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Square Dancing

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Square dancing is a type of folk dancing performed by four pairs of people -- called a square -- who dance together. Here's how it works:

The dancers start in what's called a "squared set" position, with each pair facing the center of the square and facing a different wall.

They then dance a number of steps, which sends all of them whirling and stepping around the square. At the end, they return to their "home" spots to do the next dance sequence.

Another way of describing square dancing is "fun set to music." At least, that's the slogan of one square dancing club. "Everyone needs more fun in their life," says club member Chuck Kuhman.

Since everyone likes to have fun, this activity attracts all kinds of people. "Square dancing is not just for squares," says Kuhman.

"We use all kinds of music, from pop, to Broadway show tunes, to country, to ballads and standards. You will encounter all kinds of people from all walks of life. You will use your mind as well as your body -- and both will get a workout."

The movements of the dancers are directed by a caller. The caller shouts or sings instructions to tell the dancers what movement to dance next. The instructions are basically the names of certain dance steps, like "allemande left," "dosido," and "half sashay."

"The caller combines the jobs of choreographer, cuer, showman and entertainer. Usually a modern caller does not have the square dance routine written out ahead of time. He or she makes it up on the fly as the dancers are dancing," says Robert French, a square dancing fan.

It's up to the caller to decide which steps the dancers should take. The caller can combine the movements to make up a brand new dance nearly every time.

"Once you get accustomed to the moves of modern square dancing, you really have fun with a caller who mixes things up a bit. It just makes things more exciting when you don't know what's coming next," says Texas square dancer Joelle Busby.

There are two main types of square dancing -- traditional and modern. Modern square dancing is the more common form. It is set to various types of music and the dances are unstructured. That means the callers make them up as they go along.

"Basically, the only place you see traditional square dancing anymore is in high-school gymnasiums. It's the stuff you take in gym class, but you won't find very many other groups still practising it," says Trent Zambon, a square dancer in Edmonton.

While keeping up with the routines might be a challenge, square dancers say you don't have to be a great dancer to become good at square dancing.

"Modern square dancing does not rely on the dancers to be able to dance to the phrase of the music, and does not require people to be able to dance in the ballroom sense," explains French. "There is no need to know which foot you're using. It's just a matter of knowing the moves and following the caller."

Square dancing is an activity open to people with different abilities.

"I know people who are blind or deaf who can dance. There are clubs for people in wheelchairs. The main thing you need is the ability to follow directions quickly and to work as a team with the other dancers," says French.

Some square dancers say this activity can improve your abilities in other areas besides dancing! "It definitely helped my confidence when I started dancing and succeeding at it," says Kuhman. "I began to feel capable, and that carried over into my studies and social contacts outside of square dancing."

Teamwork and cooperation are important skills for square dancers. Experienced square dancers say the ability to work well with a partner and in groups is what makes or breaks a square dancer.

"Teamwork is what it's all about. Even the best dancers will fail miserably if they don't work well together," says Busby.

Square dancers can be found just about everywhere. While the majority live in North America, people from other countries, particularly Europeans, have discovered how fun square dancing can be. Many travel to North America to take part in annual jamborees, which are like big conventions for square dancers.

Square dancing is pretty affordable. Most clubs charge a nominal ($10 to $30) yearly fee to help out with the rental of the dance space. Group lessons run between $60 and $90. After these expenses, you're all set.

Some clubs do require their members to wear special square dancing uniforms which can be quite expensive (about $150 for women and $100 for men), but most clubs are flexible about clothing these days.

People involved in square dancing for a long time often find work instructing newcomers or calling at dances.

Getting Started

You can't just show up at a hoedown and jump right into a modern square dance. That's because modern square dancing is made up of a relatively large number of moves. These moves must be learned in a class and practised at home.

"It's not possible to just jump into the middle of a square dance without some lessons. Fortunately, the lessons are usually as fun as the square dance itself," says Robert French.

Experienced square dancers recommend taking lessons for six months to a year. To find out about square dance lessons in your area, contact your local community center, college or library.

Before signing up for any classes, ask about dress codes and partners. Some clubs require you to come in full uniform -- that means dress pants, cowboy shirts and string ties for men and puffy skirts and blouses for women.

If you want to use square dancing classes as a chance to mingle, you might want to choose a club that doesn't require members to sign up in pairs.

"Steering clear of uniforms and pairs is a sure way to find a more relaxed square dance group. The relaxed ones are a lot more fun," says Trent Zambon.

For a quick introduction to this activity, find a club and ask when it is offering an "open house" (a free night to introduce people to dancing), says Kuhman. "Grab a friend and a pair of comfortable shoes and go. The best way to find out is to do it."

To make sure you'll enjoy your lessons, make sure you brush up on your steps between classes.

"Keeping on top of all the steps I learned in class was tough, so I found brushing up on the steps in between classes and doing some reading really helped," says Zambon.

For an online list of U.S. square dance associations, see this page:


Square Dance Clubs and Organizations -- United States


The Complete Book of Square Dancing,
by  Betty Casey
Square and Folk Dancing: A Complete Guide for Callers, Teachers and Students,
by  Hank Greene


Western Square Dancing
An index with lots of links for dancers

Square Dancing Resources
Lots of links

Western Square Dancing for Traditional Dancers
An intro to square dancing

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