontario, where we did... I don't remember what it was but it was more contemporary instead).
posted by airmail at 7:32 AM on December 8, 2017


I knew Ford was a notorious racist and antisemite, but had no idea that he tried to promote square dancing. BLAC Detroit Magazine quotes him:
Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.

Monkey talk, jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks and gasps suggestive of calf love are camouflaged by a few feverish notes and admitted in homes where the thing itself, unaided by scanned music," would be stamped out in horror. The fluttering music sheets disclose expressions taken directly from the cesspools of modern capitals, to be made the daily slang, the thoughtlessly hummed remarks of school boys and girls.
He was vile.

I had to look up 'calf love.' Urban dictionary says it's another term for 'puppy love.' I'm guessing that his use of it carries a more racist connotation?
posted by zarq at 7:33 AM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


History is just milkshake ducks all the way down, isn't it?

I prefer the phrase "Everything is fractally terrible."
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 7:39 AM on December 8, 2017 [25 favorites]


We had square dancing in gym class too. Gym was normally divided by sex, but two 'sports' were coed: volleyball, and square dancing. I have no idea why volleyball. But we got to wear our street clothes instead of gym suits, so we mostly didn't mind. There was one record they played where every time the caller said "half way," he'd pronounce it "HOFF way," and we'd all echo "HOFF WAY!!!" after him at the top of our lungs (or as loud as we could get away with it). To this day, whenever I hear someone say "half way" it's all I can do not to yell "HOFF WAY" afterwards. Sometimes I slip and let it out. I have yet to figure out how to explain this in an anecdote that's charming or funny. It just sits there, uncomfortably. Sort of like this comment.

TL;DR I have a longtime uncomfortable relationship with square dancing. Now that I know there's a connection to anti-semitism, it all makes sense. Or at least half way.
posted by Mchelly at 7:45 AM on December 8, 2017 [9 favorites]


Keep mefi weird!
posted by stinkfoot at 7:46 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Damn you Ford! For yet another reason! I, too, suffered through Square Dancing in school. I think we did it in 5th grade - prime "boys are gross but also kind of interesting" time. We didn't have an official Square Dance Caller so it was just the gym teachers, who probably barked the dance moves at us through the bullhorn. Fun!

I wonder how much of "American Culture" can be traced back to the machinations of one racist asshole with a bit of money.
posted by Elly Vortex at 7:49 AM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


We had to do the electric slide in gym class.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:49 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


If it helps any, contemporary square dancing has totally embraced African-American styles. Here are, I believe, Native American dancers from Alberta doing a stunning clog/tap influenced dance. Here are German square dancers dancing to KC and the Sunshine band.

There are a ton of videos like this, and all of them would give Ford a heart attack.
posted by maxsparber at 7:54 AM on December 8, 2017 [13 favorites]


it doesn't seem to have spread to Ontario

I grew up in Southern Ontario. There was mandatory square dancing in gym class in the 80's.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:54 AM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


The title got me ruminating. For interest, I'll post it here. It started from a linguistic overlap and perhaps there's a more substantial link that traverses capitalism and authoritarianism, but it's left as an exercise.

---

In China the less sophisticated translators calque the Chinese 广场舞 (guangchang wu) as "square dancing" (广场 = public space, square [esp. in toponyms], and 舞 = dance).

An overwhelming majority of participants are retired women of age 60+. It's form is influenced by mass gymnastics and aerobic exercise. The dancers usually perform individual routines in collective unison, with little interaction between partners. The accompanying music ranges from propaganda songs to viral earworm tracks, usually played with great loudness in public.

The guangchang wu is indeed suspected by some, especially among the Millennials, as a stage in a nation-state level desublimation campaign, a conspiracy to dumb down the populace, claim the public territories from the young and spontaneous, and channel the destructive boredom of the elderly, many of whom were products or even young active grassroot perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution and are now among the most solid power base of the neoliberal Communist Party, into an apparently innocuous activity which also serves as an adjunct of the societal control institutions.

The nuisance of blasting noise and territorial occupancy, which exist in either the absence of municipal ordinances or the non-democratic legislature and capricious enforcement thereof, serve as a glaring reminder of the proud lack of interest in maintaining the space and values of the commons, and the hopelessness of participating in any semblance of the commons without subjecting oneself to a tacitly top-down approved, monotone, message-devouring medium. The young, who are already being crushed on every front, must be reminded that they always live in the shadow of the old (who will soon outnumber them) whose aesthetics seem to recall the symbology of a past that has never been fully mourned, reconciled with, or atoned for. The disdain is the emotional response for the old's alienhood and the young's own learned helplessness.

The Chinese "square dance" also serves as a territorial assertion of China's ambition in projecting its values globally via apparent grassroot power that is invariably attached to the sheer purchasing power of Chinese tourists, the entrenched beneficiary of China's neoliberal rise. Even the linguistic signifier, "square dancing", serves as a bold territorial claim parallel to the territoriality of the dance itself. Its use by the state media organs, the "throat and tongue of the Party", in English reminds the readers that not only are they not aware of its possible clash with the established terminology "square dance", but they are aware and proud of their own unawareness which should have soon been brought to light once in contact with the native cultures. The message is that they simply cannot be bothered to spend the effort in creating empathic and expressive text from the stance of the readers who, in accordance with Chinese norms, are considered passive subjects under linguistic power.

Even the gender of guangchang wu serves symbolic purposes. In guangchang wu, the typical presence of only one gender destroys its own genderedness. Here, within the guanchangwu itself, it is not gender that is performed, but the lack of gender, a collectivization of identities. Embedded in the larger society, it reflects a vestige of the pre-neoliberal state, in which the state appropriates feminism for its ideological prestige but stays away from embodying its values that are inevitably connected to the risky zones of autonomy and human rights.
posted by runcifex at 8:02 AM on December 8, 2017 [26 favorites]


"... now promenade!"

the. worst.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:03 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I grew up in Southern Ontario. There was mandatory square dancing in gym class in the 80's.

I grew up in Northern Minnesota (Southern Ontario...) and it was the same. And in addition to the squaredancing that ruined gym class for two years, we had JP Souza marching class, too. I hated both - I vastly preferred dodgeball. And at least I had hockey.

Both of them were really weird, because they just culturally didn't fit. I was a navy brat before we resettled in MN and lived all over the US. Square/line dancing was kind of a thing in Texas, where we lived for a while, but literally nobody ever went square dancing in MN - polkas were FAR more popular.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:10 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


We had to do square dancing in my NYC public high school. I really hope somewhere in Alabama a kid was being forced to learn dancehall.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:11 AM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


People think a cat can have sex with a raccoon????

Well, no one batted an eye when a skunk did...
posted by Mchelly at 8:14 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I have particular interest in this because I kinda fell in love with Modern Western Square Dancing 5 years ago, to the point where I call weekly for a club now, and have been looking at the popularity over time, and why it's waxed and waned.

In the process of understanding the history of square dancing I've read Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw's book Cowboy Dances, which describes a square dancing that's very different than what Henry Ford and Benjamin Lovett were promoting in the halls of Michigan (and is closer to the culture of Modern Western Square Dancing, complete with "round dancing" interstitials)

I just finished reading Bob Osgood's As I Saw It, which Paul Moore edited together from Osgood's letters and personal notes, describing that period from WWII through the '90s in which all of these "state dance" hijinks occurred, and during which Osgood was a leader in that publicity. Osgood was a soft drink exec who quit that to publish the square dancing magazine Sets In Order, and was a square dance caller in Hollywood where his club had such notables as animator Chuck Jones.

Here's where it gets weird: According to Philip Jamison, the notion of a caller who called during the dance, with the moves intertwined with lyrics rather than a dance master who taught the dance outside of "the dance", comes from the African American slave culture. PDF of Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection by Philip A. Jamison from the Journal of Appalachian Studies. He's got cites for African American callers in the 1830s from the Carolinas through New York.

So like many things "American", it's a blend of roots, but the good bits were stolen by the whites African American culture.

And thank y'all for the "why I hate it" notes: Modern Western Square Dance culture is complex (for one thing, it has a "gay" and a "straight" branch that use the same calls, but have diverged in stylings and culture since the 1970s) and this sort of feedback and individual history with it in trying to figure out where I want to take my passion.

There's a lot that's wrong with it, but on the few times I end up dancing a contra or a polka I wonder how people can keep up the repetition over and over and over and over and over. And free dancing is fine, but it doesn't have that same sense of collaboration that 8 people moving in synchrony does.
posted by straw at 8:17 AM on December 8, 2017 [12 favorites]


And Mchelly just brought Chuck Jones in from the other side of the discussion, completing the circle.
posted by straw at 8:18 AM on December 8, 2017


Down with Jazz! Both Square Dancing and Henry Ford lead back to Ireland, I'm afraid. We're fighting back.
posted by stonepharisee at 8:53 AM on December 8, 2017


Having learned that Henry Ford was more or less personally responsible for making soybeans a major focus of US agriculture, I'm less surprised by new revelations of his influence. The guy's imprint on history is unbelievable.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


Just a data point...

Ford wasn't all about the squares. He promoted folk dancing in general as something for the everyday man. He also sponsored and built dance halls, many of which are still in use today for square dances and contra dances.
posted by Oh_Bobloblaw at 9:04 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Henry Ford: the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes,
Going all the way back to medieval clergy writing polemics against popular musical forms, I LOVE when reactionaries try to come up with "objective" music-theory explanations for their prejudices.

Your boy is hating on GLISSANDOS.

Which, okay, yeah, I guess if you hate glissandos, you would hate jazz, blues, and most African musical forms. Except that his proposed alternative is country?!?!? The cry break? STEEL FRICKIN' GUITAR?

It's little moments like this that most fully expose the naked racism of the history of American pop music for me. In the beginning, country (well, "hillbilly" at the time) was literally "blues made by/marketed by white people," just as rock 'n' roll was "R&B made by/marketed to white people." Somehow, for all the music industry history that illustrates this pattern, it's the moment when Henry Ford shits on glissandos in Jazz as part of his steel-guitar popularization campaign where the dangerous absurdity of the whole thing crystallizes.
posted by Krawczak at 9:06 AM on December 8, 2017 [10 favorites]


But what about square dancing fashion? That little belt with the small towel folded over it to wipe the sweaty hands all the men wore? The huge dresses with all the white trim? Was that all just plain good old American prejudice too? Or maybe just tribal costumes for bad taste followers of this hidden fascistic fake folk cult? Nothing about this country surprises me anymore. Nothing.

Sixth grade. PE. We just made up rude and crude versions of the calls in order to fight back.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:10 AM on December 8, 2017


Now I'm wondering what other weird American public school gym rituals also had racist origins. Did Nathan Bedford Forrest invent the parachute game as a way to train future Klan members how to air out their white sheets?
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:11 AM on December 8, 2017 [9 favorites]


In the beginning, country (well, "hillbilly" at the time) was literally "blues made by/marketed by white people,

It's ASTONISHING to hear the original recording of Lovesick Blues, by Emmett Miller, which is done in faux African-American pattern and styled after a blues song, and compare it with Hank Williams' recording. The original even has the yodel in the chorus, which has become one of the definitive country sounds.
posted by maxsparber at 9:13 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


Now I'm wondering what other weird American public school gym rituals also had racist origins.

I mean, there's no way that dodgeball is not racist.
posted by maxsparber at 9:14 AM on December 8, 2017 [7 favorites]


Andrew Jackson? HUGE crab soccer proponent.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:24 AM on December 8, 2017 [11 favorites]


I was in fifth grade in northeastern New Jersey (20 mins from NYC, for those who don’t know the area) in the late ‘70s. We learned disco dancing: the Hustle, the Bump, The Hitchhiker and the Bus Stop, among others the names of which I have forgotten. Thank fuck for African-Americans and the queer community taking charge of the culture in the Tri-State area.

(A few years later, at summer camp in Berkshire County, [western rural] Massachusetts, we had square dances. That makes sense.)
posted by tzikeh at 9:28 AM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


Shocked? No. This is what the dominant culture think schools should be doing. Indoctrination into the dominante culture, erasure or demonization of other cultures, and the creation of soldiers and servants. Why do you think there even IS a gym class? Kids already knew how to play and have fun. Thats what they do when you stop preventing them.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 9:34 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I saw this thread on Twitter, and then realized that essentially it was a MetaFilter post itself in the abstract: a thin tissue of text tying together a few news articles that contained the meat along with a brief derail about quicksand porn. At some level I’m annoyed that the author is having a brief moment for collating other peoples’ research. A dumb thing to be vexed by, but there you are.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:35 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


I remember in grade school (in the late 80s) we asked why we were learning these old dances instead of anything current, and teacher responded that none of the dances we wanted to learn had the proven staying power of The Swim.

Eventually in high school we did learn the Macarena, which was taught to us by two of our fellow students.
posted by ckape at 9:41 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Did you read the Jaloopnik article I linked to? It's the same thing, a summation of other people's write ups, but the original articles it links are little better too.

It's collation all the way down.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:41 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I remember getting in trouble for break dancing during that insipid square dance week of PE in early 80s public school. Now I see I was just advocating for a better cirriculum!
posted by Burhanistan at 10:03 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


I had to look up 'calf love.' Urban dictionary says it's another term for 'puppy love.' I'm guessing that his use of it carries a more racist connotation?

"Calf love" carried some baggage about impropriety from its time period that puppy love doesn't today. It's the intemperate, imprudent, immature "thinking below the belt" passions of young people that lead to reckless pre-marital sex and out-of-wedlock conceptions instead of mature Christian sex within a parent- and society-approved match. Definite possibility for racist connotations in the sense that while calf love could be the innocent and naive first stage of an appropriate relationship that could be herded towards the respectable by the young couple's elders, it was also often seen as causing upright young men to be lured in by The Wrong Kind of Woman or a good girl to fall prey to a Seducer. In this context, it's likely being used to imply fornication.
posted by haruspicina at 10:11 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


It means y'all got the horn?
posted by middleclasstool at 10:15 AM on December 8, 2017


In one episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Maynard throws a party and asks Dobie to call a square dance.

Even considering that episode was about Maynard trying to fit in it still made no sense.
posted by ckape at 10:22 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much of "American Culture" can be traced back to the machinations of one racist asshole with a bit of money.

Probably the same percentage of everything else American, which is to say a goodly amount.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:23 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I don't want to shatter your illusions here, but Dobie Gillis was not necessarily the most tightly plotted show of all times.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:37 AM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


Ironically, Henry Ford and Theodor Adorno could have bonded over their mutual hatred of Jazz.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:40 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Thank you so much for the links! I've tried to tell people about this before, but they didn't believe me and I couldn't find supporting material on my own.

Square dancing was one of the few units in PE that didn't completely blow chunks. I remember we had this one record where the calls were built into the lyrics of the song. It went:

“Bow to your partnerrrrrr,
Bow to your cornerrrrrr,
All hands 'round in the Irish Trot,
All hands 'round in the Irish Trot,
All hands 'round in the Irish Trot,
A loong time ago.
Right and left in the Irish Trot,
&c.”

There's a very active contra dance community here, and I used to go all the time. When my arthritis and asthma started to flare up a lot, I would have to sit out two or three dances in a row and it got kind of awkward having to say no so much. No Mr. Darcys at *our* dances! So I stopped going.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:51 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I saw this thread on Twitter, and then realized that essentially it was a MetaFilter post itself in the abstract: a thin tissue of text tying together a few news articles that contained the meat along with a brief derail about quicksand porn.

Agreed - it did, however, stir up my 30 year old irritation and confusion at being forced to square dance in a upper middle class suburb where most peoples's reaction to country music and anything related to it was, as far as I could tell, kneejerk contempt*. Why were we doing this? Nobody could tell me, beyond it being part of the gym curriculum.

There's a good article in this somewhere for whoever wants to take the time to write it. An army of now-greying angry and embarrassed adolescents will probably be curious to see this rock flipped over.

* Not long after, in the same suburb, I started hanging around a diner that had Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried", Patsy Cline's "Crazy", and local wildman Tex Rubinowitz's "Bad Boy" on the jukeboxes. This was the first clue to the teenage punk me that country was something worth listening to, and that the DC area had any connection to its history. When I tried to talk to friends about any of it, though, it was roundly dismissed as "redneck music".
posted by ryanshepard at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I kinda liked square dancing the 6 or 7 times I've been around a group that was doing it (half of those probably in school gym class). But now I'm sadly wondering if it weren't for Henry Ford maybe my school might have made us do a unit learning about popular dance? And I might not have gone most of my life thinking dancing was only for cool people? They didn't have video games about dancing when I was a kid.
posted by straight at 11:25 AM on December 8, 2017


On square dancing in PE class, Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw wrote this in Cowboy Dances published in 1939:
One last word ! Please do not teach these dances to little children. Grade-school pupils may enjoy them but it will mark the dances forever in your community with the stigma of "kid stuff." Well-meaning gymnasium teachers have taught the splendid circle folk dances of the peasants of Europe to girls' gymnasium classes and to little children, until folk dancing is popularly thought of as "sissy stuff," and most manly chaps will have nothing to do with it without a deal of tactful educating. Not only are the dances so vigorous and manly and strenuous that they are quite unsuited for girls' classes or children but they will thus be killed for everyone. If, in your community, you can start the dances with the manliest and most popular young fellows, with older men mixing in, the program will become a great joy. But if you see any well-meaning woman trying to teach them to children or to classes of girls, please rush to the nearest court and get out an injunction to keep her from robbing the adult public of a precious sport that really belongs to it.
So many layers in that to unwrap, but the phys ed teachers were warned.
posted by straw at 11:38 AM on December 8, 2017 [11 favorites]


Boy was I surprised to scroll down that thread and realize I know the woman in the quicksand porn screenshot. I haven't talked to her in awhile, but we were friends for years.
posted by AFABulous at 12:17 PM on December 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


Weirdly enough I made a comment on metafilter only about a month ago that seems to debunk the entire premise of this post.

https://www.metafilter.com/168887/Fair-Slice-Now#7136911

Basically it boils down to this link:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music/article/henry-fords-dance-revival-and-fiddle-contests-myth-and-reality/C42F37BE1EC7AADBE330E597646E1707

Which can be summed up as "in conclusion Henry Ford was an asshole and terrible person but probably didn't create square dancing to kill jazz."
posted by laptolain at 12:19 PM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]


I do a lot of International folk Dance, preferring line, circle, and non-partnered dances. I like Balkan dance and music with its intricate rhythms. Contradance is usually in 2/4 time and square dance typically 4/4, and I hear it as a strong, relentless thumping beat. I'll do a couple dances, but meh. My Mom knew I liked dancing, and routinely gifted me square dance-style skirts, but it's the thought, right.

Anyway, for contrast, here is Ivo Papasov and his band with a wedding dance. It's a racenitsa, typically written as 7/16 (2+2+3 or 4+3).
posted by theora55 at 1:05 PM on December 8, 2017


Also, Folk Dance was offered as a PE course at my hippie college.
posted by theora55 at 1:06 PM on December 8, 2017


There's a whole lot of 20th c. dance nascent in this, and it's literally a square dance. But mostly it's joyous.

The second link in the OP, Julianne Mangin's article, has a lot more knowledge than the tweetstorm, especially in citing the folk dancers who argued against the various official-square-dance bills. The big ol' thing is that the legalist square dancers are not the only square dancers, there's a good argument for their not being the most traditional or folk, but they want to enforce a claim to be the "real" square dancers.

It's parallel to a split in ballroom dancing that I run into all the time -- the International Ballroom people claim to be "real" ballroom because they have codification and competitions. Social ballroom dance, which is the older tradition, does not require the sparkly dresses and craned necks and official judges. No TV shows for the social side, though.

laptolain, can you extract any juicy bits from that academic article? I don't have access.

straw, "the same thing over and over" is sure not the polka I know. And a floor of people not colliding with each other at tremendous speed is many people working together, although the synchrony is subtle.
posted by clew at 1:46 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


See, to me, kickball, volleyball, relay races, badminton, softball, and all the other competitive sports we did in PE were far more unrelated-to-real-life, why-are-we-doing-this, I'll-never-do-this-again-outside-of-class, ow-this-really-hurts-and-feels-unnatural-and-I-just-heard-my-ankle-snap than any kind of dancing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:51 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


The above was obviously. posted in the wrong thread; I flagged it for deletion.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:52 PM on December 8, 2017


Henry Ford seems to have spent the majority of his life being an angry and unhappy man.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 1:53 PM on December 8, 2017


(Um, I flagged it where it appears in the thread about postpartum death. Gonna get offline now )
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:54 PM on December 8, 2017


laptolain, can you extract any juicy bits from that academic article? I don't have access.


Clew I wish I did. I looked up the article on libgen and other pirated academic paper sources but can't find it.
posted by laptolain at 1:57 PM on December 8, 2017


For some reason there were a few weeks of square dancing in my 8th grade gym class here in Iceland, in the 90's. Never did figure out why, never before or since have I encountered square dancing.
posted by aldurtregi at 1:59 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Being made to do square dancing in my Australian PE classes in the late 70's or early 80's was a brief ray of sunshine in what was otherwise pretty much pure torture. I was in a tiny minority for feeling that way though.

One of the things I liked about it was that suddenly there weren't any winners and losers! But now I discover that may not be the case. Goddamn racism contaminating everything.

I also learnt the Heel and Toe Polka and the Nutbush in school but can no longer recall if the latter was officially part of the curriculum or something taught by the other kids in our own time, it's all a bit of a blur.
posted by Coaticass at 2:09 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Henry Ford’s Dance Revival and Fiddle Contests: Myth and Reality, hosted by the Square Dance History Project.

Relevant to the "was he doing this because he was a racist, or was he doing this and he was a racist" question:
Reporters were always looking to Ford to philosophize on aspects of life, and now, in these and later articles, he refined his opinions about dancing. Simply put, he liked to dance, but, like others of his age, preferred the style of his youth. He justified dancing as part of a regimen that balanced work with leisure and insisted in one interview (stressing a point he repeated in others) that “we are not, as has been imagined, conducting any kind of a crusade against modern dancing. We are merely dancing in the way that gives us the most pleasure.”84 Of course, Ford commented that he did “like those old tunes—no question about that—that old music does make a great appeal.”85

Despite his preference for older dances and music and his criticism of contemporary dancing styles, Ford reiterated that he had nothing against jazz or modern dancing per se. He understood that contemporary dance hall operators could make more profit with fox trots than square dancing, simply because more people could fit into the available spaces, for example. He remarked, “When I invite my friends to learn the square dance and to dance it, I am not doing it to reform the dance in this country. I am bringing back for them and for myself the flavor of a day that is gone. If other people become interested, fine! But I’m not setting out to reform anything or anybody.”86
It sure seems to me that, given how openly racist some of his other writing was, he wouldn't have had a problem admitting racist motives for promoting square dancing if that had been the case. And yet he apparently denied that was his motivation, repeatedly. I dunno.

In case Phil Jamison's article is also paywalled (I'm on campus, so it works for me regardless), they also have a copy of it: Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection
posted by hades at 3:40 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think a case can be made that it's Lloyd Shaw, more than Henry Ford, who's responsible for square dance modules any of us today might have had in school. And as far as I can tell, Shaw was legitimately into square dance as a folklorist, not for reactionary racist reasons.
posted by hades at 3:54 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I wonder how much of "American Culture" can be traced back to the machinations of one racist asshole with a bit of money.

This is obviously still happening. The secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is one obvious one out of many. American dominionists are another group that wants to dominate culture: Some of their political allies don't care too much about the cultural aspects as long as they too get political power.

No wonder so many right wing people love conspiracy theories about the left: projection.
posted by RuvaBlue at 4:37 PM on December 8, 2017


I could have sworn that Vivian Williams cited a couple of black musicians in the early Western settlement of the PNW, but I can't find it in the Williams' website. Interesting reference to "fiddle diplomacy" being vital to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, though.

maybe it was on Capering and Kickery?...
posted by clew at 4:37 PM on December 8, 2017



In China the less sophisticated translators calque the Chinese 广场舞 (guangchang wu) as "square dancing" (广场 = public space, square [esp. in toponyms], and 舞 = dance).

An overwhelming majority of participants are re tired women of age 60+. It's form is influenced by mass gymnastics and aerobic exercise. The dancers usually perform individual routines in collective unison, with little interaction between partners. The accompanying music ranges from propaganda songs to viral earworm tracks, usually played with great loudness in public.


Vlog Advchina (previously) has a much less conspiratorial take on what they call the "dancing aunties", (also called "dancing grannies" according to wikipedia) in a video they titled China's Lost Generation. Which makes it sound like China's looking glass counterpart to America's Baby Boomers are also doing their share to fuck over everyone else, mostly because they can. And, because they're kinda the special snowflakes that Mao made them out to be.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:56 PM on December 8, 2017


I did the square dance thing back in the day too. I kind of liked it.

(I got to dance with boys!)
posted by MrVisible at 5:17 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Capering and Kickery summarizes an article by V. Williams, but the best part is the comment by Vivian:
[...]In spite of the mostly lily white racial mix in the Northwest, my list of [nineteenth-century] fiddlers includes three black fiddlers, as well as two who were part Native American, several white fiddlers who married Native American women, and one who married a Chinese woman. I've got to update that article; I found a cool fiddler named Charlie Kahana, in Northwest Washington, who was half Hawaiian and half Lummi Indian - and there are even recordings of him![...]
The history hades links to is great. Summary: English set dances until the Revolution, and then French dances to be revolutionary! But fancy French dances, like quadrilles, which you learn beforehand in dancing schools. And lots of black musicians for the formal quadrille balls.

The African Americans, slave and free, had their own balls, and danced both the white and black dances, but the musicians called the quadrilles so everyone could dance them. Not long after, the (black) musicians are calling the quadrilles at dances for white people who haven't been to dancing school. This is very weird to European travelers, so there's a lot of written record of it. And this means everyone can dance the dances that can be called, so they become a folk tradition.
posted by clew at 5:20 PM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]


So I'm just coming in to say that my parents started square dancing when I was about 8 years old, and they continue to do it today as they approach their 80s. They've been members of the same square dance club the entire time. I believe the dances are every other week, usually with a live caller but not a live band. At one point during my teens the group was large enough to have 8 or 10 squares with even with not everyone dancing.

I think they mainly did it as a sort of date night thing, maybe to have an excuse to get away from the kids for an evening regularly, but they also did it for the physical activity. Square dancing at the plus or higher class is VERY physical. Anyway, they went away to a square dance camp several summers while my sister and I were at scout or music camps. It's truly a life-long love for them.

They don't listen to the music outside of that setting. I have no idea if they even like the music as a genre.

My own favorite group dance activity is contra dancing, which is similar yet entirely different.

Anyway, I find it bizarre that Ford went about making square dancing popular. I guess I'm glad he did. It seems to be a passion for a lot of people, although not as many younger people anymore. I don't even think my parents' square dance club can get three squares together reliably anymore.
posted by hippybear at 6:25 PM on December 8, 2017 [3 favorites]


I assumed in the Northwest US in the nineteenth century, everybody danced like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. ;)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:25 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


Oh, and another memory about my parents and square dancing: when we were young and my parents were struggling, my mother taught herself to sew and she made clothes for all of us in the family. She also made matching western shirts and square dancing dresses for my father and herself. They probably have a dozen or so matching outfits for going to dances in.

My parents are pretty adorable.
posted by hippybear at 6:41 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


I'm reading that paywalled article by Gifford, and it's OK, but I don't have time to read it all in depth just now. The gist of it seems to be that Ford did help spark interest in standardized square dances and old-time fiddling in the 20s, but that it was most likely because this was the music of his youth; the popularity of square dances grew, says Gifford, because there was a broad popular interest in old-time traditional stuff around that time. I'll have to read it more closely later (and as a hammered dulcimer player, I kind of want to check of Gifford's hammered dulcimer book).

I've heard about this Henry Ford link before, and I have to admit that I'm somewhat skeptical of the idea that country music is only as popular as it is because of a conspiracy to foist it on the American people in the 20s. It makes it out to be a counterfeit success, that there's better music people would have preferred if not for outright manipulation. There's a lot of broad assumptions reinforced by this narrative; that country music inherently conservative, or that it's inherently anti-POC (or even that country music isn't very good). That's not to say I know all the answers, but do I think broad assumptions about country music sit very well with broad stereotypes about "people of Walmart," and rednecks, and the people in red states. It doesn't do anyone justice, and more importantly, it's not really an accurate representation of these people.

I do think there's an issue with there being state dances, but I think that's an issue of the past 30 years, and relatively inconsequential. I mean, I'm very opposed to the idea of state dances, and I think there are people trying to enforce a particularly Euro-American tradition, but I think the scope of that is relatively limited.

More to the point, there was a thread recently about the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the black folk music group, and one of the things they had to point out was that the music they play is popularly imagined to be white music, but that there's a strong black history to it. A narrative about Henry Ford sponsoring old-time fiddle contests to crush tango and nationalize white music serves very well to reinforce the assumption that square dances and old-time fiddle are inherently white, and it helps to erase the nonwhite histories of these dances and musical styles.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:53 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]


[Square Dancing] seems to be a passion for a lot of people, although not as many younger people anymore.

Modern Western square dancing (the kind with difficulty levels, club dues, fancy dress, and recorded music) is not as popular as it once was, I think. But traditional (live music, street clothes, informal) square dancing has seen a resurgence, at least in and around Seattle, in the last 15 years or so. And the people who are bringing it back are, largely, younger. In their twenties and thirties, anyway. I think some of that may be down to Phil Jamison's "Dare To Be Square" events and the later "Dare To Be Square West" offshoot.
posted by hades at 7:48 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


[...]teacher responded that none of the dances we wanted to learn had the proven staying power of The Swim.

I want this to be one of Coach Wilson's scenes in the next Spider-Man movie.
posted by MrBadExample at 7:53 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


We did square dancing the same year as line dancing to The Hustle. My favorite move was the high kick/clap your hands under the leg move.


(....do it!)
posted by ian1977 at 12:29 AM on December 9, 2017


hippybear: "I have no idea if they even like the music as a genre."

MWSD happens to something with a 2 or 4 beat at 126BPM. These days that's as likely to be a karaoke track of "Uptown Funk" as it is some old fiddle tune (though I use Lindsey Sterling for modern fiddle). There are two types, patter music (where we call free-form sequences and pause if the square isn't getting it) and a "singing call", which is 7 phrases of 64 beats, usually with room for lyrics from a song so it sounds kinda like something you know. But I've got a private-among-other-callers opinion that the only people who like dedicated square dance music are square dance music producers.

Speed-wise, if you think of this in running terms, 126BPM is like a 12 minute 30 second mile so not screaming, but it can be a bit of a workout, and if you add that you're having to think and react at that speed it's a mental workout too.

The economics of shrinking square dance clubs (the club I call for weekly is super lucky to make 2 squares, usually 1) dancing weekly (dancers usually pay $3-10/session, depending on lots of factors) doesn't lead to live music. The one live band I've called with was super enthusiastic because they love someone who's dedicated to get up and get them dancing, and I want to do more of that 'cause I love the energy a live band brings and live music rocks.

But, yeah, recorded music (even after I pay the BMI and ASCAP fees) means I get to recoup some of my sound system and gas money to and froe.

And that kind of speaks to hades comment about Phil Jamison and Dare to be Square: Yes, the kids these days are dancing to something closer to what Pappy Shaw would have recognized as square dancing, before the introduction of more free-form sequences (which seemed to have happened around 1947-48), and the whole pseudo-western garb (mid to later 1950s). And my wife and I are wanting to start a square dancing scene in the town we live in (the Modern Western club folded just about the time we started dancing) and we're thinking a format where anyone can walk in off the street any night and start dancing, at least for the first year or three, is the right way to go.

And I'd love to find a local band to call with.
posted by straw at 10:49 AM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]


I've got a private-among-other-callers opinion that the only people who like dedicated square dance music are square dance music producers.

Well, it's not for nothing that the bumper sticker says "Old-Time Music: Better than it sounds." I think it's probably true that there's not much of an audience for the music outside of people who are (or will eventually be) involved somehow in making it themselves. It's not popular music, and hasn't been for a long time. Which is kind of weird, honestly. People listen to string quartets without being classical musicians themselves, and that's not popular music either.
posted by hades at 11:58 AM on December 9, 2017


The economics of shrinking square dance clubs (the club I call for weekly is super lucky to make 2 squares, usually 1) dancing weekly (dancers usually pay $3-10/session, depending on lots of factors) doesn't lead to live music.

My impression was that move away from live music for the modern western folks mostly happened before the decline in attendance though. Is that wrong?

I'm also curious, while I'm here: For contra dances, the dominant calling style is to slowly stop calling the moves as the dancers pick up the pattern, popping back in if some confusion occurs, whereas square calling seems to run the length of the song, regardless, plus the whole singing call thing. The oldest forms of both had no calling - you had to know the dance beforehand. Anyone know if the two calling styles developed mostly independent of each other, or did they start similar and diverge?
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:23 PM on December 10, 2017


(musing, mostly for hades and straw) I keep thinking that a bunch of the stomp bands would be great dance bands for a bunch of the folk styles, especially mixers or polka or polka-with-cailie-in-the-middle. All I've seen not-solo-danced to it is Bulgarian-style folk line dance, which was great, but seems even more obscure.
posted by clew at 2:54 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


Was just linked to an explanation of Modern Western Square Dance calling by a computer scientist caller with a heroic pocket protector, demonstrated by the Tech Squares. Delightfully like Robo-Rally live (though no lasers). Some coverage of the history which... doesn't exactly line up with any of the other histories cited here.

But, weird, three quarters of the way through he explains that you have to have an absolutely even beat -- use the techno dance remix rather than the original pop songs, for instance. Eurgh. I know it's not necessary to have perfectly even music for the dancers to follow instant calls, because I know people who do improvised cailie sets to live music, Irish or other, with plenty of drag and lift in the rhythm. People are *really good* at feeling variety as phrases begin and end, it's delightful. Where did this come from? ... The next example has a singing caller who hasn't killed the tempo.
posted by clew at 12:54 AM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


vibratory manner of working: "...whereas square calling seems to run the length of the song..."

What makes Modern Western Square Dance different from pretty much every other form is that long about 1948, a caller named Herb Greggorson realized that you don't have to call the same figure over and over again. So since then, a "tip" has been broken up into two parts, a "patter call" and a "singing call".

The patter call is usually about 6 minutes long (older callers say "one and a half times through the record"), and used as kind of a teaching or puzzle solving section, do free-form figures to make sure that the floor can get through whatever sort of figures we're going to call in the singing call. The music here is open-ended, there's (usually) not a "the floor has to make the figure work out" urgency, and the caller will often wait for the slower square to catch up.

The singing call is 7 sections of 64 beats of ABBABBA, so 3:42 plus or minus a little on the intro and outro, where the "A"s put you back with your current partner, and the "B"s rotate you to another partner (usually your initial corner) but: nothing says that the "A"s or the "B"s have to be the same figure all the way through, and when I call they usually aren't. The singing call often has space in the figures for lyrics and uses a tune that sounds a lot like some popular song, but that 7 phrases of 64 beats means it's really only passingly acquainted with the song it's based on.

(And if I'm only calling for a few squares and one of them breaks down on a figure, I'll sometimes call a shorter figure or simplify a figure on the fly to get back on the 64 beat boundaries.)

At the more advanced levels, many dancers prefer to skip the singing calls and just do patter sequences, which turns this into a kind of collaborative grown-up Simon Says.

I suspect that the introduction of "patter" sequences is intertwined with the beginning of recorded music, that it's really hard to get additional value out of a band while calling patter sequences.

clew, can you give me some examples of "stomp bands"? When I put that phrase into Google I get mostly the "found items" show (which was awesome, but I want to know more).

Aaand, I've just gotta give you a little bit of crap for "...a computer scientist caller...". To a sofware developer, calling Guy L. Steele Jr. that is like... I dunno... calling Jimmy Carter a politician carpenter. I mean, it's a true statement, but...
posted by straw at 8:48 AM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


For contra dances, the dominant calling style is to slowly stop calling the moves as the dancers pick up the pattern, popping back in if some confusion occurs

At all the contra dances (and English country dances) I've been to, they call through the whole number. Then again, they've all been open dances with a mix of experienced dancers and n00bz.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:54 PM on December 11, 2017


I went to a contra dance retreat weekend once with multiple live bands, hours of dancing a day, and yes, they stopped calling and that's when the dancers really got a bit more raucous.

Man, that weekend was fun. I wonder if those still go on.
posted by hippybear at 9:04 PM on December 11, 2017


Yeah, all-night dances, weekends, or week-long vacation dance things are still a thing
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:18 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


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