Traditional -vs- Western Square Dancing

Traditional and Western Square Dancing
There are two major types of square dancing, Traditional and Western.  They are related, but they are very different from each other.

Traditional Square Dancing 

Traditional Square Dancing  uses traditional dances which have been passed down from the 1700-1800’s.  The dancers are led by a caller who calls out the moves.  Often, the dances are walked through first and then danced.  Most traditional square dances follow the same basic “visiting couple pattern.  The first couple leads out to the second couple and does a series of movements with them.  The first couple then proceeds on to the third and fourth couple and does the same series of movements with them.  Then the second couple leads out to couple number three and does the same series of movements with them, and so on.  All four couples get their turn.  Usually, a new dancer will be put in position number four, so that he can watch the other three couples do their thing first.  By the time it is his turn, he has already seen the sequence three times.

Traditional square dancing uses only a limited number of fairly simple calls, roughly equivalent to the first 25 calls taught in Western Square Dancing.  Examples are allemande left, right & left grand, dosido, star right/left, star promenade, pass thru, u-turn back, box the gnat, ladies chain, and right & left thru.  The dances tend to be relatively simple and repetitive.  Often dances are danced to a certain tune, and that tune is associated with its respective dance.  Traditional square dancing was made popular in the 1920’s-1950s by Henry Ford and Lloyd Shaw.  It started to decline in popularity after the popularization of Western Square Dancing in the 1950’s-1970’s.

Traditional square dancing usually is done in the same clubs where contra dancing, English country dancing, and other traditional dances are done.  Contra dancing is very similar to square dancing, the difference being that contra dancing is done in lines (traditionally with boys in one line and girls in the other, although this is not the rule today), where as square dancing is done in squares.  Traditional square dancing clubs still exist, but not in the same numbers they used to.  At one time, every community would have a square dance once a week, where everyone would participate.  The beauty of traditional square dancing is that little or no training is required for a person to participate.

Western Square Dancing

Western Square Dancing was developed from traditional square dancing.  It became popular between 1950 and 1980 and remains relatively popular today, although there has been a significant decline in the number of clubs and dancers.  Western Square Dancing uses 99 movements which the dancers are required to know in order to participate in the dance.  A caller calls the movements, and dancers execute them.  One of the major differences between Traditional and Western Square Dancing is that in Western, calls are more randomized.  There is not a certain set of movements which goes with a certain song.  The caller is expected to be creative and come up with innovative arrangements of movements, using the standard 99 movements which the dancers have learned.

Western Square Dancing is done at two major levels, Mainstream and Plus.  In order for a dancer to become involved in Western Square Dancing, they are required to complete a class which usually lasts about 8 months and meets once a week.  During the class, they will learn the Mainstream and Plus movements of square dancing.  Mainstream includes very basic moves such as the ones used in Traditional Dancing, as well as some more involved movements, such as Spin the Top, Swing Thru, and Ferris Wheel.  There are a total of 68 Mainstream movements.  Once these are learned a dancer can participate in a Mainstream Dance.

Beyond Mainstream, there are 31 Plus movements, most of which are a combination of Mainstream movements.  Examples would be: Load the Boat, Coordinate, and Relay the Deucey.  Once a dancer learns these movements, they can participate in any Plus level square dance, which comprises the vast majority of dances which are held.

There are higher levels of square dancing beyond Plus (namely Advanced and Challenge) but there are not a large number of clubs that dance at these levels.

The attraction of Western Square Dancing is that the dances do not need to be walked through, since all attending already know the movements.  Further, the dances can include more interesting and variated figures than Traditional dancing can, since there are more movements to choose from.

Traditional Dances (generally, these are dances commonly danced before 1954) 

Grand March

My Little Girl

Jessie Polka

Red River Valley

Grapevine Twist

Hot Time in the Old Town tonight

Head Gents Cross Over

Old Solomon Levi

Virginia Reel

Texas Star

Duck for the Oyster

Take a Peek

Pattycake Polka (Mixer)

Dip & Dive (Red Wing) (difficult)

Venus & Mars (difficult)

Just Because (with ladies chain)

Marching thru Georgia (Promenade in single file)

Trail of the lonesome pine (difficult)

Oh Johnny!

Birdy in the cage

Hurry, Hurry, Hurry

Oh Susannah!

Say Howdy!

Red Wing (Dip & Dive)

Boomps a Daisy

Jolly is the miller


Spanish Caveliero

Courtesy of: David Smith

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