In 1923 America’s dance floors were headed for trouble. Ladies were just beginning to wear almost sensible clothing that allowed them to move and swing, jazz was emerging as a fast-paced and exciting music style, and the kids were snuggling close with a good fox trot or waltz and then dancing themselves silly with the Lindy Hop and the Charleston. The morals of a bygone era were fast crumbling away.
One man decided he was going to do something about it. The father of the auto industry and master of the assembly line, Henry Ford, figured if he could put together a car one piece at a time, then he could put wholesome American culture back together the same way, one dance step at a time. And so he set out on a crusade to bring back the good old-fashioned square dance.
American square dance has a muddy history, but it generally traces its roots back to the coordinated group dances of England in the early 1600s. Of course when settlers brought it with them to the new world, it took on a uniquely American flavor. A caller announced the moves, which were given French names (because that seemed likely to irritate the English) like “promenade,” “allemande,” and dos-à-dos” (which quickly became “do-si-do,” because that seemed likely to irritate the French).
As America became more urbanized, square dancing faded, but Ford saw the dance as a way to promote exercise as well as genteel manners. He hired a square dance caller by the name of Benjamin Lovett to teach square dance full time in Dearborn, Michigan and required his employees to engage in the activity. He also sponsored square dance programs in many public schools, on college campuses, and over the radio waves.
It worked. The dance started to catch on. Soon ladies and gentlemen were lined up in groups on the dance floor to bow to their partners and perform coordinated dance steps with very little touching and plenty of room for the Holy Spirit. The dance’s popularity continued through World War II and the following decade before it began once again to fade. But I think it’s going to surge again, led by an army of enthusiastic Missouri 4th graders.
My kids are officially out of school for the summer now, but these last few weeks leading up to the last day have been busy.
There’ve been awards ceremonies and book fairs and pizza parties and field days. And, yes, square dancing.
Last week, my fourth grader (now officially a 5th grader!) participated in Missouri Day at school. I don’t know if this is a state required thing or if it’s just something our school does, but the kids were taken through a series of activities to help them learn about all things Missouri. Because I am a
sucker who can’t say no dedicated parent, I volunteered to help.
It turns out the official state folk dance of Missouri is the square dance (as opposed to other kinds of American folk dances….go on, try to name one). In fact, twenty-four states have declared the square dance their state folk dance, and it would be twenty-five if Minnesota would just bite the bullet and make it official since it was proposed in both 1992 and 1994, but I suppose something this important shouldn’t be rushed.
So I went to the school to help the fourth graders learn to square dance. Of course I don’t believe I’ve ever square danced. I went to fourth grade in the state of Illinois (where the square dance is also the state folk dance) and no one seemed to care whether or not I learned this critical life skill.
Basically my job was to try to help two groups of eight kids interpret the instruction given by the elderly square dance caller. Allegedly.
What I really did was attempt to convince a bunch of ten-year-olds that they probably won’t die from touching another ten-year-old of the opposite sex, and failing that, how they might effectively swing their partner without actually coming into contact with him or her.
And I think once they figured it out, the kids had a pretty good time. Henry Ford would have been proud.