Traditional dancing in Appalachia includes several types: step dancing, set dancing, and couple dancing. Step dance traditions include clogging, buckdancing, flatfooting, and the Charleston. Set dances, involving two or more couples, include four couple squares, big set (ring) dances, reels, country (contra) dances, and play parties. Couple dancing, often referred to as “round dancing,” includes the two-step and waltz.
Square dancing, one of the oldest forms of American folk dancing, evolved from several different Old World group dances, mainly the English country, or contra, dance and the French quadrille.
In the American version of square dancing, four couples form a square and dance to music from an accordion, banjo, fiddle, and guitar.
An old-fashioned Southern “square”, sometimes called “running set”– English musicologist Cecil Sharp coined the term while describing dancing in eastern Kentucky in 1916–, can accomodate as few as four or as many couples as want to crowd in. The formation is really a big circle with any number of couples. (There are, of course, a body of Southern squares that are done in 4-couple sets.) Most commonly, a Southern “running set” type of square dance is structured in two parts: First the major circle and then the minor circle. With all hands joined in one big circle around the hall, one or more introductory big circle figures are danced.
The big circle then breaks up and each couple joins with an adjacent couple to dance some little circle figures. The movements are not so much geometrical figures but little pantomimes: “Birdie in the cage and three hands around” (a girl steps into the center, the other three circle around her); “Around that couple and take a peek” (the active couple tries to look at each other behind the backs of of the inactives, who try to hinder them); “Chase a rabbit, chase a squirrel, chase a pretty girl around the world” (the man pursues his partner around the other couple); to name just a few.
The little circles can be spaced in a major circle around the hall, as in a Sicilian circle; or they can be scattered all over the dance floor. The couples move on to join a new couple and repeat the little figures; progression may occur several times. To conclude, all rejoin in a large circle and dance a finishing big circle figure. An American addition to square dancing is the caller.
Ladies do and the gents you know,
It’s right by right by wrong you go,
And you can’t go to heaven while you carry on so,
And it’s home little gal and do-si-do,
And it may be the last time, I don’t know,
And oh by gosh and oh by Joe.
—(Ernest Legg, WV)
Ernest Legg’s calls were featured on a number of 78s recorded by the Kessinger Brothers in 1928.
The caller–someone who calls out the dance steps in time to the music–was a completely American invention. At first dancers memorized all the steps for a particular dance, but eventually the dances became so complicated that it was necessary to have someone yell out cues so that dancers didn’t have to remember so many steps. The caller didn’t just call out “do-se-do your partner”; a good caller also came up with colorful sayings or witty lines that he would say in between the cues such as “Don’t be bashful and don’t be afraid. Swing on the corner in a waltz promenade.” A caller might also come up with new dance steps and routines.
Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennesse and Virginia have all seen fit to make the square dance their ‘folk dance’ State Symbol. North Carolinians prefer clog dancing receive that designation, and West Virginians and Kentuckians haven’t included any sort of dance as a state symbol.
sources: “Pretty Gal!,” Forbes Parkhill, Parkhill, Saturday Evening Post, Aug 02, 1941; Vol. 214, No. 5, p. 18-22
Marguerite Butler Bidstrup, “Kentucky Set Running – 1914 firsthand account,” Square Dance History Project