When I was a teenager, my friends and I enjoyed country dancing at Hummel’s Snack Bar and Dance Hall (now C.J. Hummel’s Restaurant, Bar and Gathering Place) in Lenhartsville. My friends and I always had to find a ride to get to the dances, but my classmate, Doris (Baver) Schlenker, told me, “I used to go to Hummel’s hoedowns. My cousin, MaryAnn (Merkel) Geist’s, Mom, my Aunt Grace, would pile neighbor kids in her car and take us there. She’d even stay the whole night. We’d sit on benches, surrounding the dance floor, waiting for guys to ask us to dance or hoedown.”
Another classmate recalled, “The day my boyfriend got his driver’s license, he took me home from Hummel’s.” The two lovebirds ended up getting married, soon after our 1958 graduation from Kutztown High School.
It’s been difficult tracing the roots of these dances, because there are a variety of elements of them in some countries. Mainly, they were found to go back to our English and French forebears.
Our modern square dance has its roots in England’s 17th century Morris dance. This English folk dance involved music and rhythmic steps performed by a group of trained dancers. These dances were usually held in the ballrooms of wealthy land owners. By the 1860s, peasants, in both England and Scotland, in order to copy the ballroom dances of the wealthy, started their own barn dancing. It was a time for family and friends to socialize and celebrate important events, such as holidays or weddings. This dance still continues in villages and towns, each adapting their own style. In 1934, the Morris Ring was founded. By the 1950s and 1960s, there were more and more dance teams of men, women and mixed sides.
Today, a modern barn dance refers to line, square, or round dancing.
From France we have the Contredance Fraancaes, later called Cotillion (French term for petticoat), a social dance where four couples dance in a square formation, using changes such as allemande and promenade, while exchanging partners in the square itself. Many of our dance terms, such as dos-a-dos (back to back) come from France.
France also introduced the Quadrille (originally referring to a card game) around 1760. At first it consisted of only two couples, but later two more couples were added. Though this was similar to the Cotillian, the couples took turns dancing in the square, while the other couples rested.
The term Quadrille comes from 17th century military parades where four mounted horsemen carried out square formations. The word itself derives from the Italian quadra, a small square.
Many of these traditional dances came to America with the European settlers. The dances also moved west with the pioneers, especially those from the southern Appalachian area. The term “hoedown” is said to have come from a small town in Nevada, in the 1880s. A group wished to have another name other than the rowdy barn dance, so people would feel safe in attending. Thus, they came up with “hoedown,” because hoes, turned down, were safe. Today, the term is usually a dance sponsored by a dance club in a suitable building.
Since not everyone could memorize steps to these complicated dances, communities formed the position of a caller or cuer. They serve slightly different functions, depending on the dance type, but mainly they have to know the calls and cues for a dance.
Calling or cueing the modern Western square dance required talent, skills and listening. In 1974, an organization. CALLERLAB, the International Association of Square Dance Callers, held its first convention, which continues to this day. Their goals are to establish standardized calls and provide adequate training for callers.
Henry Ford is best known as a developer of the auto and production line, but in his youth, he had a passion for the old time country dances. While vacationing at the Wayside Inn, Massachusetts, Ford was entertained by a dance program, consisting of square and round dances and other types, conducted by dance master Benjamin Lovett.
Later, Ford tried to hire Lovett, who declined on the grounds of his contract with the inn. That didn’t stop multi-millionaire Ford; he simply bought the inn and had the Lovett’s move to Detroit with him. Once there, Ford established schools for teaching square and round dancing, of which Lovett was the instructor. He built a dance hall, Lovett Hall, in Greenfield Village, which is still in use.
Together, Ford and Lovett, in 1926, published “Good Morning” with detailed steps of the Quadrille (later called square dance), and other old time round dances.
Another contributor to keeping square dancing alive was Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw, a school superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His passion was the American folk dance of the West. After much research and interviewing, in 1939, he published “Cowboy Dances.” He also formed a group of teenagers, The Cheyenne Mountain Dancers, in 1937, taking them throughout the U.S. for exhibitions, and teaching classes.
In the 60s and 70s, the newer generation became more fascinated with the dance styles of the twist, swing and disco.
However, square dancing is still enjoyed around the world, but is mainly associated with the U.S. According to Cindy Ross, a contributor to Pennsylvania Magazine, “Pennsylvania has 65 to 70 square dancing clubs. The area with the most clubs is the Susquehanna Valley region. Nineteen states have designated the square dance as their official state dance.”
Locally, we have the well-known Lester Miller (caller) Family Dancers, with four generations of dancers, who perform at the Kutztown Folk Festival some 50 years now. Check them out at next year’s Kutztown Folk Festival.
Lovers of the dance know, like John Dryden said, “Dancing is the poetry of the foot.”
Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to everyday stories.