Western Style Square Dancing is in trouble

I recently encountered a book which describes the rise of fall of Western Style squares in Springfield Massachusetts. In writing the book, the author is raising an alarm and warning people that square dancing is in trouble. After making his case, he spends the rest of the book describing a new type of square dancing that he believes can coexist with MWSD, and cater to those who find MWSD too complicated or for one reason or another have to drop out of lessons.

What impresses me most is that the book was written in 1966 and describes the situation from 1950 to 1965. The author saw the problem, came up with a solution, and took the time to write a book about it. With your knowledge of square dancing in your own area, and how it is doing today, read Ralph's analysis of the situation. You will find him amazingly prescient.

Does his analysis of his stutation in 1965 give us any insights or direction 40 years later?

What follows is an excerpt from "let's create 'Olde Tyme' Square Dancing" by Ralph Sweet. It is Copyright 1966 by Ralph Sweet and posted with his permission. Please do not make further copies of it.


A new style of square dancing was introduced into New England with the formation of the Greater Hartford Square Dance Club in Hartford, Conn., in 1950 by caller Al Brundage, and the Wilbraham, Mass., club shortly afterward by Al's brother Bob. "Western Style", as Al named it, grew rapidly until by 1963 there were some forty clubs each meeting twice monthly in the Springfield area, and about fifteen in the Hartford area. At its peak, some of the larger clubs were dancing as many as thirty-five squares at an average dance, with greater attendance for out-of-the-area guest callers, and many other clubs danced fifteen to twenty squares, regularly. Beginner classes were conducted each year by each club, and twice yearly by many. Class size ran up to fifteen squares in some cases.

However, in the fall of 1965 it suddenly became almost impossible to recruit enough new beginners to make it worth while holding a class, and attendance at club dances dropped alarmingly. Several clubs disbanded, many gave up their classes, and many combined with other clubs for teaching. The two largest, most successful clubs in the Springfield area could only round up nine couples for a class between them both. Attendance at all club dances was at an all-time low—one-fourth to one-third of what it had been the previous year. What was wrong?

To avoid analyzing the causes, many speculated that square dancing just naturally came and went "in cycles". But had there been some hidden defects in the success picture of 1963 that eventually caused the decline of 1965? Could the decline have been prevented, if the causes had been identified and corrected? Several possibilities are evident, such as, Why did "Western Style" grow so fast? Was this growth too fast for its own good? Did it change as it grew? Did it actually run out of prospects for new classes, or had it somehow become unattractive? Did the "drop-outs" have anything to do with it?


There was a definite need in the area which the Western Style filled. Nowhere else could a husband and wife go together for such an inexpensive evening of good, clean fun, mixed with challenge, excitement, and friendliness. This was a new and different kind of square dancing. The old traditional dances had acquired a poor reputation, not always deserved, but many thought of them as "free for alls for farmers" at which few knew or cared the proper way to execute the figures.

The new style seemed to eliminate all the bad points of the old dancing and encompass all the good ones—at least, it was advertised that way. Anyone could learn by attending classes. The rough element was kept out by organization on a club basis, for adult couples only. (Many clubs insisted that they be MARRIED adult couples). Friendliness was promoted by the wearing of name badges. A variety of figures and a challenge were offered that the old style never dreamed of having. It was not possible to memorize the figures, as they were continually being rearranged, using the same basics. With six lessons, one could become a fair dancer, and with twelve, an expert. Most who tried it were completely absorbed by it, many becoming as dedicated as the baseball fan who eats, sleeps, and drinks baseball, and can only converse on baseball. Many even found it difficult to sleep after an evening of their new, exciting hobby.

This all-consuming effect, within a few years, resulted in many couples starting clubs in their own home towns, and a few new callers entering the activity. In fact, by 1956, there were enough clubs in the Hartford-Springfield area to warrant the formation of an organization to "coordinate any large event or guest callers to prevent conflict in dates". At the first meeting in Wilbraham, seven clubs were represented, namely, Vernon (Conn.), Wilbraham, West Springfield, Hampden, Agawam, Sixteen Acres, and Chicopee. At the time, these clubs had callers Bob Brundage, Earl Johnston, and Willie Jenkins engaged for calling and teaching. Soon after, the Greater Hartford club (caller, Al Brundage), the Pioneer Valley Club of Westfield, and the Enfield Square Dance Club joined.

Up to this time, the growth of the activity had been distributed geographically. Within a few years, however, there were so many clubs that it became impossible to coordinate and the best the coordinators could do was to publish a monthly calendar of events, which is still doing its excellent job of publicizing dance dates and locations. This publicity is strictly limited to club-sponsored activities, however. Today, (1965) there are 65 clubs participating in the Springfield area calendar, with about 45 callers between them. A similar organization of about forty clubs also exists in the Hartford, Conn. area.


Growth increased more rapidly after 1956 for several reasons. Some new clubs were formed in new areas, as before, but many more were formed by splitting older clubs, and many by a flock of newly created callers anxious to take advantage of the great opportunities for success and profit.

Very few of the clubs split because of overcrowded conditions; rather, it was a result of bickering and discontent among members. How could this happen to an activity whose only purpose was supposedly fun?

A part of each club was bound to consist of some whose enthusiasm was greater than that of the rest. These would often dance three to five nights per week. Then they would return twice monthly to dance with their old home club, most of whose members only danced twice a month, or at most once weekly. The three- to five-night per week dancer became rapidly more proficient, and delighted in the constant challenge of new, fast material he heard from other callers both in and out of the area. Soon he became dissatisfied and impatient with what seemed to be the slow pokey pace of his own club and caller. He was convinced that if the rest of the membership were exposed to all the exciting, challenging material offered at the faster clubs, their enthusiasm would increase to where his was. This "top 10%" would therefore urge the home caller to call faster, more challenging material, whether the average member could keep up with it or not, or even enjoy it.

The "overactive 10%", because of their enthusiasm and obvious dancing ability, became in almost all cases the officers of the club. Their pressures for more challenge were therefore in an official capacity. Thus callers were constantly given strong incentives to keep up with the latest new material. Not only did they need to stay ahead of the competition, but they knew that their most faithful dancers, now their employers, would either fire them, or leave, in which case, without workers, the club would fall apart.

It was of course impossible to keep this top 10% challenged most of the time, and still keep the majority of the twice-per-month dancers still dancing during the same evening, especially when new classes were fed in. As a result, several callers were "fired" by their clubs, usually after a long, drawn-out bitter battle which resulted in a three-way split: one-third hiring a new, more progressive caller, one-third forming a new club with the old caller, and one-third dropping out of square dancing altogether in disgust. Then there would be two clubs in the same immediate area, each fighting for its share of the available dancers and prospects for classes.


The calling profession looked very attractive. A few outside callers earned as much as $135 [$814 in 2005 dollars] in a single night. Even some of the local callers, due to a percentage system, were able to earn over $50 [$300 in 2005 dollars] in one evening. A caller also obviously enjoyed his work. There were many asking "How do I get to become a caller?"

The callers who had introduced Western Style originally were all long-experienced in the traditional style, and were almost completely self-taught. Naturally, they had learned from the old-time area callers, and some from 4-H leaders, but usually not by attending classes formally. Their teaching ability had likewise developed over a period of years. But by popular demand, some of them now started running classes for prospective new callers, so that a person could learn to dance starting in say February, take a few calling lessons over the summer, and in September become a full-fledged caller-teacher, ready and eager to either start a new club or take over some existing club at a fee of $25 and up per night. One or two of these products even ran classes for callers themselves within a couple of years! The result was needless to say, not always in the best interests of square dancing, but produced rapid proliferation of new classes and clubs in areas already saturated with both.

The area was soon inundated by hordes of new dancers who were inadequately prepared for the type of dancing that was expected of them, due to the inexperience of their teachers. there was much jealousy between clubs. As time later showed, there were simply more clubs and classes than there were people available to fill them.


At its peak, was Western Style the same style that had been introduced in 1950? Not by a long shot! In 1963, it was faster, more exciting and challenging than ever.

In 1950, knowledge of 15-20 basic calls—depending on how you define "basic"—made an expert, and twelve lessons were plenty. However, to keep the challenge—which was one of the reasons for the enthusiasm—new basics were continually being introduced, beginning with "Cross Trail Thru" around 1950, through "Bucket of Worms" in 1963 and "Roll the Hoop" in 1965. Though many of the figures were easy to learn and fun, more were awkward, hard to explain and remember. But the worst part was that they were not merely tried for one or two evenings as a fun gimmick—they were expected to become a permanent part of the dancers' repertoire. This of course made dancing more interesting and challenging, but soon made it necessary to have more than the old twelve lessons to be able co dance along with the experienced dancers. Course requirements went to fourteen, then later to twenty-one lessons (about 1961) and since 1963, it has been common knowledge that though you can get a diploma in twenty-one weeks, you can not dance comfortably without an additional advanced course of about twelve weeks, or the equivalent experience, which takes at least three months, dancing several nights per week. One of the old twelve-lesson experts, were he to appear today, would not be able to dance through even one complete number without being stopped cold by several new "basics".

The blame for this should be equally shared by both callers and dancers. Many of the area callers, and even more the guest callers, to furnish challenge, relied not on variations of the old figures, but the constant invention of new basics. This did result for a time in these callers becoming the top area callers, and many dancers quit their old home clubs to join these callers' clubs. Unfortunately, even more dancers attempted to force their home clubs and callers to "shape up".


What's happened to all our new graduates? This cry was heard more and more—or should have been—as time went on. Even at the peak, this problem was very much in existence, but new dancers were being turned out at a large enough rate that attendance at club dances was increasing, and so the basic question was ignored. But here, many believe, lies the answer to the problems of 1965. Let's look at the figures on drop-outs from classes and clubs during the peak years. Most area callers agree that the figures given are typical—same of them are from actual surveys.

It was a poor club in those good years that could not round up six squares for a class, with many teaching seven at a time, and a few up to fifteen squares. However, though they all attended their own graduation party, held in conjunction with a club dance, two weeks later, at the next club dance, it was a safe bet that at least half of them would not return. The final figure, after several club dances, was about 25%, participation by the new class. Why would anyone attend lessons faithfully for twenty-one weeks, and then suddenly drop out? Part of it of course was that after pushing themselves to attend regularly for twenty-one straight weeks, they received a diploma which said that they knew how to square dance, and they thought they could "come when they want to". On the other hand, many had their enthusiasm dampened right at their own graduation party.

These graduation parties were supposedly of, by, and for the new graduate, to climax twenty-one weeks of work with an evening of fun which would induce him to want to come to the club dances. These parties were often a shock to the new dancer even when the program was planned for him alone, and even if the club members really put themselves out to make him feel welcome.

During the lessons, most numbers would be "walked through" before dancing. Music was often played at a reduced tempo. Few singing calls were done, as there was barely enough time to work in the required basics, without taking time out for fun. Now for the first time the novice was confronted with a whole evening without a walk-through, everything was danced "full speed ahead" (even material taught only the previous week) and every other number was a singing call, where the caller can not possible wait for any slow squares. These things alone presented quite a challenge to the graduate.

However, if the caller catered solely to the new graduate—even on graduation night—he was almost certain to be exposed to comments from the club members such as "Is THIS all we're going to do all night?" or "Oh No! Not THIS again!". these comments were devastating even when not actually directed to the new graduate. Club members often expected too much from the new dancer. He was often frowned at or even insulted because a square fouled up. The caller was often under pressure to call at least one number "just for the experienced dancers" if not to challenge them all evening—when the new dancers were being challenged to their limit and beyond merely by doing what they were supposed to know, at full speed.

Those graduates who took a week or two off, and then returned to the club, were even worse off. Not only had several new basics been taught at the dances he had missed, (to bring the new dancers up to "club level") but he had forgotten a few of the latest basics, which had been taught at the last three lessons—which now seemed co be called all evening. He was even a trifle slow on "Square Through", and "Wheel and Deal", and if he was even a microsecond late on an "Allemande Left", he was usually insulted.

Those who survived this weeding-out process might stick it out for perhaps three years. In most cases, anyone who had to stop for a "legitimate" reason such as illness or babies, had a rough time catching up again. His reaction time had slowed, but the dancing had gotten faster, and new basics had been added. Few who did stop were thus able to return without a refresher course, and therefore, only the most enthusiastic did return. After a four-year period, only about 10% of the original dancers from any given graduating class were still dancing..

Now all drop-outs can not honestly be blamed on Western square dancing. Even the traditional dances had their drop-outs. Square dancing is almost unique among recreations in that both husband and wife must attend. This creates baby-sitting problems which other sports like bowling, hunting, or golf do not have. Further, both partners must enjoy it, and be good mixers. they must be able to smile when anyone makes a mistake, either others or themselves. Many are forced into the lessons by their partners, or because it seems to be the thing to do in their neighborhood. About half of these really learn to like it, but there are many instances of husband or wife scowling their way through a whole course of lessons, which they attend just to satisfy their partner who loves it. There are also the perfectionists—even among beginners—or the ones with a persecution complex who think that each time the set goofs, it is their own fault. Their whole evening is usually spoiled after the first square. There are thus really many qualifications that a couple must have to succeed at square dancing.

Again, those who are very active in a lodge, church work, local politics, etc., though they may love square dancing, can not be expected to become three night per week enthusiasts. If their other activities only allow them two nights per month to square dance at their own home club, they will not be able to long continue at Western style.

We can not therefore say that all drop-outs are due to the faults in Western Style square dancing. However, they certainly contribute in a large way to the problem, and probably something over half the drop-outs can be ascribed to these faults.


The Springfield Area Coordinators estimated 10,000 dancers in their area in the fall of 1965. This is based on club membership. A more realistic figure would be the number of people actually dancing regularly in the area, which by multiplying the number of clubs by the average attendance, comes out to perhaps 4,000 people. A conservative estimate of the number who have been through classes during the past ten years would be at least 30,000 people. This represents quite a dent in the eligible population—that is, married couples where the husband works days. What are the estimated 24,000 drop-outs doing for—or against—square dancing today? There are at least six of these drop-outs to every active dancer. Many are convinced that this is the key to the problem.

It has never been possible to get anyone to take a square dance class in the New England area by normal advertising methods. It was too "hicky" or too "violent". New recruits had to be coaxed, badgered, and practically coerced into coming that first night, some pleading "sick" all the way to the hall. Once there, they usually loved it. However today, each prospect has about six acquaintances telling him that Western square dancing is a "rat race" — "You have to go twice a week just to stay in shape"—to every dancer friend who is trying to recruit him. In ten to fifteen years, most of the eligible dancers have already been through the sifter and dropped, only to discourage others from trying it. None of these have turned to the traditional dancing of the area, as their minds were poisoned against it from the first. They had been taught that the only real fun comes from the constant challenge of new basics done at an ever faster rate. They could not therefore be happy dancing old familiar numbers, and if they couldn't keep up with the challenge by dancing at least once per week, they were soon gone from any form of square dancing for good. Several valiant attempts have been made to get back these drop-outs with Old Timers Nights, refresher courses, etc., but they have failed.

What can the Western Style callers do to keep their style of dancing going in its present form? Most callers now asking that question do not really mean the words "present form". What they really mean is "starting with the present form, how can we keep large numbers of people and at the same time continue to add new basics at the rate of two or three per month, and keep increasing the speed and complexity of our figures?" Numerous comments are heard, such as "That which does not progress, dies", and "We've got to keep improving square dancing—the dancers will decide which basics they like or don't like".

The only way Western Style could "progress", is already known: that is, yearly increase the number of required lessons and at the same time delve into new and ever-larger population areas, since many must be "sifted" through the program for each one that stays with it. In an area where they have thus run out of available population, that is, most eligibles have already been sifted, and the "rejects" are actively discouraging new prospects, it will probably be impossible to long maintain the present level of complexity, for any but a few small, select groups. Even maintaining the present level requires large classes and sorting out the best of them, similar to the farm-team system in baseball. For two years in the Springfield area, the drop-out rate has been greater than the replacement rate. It is extremely doubtful that there is any way that Western Style can continue to exist over any great length of time in ANY area, so long as it keeps increasing indefinitely in speed and complexity.

Is there a solution? The next section examines the traditional dancing in an attempt to find one.

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