Square dancing in C# at Pinewoods.
Why I Call Squares
Calling at Pigtown Fling.
There are many reasons I call squares. Some are personal: I happen to love dancing squares and want to share my favorites with dancers. Some are sociological: squares impart a different social structure to the dance floor than contras do.
Let me start with a little historical background. If you went to a “square dance” fifty years ago, say, in a small town in New England, you probably would have danced some squares, some contras, and quite a few couple dances. You would have seen people of all ages there, from babies in baskets in a corner on up to grandparents or great-grandparents who sat on the side and watched. Dances were community social events. In the 1960’s, young people didn’t want to attend “square” dances because that term had negative connotations, so organizers started referring to the same events as “contra” dances. (Nicaragua wasn’t in the news back then.)
In the past few decades, more than the name has changed. What used to be a community-centered social activity has evolved into a partner-centered aerobic exercise. (This is especially true where contra dancing has migrated into urban areas; in many small towns, it remains a family and community based event.) Traditional contras, like Chorus Jig, Hull’s Victory, Rory O’More, and so on, are danced far les often and have been replaced by modern compositions by contemporary callers. This is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, in my opinion, but it has had some pronounced side effects. You see, the older dances generally have the active couples being active (and the inactives mostly inactive), they may or may not include partner swings, and each one has its own signature tune.
So what? Well, more “equal” dances, where the inactives are moving all the time, are much harder for kids and older folks to keep up in – especially for an entire evening. When we expect a partner swing in every dance, we may feel the need to have a “good” partner for every dance – thus making us less willing to dance with newcomers, and (unintentionally) creating a less welcoming atmosphere. And, since we no longer hear the same tune each time we do a particular dance, we may not be as good at listening to the music and dancing in time to it. I often include traditional contra dances in my programs because I feel it’s important to dance to the music. Also, I want kids and older folks to be able to dance. I think it is important for all of us to remember that contra dancing is, at heart, a community dance form. (If you want to do some couple dancing, go to a swing dance.) What does all of this have to do with squares? Some of the characteristics people may object to in traditional contras are the same things people object to in squares.
I used to feel that squares were boring. Yep; too much time spent standing around is only one of the common complaints about squares: the walkthroughs take too long (but see Tony Parkes’ commentary on that); in some squares, you hardly get to dance with your original partner at all; if one person in a square doesn’t get it, it ruins it for the rest of the set.
Actually, a well-chosen square takes no longer to walk through than a contra. The key is choosing the right dance. (Believe me, that’s critical with contra dances, too!) Personally, I really don’t mind standing around watching other people dance – we callers do it all the time, after all. If I’m crushed because I don’t get to dance much with my original partner, well, I might ask them to dance with me again later. Being in a square with someone who’s struggling to get it gives dancers an incentive to help that person – you’re all in it together. In a contra dance, if your neighbor is lost, thirty seconds from now he or she will be someone else’s problem. Squares strongly encourage cooperation. You have a vested interest in helping each other. From the caller’s perspective, looking at the long-term health of a dance series, that’s a good thing. But having said all that, I do, nonetheless, try to select squares which avoid those possible pitfalls: I call squares I can teach quickly, where most people are moving most of the time, where you get to swing a lot, where all the dancers on the floor stand a fair chance of “getting” the dance, and, more often than not, where you keep your partner. Because those are the squares I most enjoy dancing.
Time for a confession: when you get right down to it, none of the above discussion is really about why I call squares. Actually, I call squares because I find them inherently more interesting and exciting than contras. No kidding. I got converted the first time I went to the New England Folk Festival Association annual dance weekend (NEFFA). There I heard some of the great callers of our time calling squares – and wow, they were really cool dances! I couldn’t believe the elegant intricacy of the patterns. The simple, yet incredible variety possible in moving eight people around in a limited space. And the fact that the patterns kept changing! In a contra, I know what’s coming after the first walk-through. There will be no surprises. There are essentially no challenges. But in a square… not only is it different depending on whether the heads or sides (or a particular couple) are active, but the caller can also improvise an introduction, a middle break, and an ending. I love that!
So, I find squares more interesting to dance. I also find them more challenging to call. Not only do the dancers not know what is coming next – often neither do I. Yep, I’m making it up as I go along. Sweating buckets, too. When I started calling squares, I felt like a novice caller all over again. Sometimes I still do. Calling squares is an art. And the caller is much more integral to a square dance than to a contra. For example, if I call a contra badly the first two times through, the dancers will probably have forgotten that by the time the dance ends. But in a square, I only have four chances to get it right. Also, many dancers who claim not to like squares will admit to liking “the squares that [insert name of famous caller] calls.” Let me let you in on a secret: that famous caller is calling the same squares as everyone else; he or she just calls them a lot better. When Ted Sannella was hired to call for an evening and was told, “Our dancers don’t like squares,” he used to say, “Well, I’ll just try one square, and if they don’t like it, I won’t call any more.” And everywhere he went, miraculously, his squares were well-received. But because squares are more challenging to call, there are more callers out there calling them badly - or even just not quite as well as we call contras.
But the ones who call squares well…. What a treat! All the great callers of the past and present call (or called) both contras and squares: Ted Sannella, Tony Parkes, Bob Dalsemer, Sandy Bradley, Susan Kevra, Steve Zakon-Anderson, Ron Buchanan, Kathy Anderson, Gene Hubert, Lisa Greenleaf… I could go on and on. I can think of only one famous caller who calls only contras.
Don’t get me wrong. I love contra dances, too! Dancing the same pattern over and over can lead to a pleasant mindlessness, what some dancers refer to as a trance-like state. And, as soon as the caller stops calling (which never happens in a square) you can really listen to the music, stop thinking, and enjoy the moment. In a square, instead of being in a trance, I get a sense of heightened awareness, a need to be on my toes, ready for whatever the caller might throw at me. As a dancer, I most enjoy evenings that offer a variety of dance formations, so that I can experience both forms of dance euphoria.
So, over the last two or three years [note: this article was written in 1998] I’ve begun an attempt to show local dancers what I’m so excited about. It’s not always easy – my own lack of experience calling squares doesn’t show them in the best light. Some figures that show up in squares are new for contra dancers (e.g. square through, cross trail through), thus making experienced dancers feel awkward as they learn new things. The efficacy of the sound system is far more crucial for squares than for contras – if I’m making things up on the fly, dancers have to be able to hear me. And, of course, in the words of an introductory geology student, “change is scary.” But, as experienced contra dancers become more familiar with square dance figures, I can introduce more and more interesting, ultra-cool squares that I’ve gotten to dance (and call) in other communities. Maybe you’ll come to like them as much as I do.