The State Folk Dance Conspiracy: Fabricating a National Folk Dance

Soco Gap Junior Square Dance Team dancing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina. [between 1938 and 1950] from Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-00460
Soco Gap Junior Square Dance Team dancing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina. [between 1938 and 1950] from Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-00460
Originally published in the Old-Time Herald, v.4(7) p.9-12, Spring 1995


Modern Western square dance clubs are coordinating across the U.S. to have square dancing declared the state folk dance of all fifty states. At the time of this writing, there are twenty-two states that have passed legislation designating square dance as the “state folk dance.” Many of these bills were passed after 1988, which was the last time that a bill was in the U.S. Congress to designate square dancing as the national folk dance. It appears that having failed on a national level, modern Western square dancers are trying to accomplish the same thing on a state by state basis. The sponsors of these bills are members of organizations that promote modern Western square dance, also known as club square dancing. Club square dancing is distinguished from traditional square dancing in many ways. Their clubs are structured into levels of dance. The “mainstream” level of club square dance requires dancers to be competent at 66 different square dance figures, requiring at least 60 hours of lessons. The “plus” level of club square dance involves the knowledge of approximately 100 calls; a level of complexity unequaled in any traditional folk dance. Club square dance uses recorded music rather than live music, often choosing popular music over any form of music that might have been originally associated with traditional square dancing. There is a minor industry associated with club square dancing including businesses that sell a variety of products and services: recordings, costumes, amplification equipment, certification of callers, and dance paraphernalia. The national square dance convention has been known to attract more than 20,000 participants.

By contrast, traditional square dances are usually open to any member of the community, with no membership or certification required. Since most traditional communities get by with no more than a few dozen calls in their repertoire, lessons are not required, although some dances may feature a short workshop before the dance or “walk throughs” during the dance itself. The dancers wear street clothes, not square dance costumes. Finally, true folk dances are always linked to a folk music tradition. Recorded music is a rarity at traditional dances.

Club square dancers have, in one sense, narrowly defined the term “square dance.” They seem to believe that only square dancing done in their clubs is the “real” square dance. But they also talk about square dance as any dance activity that happens in their clubs, and in doing so, use the term “square dance” in a broader sense. It’s no wonder that legislators who vote in favor of state dance legislation don’t know what it is they are supporting.

The most curious statement that club square dancers make to justify square dance as the state folk dance is that the term “square dancing” encompasses contra dancing, clogging, ballroom dancing, Texas two-step, country-western dancing, and various other American folk dances. This was a designation made unilaterally by national club square dance organizations, without consulting traditional square dancers or their organizations. While this appears to make modern Western square dance more inclusive (and perhaps helps their legislative goals), it also gives an inaccurate and confusing picture of what square dancing (traditional or modern) really is. Using the term “square dancing” in this way defines the kind of dancing that goes on in the square dance clubs. However, it defies logic to declare that because it happens in square dance clubs, contra dancing can be called square dancing. To have an organization sit around a table and redefine dance terminology to suit its own ends contradicts their claim to be a folk dance. Dance scholar LeeEllen Friedland wrote in a letter to the Washington Post on this issue, “Only the hobbyists who perform modern western square dancing use the term ‘square dancing’ in this manner. Every one else uses the term to refer only to dances performed in square formation.” It seems that the legislatures that have passed such laws declaring “square dancing” as the state folk dance are endorsing a lifestyle more than a clearly defined form of dance.

Club square dancing may be an entertaining and wholesome form of recreation, but its highly organized nature is the very antithesis of the concept of “folk.” It not my intention to say that traditional square dancing, as opposed to club square dancing, should be the state folk dance in any state in this country. In fact, I believe it is inappropriate for any cultural activity to be declared the “state” or “national folk dance.” This is not the place of government, and doing so may offend those who don’t practice square dancing, and do not feel that it represents them. It may also have a chilling effect on those cultural forms that were not chosen.

What happened in Maryland

Early in 1994, a bill, sponsored by State Senator Leo Green, was introduced in to the Maryland Assembly declaring square dance the state folk dance of Maryland. The bill described square dancing as representing the American melting pot by blending the Morris and Maypole dances of England, the ballroom dances of France, the Church dances of Spain, and the folk dances of countless other countries. The bill also invoked the symbols of family values, wholesomeness, and benefits to the handicapped and elderly, and used these to justify square dancing as representative of the state of Maryland. The only individual to testify against the bill at the hearings in Annapolis was Stan Fowler. Stan manages the dance program at the Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo, Maryland, which includes contras & squares, Cajun, zydeco, big band, and swing. Stan testified as a concerned citizen and dancer of the state of Maryland, and not as a representative of the National Park Service, which runs the park.

Stan’s testimony pointed out the importance of state symbols. Choosing the same state folk dance as nearly two dozen other states defeats the purpose of a state symbol to distinguish that state from others. There is nothing about club square dancing that represents Maryland. You can go to a mainstream modern Western square dance club in Maryland and then to one in Minnesota or Arizona and find little or no difference in their dancing. Stan also offered the exclusionary nature of club square dancing as another reason that the bill was inappropriate for the state of Maryland. He quoted an article in the Washington Post from February 6, 1987, in which a historian for a local modern Western square dance association said, “We kind of look down our nose at square dancing over at Glen Echo. It’s totally open to the public, and they don’t meet our criteria for being a member of the Washington Area Square Dance Cooperative Association.”

Most important, Stan Fowler’s testimony brought up the issue of cultural diversity. “Frankly, I do not see the need for Maryland to select a state dance. It would be hard to select a truly representative one because of the rich variety of dances done in Maryland and because of the diversity of Maryland’s population.”

A vote was taken immediately after the hearing at which Stan Fowler testified. The measure was defeated unanimously. The club square dancers, however, would not give up so easily. Within days, a letter was sent to Mr. Howard Rawlings, the chairman of the committee which held the March 29 hearing. Richard Peterson, of the Washington Area Square Dance Cooperative Association, implored the committee to reconsider its vote, and included a reference to the national square dance convention: “We had intended to bid for the national square dance convention again…this June. In 1984, we had the national in Baltimore and attracted over 25,000 square dancers. With the negative vote we received from the House Appropriations Committee, this makes our bid rather useless. The conventions have been going to other states that have passed the legislation.” On April 9, the committee voted again on the bill and it passed.

On May 27, Governor William Donald Schaeffer signed a bill designating square dance (as defined by modern Western square dancers) the state folk dance of Maryland. This was despite petitions, phone calls, and letters of opposition from dancers who participate in the dances sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, the Baltimore Folk Music Society, the Mid- Maryland Folk Arts Council, and the Annapolis Traditional Dance Society.

It appears that the politicians sold out to the economic benefit of a national square dance convention being held in Maryland. One can only wonder what is the value of a state symbol. For Maryland, it seems to be a convention that has yet to be actually scheduled in Maryland. Even if one is scheduled for Maryland, it will be a convention that is not likely to be scheduled more than once every twenty years. Club square dancers in every state are likely to use the same ploy on their legislatures.

What happened nationally?

Maryland’s experience with state folk dance legislation echoes the unsuccessful attempts to have club square dancing declared the national folk dance. In 1984 and 1988, the U.S. Congress considered such bills, both of which were defeated. Similar bills have been introduced before, and all have failed, except one that made square dance the national folk dance for a specific period of time, 1982-1983. During the Congressional committee hearings in both 1984 and 1988, some very interesting issues were addressed concerning the designation of a national dance. Here are some of the best remarks I found in the printed record.

In 1984, Ralph Rinzler, then the Assistant Secretary for Public Service at the Smithsonian Institution, said, “I as a folklorist find it difficult to comprehend, especially in a multicultural society like ours, how one could have a ‘national folk dance.'”

Joe Wilson, Executive Director, National Council for the Traditional Arts, testified in 1984 that “My organization sees no good reason for the Congress to make what in essence is a value judgment about the folk dances of the United States by selecting one as the national folk dance.” “There is this huge mythology that has grown up about it [modern Western square dance]. And some historians of the form have relied on fragmentary information and their imagination to create scenarios about it. But it goes back to the 1920’s at the earliest.”

LeeEllen Friedland, folklorist and dance historian, said in the 1988 hearings, “There are three major regional folk forms of the square dance: the Northeastern square dance, which is closest in form to the French quadrille; the Southeastern square dance, the oldest form of which appears to have been performed in a circle with small squares of four individuals dancing around the circumference; and, thirdly, the Western square dance, which evolved from an intermixture of the previous two forms.” She went on to say that “The modern Western square dance has been developed and standardized through recreational organizations…and not through the folk process to which all cultural traditions are subject.” “To modern Western square dancers, square dancing is any dancing sanctioned and enjoyed by their clubs. This is fine if you choose to join such a club for recreation, but it has nothing to do with the nature of folk dance in the United States.”

Bob Dalsemer, then Vice President, Country Dance & Song Society made the following remarks at the hearing in 1984: “…the legislation of it [modern Western square dance] as our national folk dancing, I think will lead to a lot of misunderstanding about the variety that exists both in square dancing and in all forms of traditional American dance.” “Frequently, when we are calling what we call a square dance, a traditional square dance, members of the modern Western square dance community will approach us, and tell us that what we are doing is not square dancing. That it is barn dancing, or it is country dancing, or it is something else. That they would prefer us to use another name.” “I think that it is not in the best interest to legislate a square dance, one that a majority of people do, that that is the right way…this legislation would have a chilling effect on traditional square dancing in this country and I think that it is unfortunate.”

Carol Robertson, then President, Society for Ethnomusicology said in 1984, “To single out a dance that represents even a very small fraction of British-origin immigrants would be insulting to every other cultural group in this country. The greatest repudiation would be to the only people that are not imports to this land, the Native Americans.”

No one objected to honoring square dancing; it was the designation of square dance (or any dance) as a national symbol in perpetuity that raised objections. The United States has designated only five national symbols in its entire existence: the flag, the Great Seal, the national anthem, the bald eagle, and the American rose. It was remarked during one of the Congressional hearings that passing the square dance bill might open the flood gates for more “national symbol” legislation, including a national sport, a national food, and a national who knows what else. The U.S. Congress takes its symbols more seriously than many state legislatures.

What’s wrong with it?

Club square dancers, having failed in their attempt to have square dance declared the national folk dance, are now attempting a state by state campaign to make square dance the national folk dance by default. They may try again to introduce a bill in Congress to have square dancing designated the national folk dance. If the majority of states have designated it as their state folk dance already, such a bill could be more successful in Congress than it has in the past. I believe that to have square dancing designated the state or national folk dance is a mistake. It may seem to be frivolous and inconsequential legislation, but I think there are hidden consequences that need to be brought to light.

First, I think it is wrong to use legislation to elevate one cultural form above all others. It is more important for our country’s social evolution that cultural diversity be honored and embraced. It is the nature of the modern Western square dance movement that diversity is something to be eliminated. Standardization of dancing and of dance instruction is an important goal of these organizations. Legislation of club square dancing as the state folk dance is a serious threat to traditional and regional variations of square dance.

Second, I am concerned about the educational aspect of this legislation. Most elementary and secondary school students must study their state’s history and government. One of the ways that the heritage of the state is taught is through the state symbols. By last count, in at least twenty-two states, one of the symbols misinforms students as to the nature of folk dance. Modern Western square dance is not a folk dance, and it is not the same thing as clogging, contra dancing, and ballroom dancing, despite the insistence of club square dancers. Given the limited time that the arts are given in schools these days, how much time will be left over to teach children genuine traditional and ethnic folk dances?

I don’t understand the motivation of club square dancers to impose their enthusiasm for square dancing so forcefully on their fellow citizens. Perhaps they see these laws as a way to promote their activities. However, this strategy overlooks the negative public relations generated from a tactic that says to the rest of the dance world “we are better than you.” While there were strong objections to the bill in Maryland, no other dance organization tried to have their folk dance receive the dubious honor of “state folk dance.” Real folk dancers do not need the approval of a legislative body. To prevent state folk dance laws from succeeding elsewhere, we need to communicate to our representatives the inappropriateness of such legislation.

Article sidebars:

Sidebar #1

The following are states that have passed laws designating square dance “the state dance,” “the state folk dance,” or “the state American folk dance.” The dates of the passage of the laws are given, if known.

(note: this list has not been updated since the article was written in 1995.)

Alabama (1993)
Arkansas (1991)
California (1993)
Colorado (1993)
Delaware (1994) temporary
Idaho (1989)
Illinois (1990)
Maryland (1994)
Massachussetts (1993)
Montana (1991)
New Jersey (1982)
North Carolina (1994)
Oklahoma (1988)
Oregon (1977)
South Carolina (1994)
Tennessee (1993)
Texas (1991)
Utah (1994)
Virginia (1993)
Washington (1979)
West Virginia

If your state isn’t listed, you should check with your state legislative representative’s office to see if a bill has been introduced. You can also contact the state folklorist or folklife council. Public libraries usually carry directories and other information related to state and local government, as well as information on cultural activities on a state and local level.

Sidebar #2


National Folk Dance. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Census and Population of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. House of Representatives, 98th Congress, Second Session on H.R. 1706, A Bill to Designate the Square Dance as the National Folk Dance of the United States. June 28, 1984.

Designate Square Dance as American Folk Dance. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Census and Population of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. House of Representatives, 100th Congress, Second Session on H.R. 2067, A Bill to Designate the Square Dance as the American Folk Dance of the United States. June 28, 1988.

Nevell, Richard. A Time to Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1977.

Engel, Matthew.  “Masters of the Dance — April 22, 2003

Sidebar #3

About the author

Julie Mangin has been dancing since 1980, and playing banjo since 1989. She used to publish The Daily Clog, a newsletter about old-time music and dance, and organize old-time music events at the Clog Palace, in the Washington DC suburbs. Ms. Mangin is a librarian by profession.

Thoughts on Square Dancing

I love square dancing, I love polkas, and I love those parts of my life where the government has no right to meddle. For years, the powers-that-be in the Modern Western Square Dance (MWSD) world have tried to have square dance declared the national folk dance. The two most recent attempts (1984 and 1988) went down in flames. So, instead of learning something from that experience, they have launched a state-by-state effort to do essentially the same thing.

Here’s the thing that bugs me about this idea: you can’t legislate a folk dance; it is the absolute antithesis of a folk dance to legislate, organize, or otherwise try to control it. Once you do, it isn’t “of the folk” any more. The folk process is an organic, natural grassroots process. Sure, organizational influences have had their effect on the dance, but that doesn’t change the essential nature of a folk dance.

Now the polka people have gotten into the act. In Pennsylvania, they are following up on square dancing’s failed attempt to legislate a state folk dance. Whoa, folks! It’s not about which dance is better. It’s about whether it is appropriate for legislatures to say anything about it at all. It’s not. Wouldn’t you rather your elected officials be working on more important issues such as the state of education or the reduction of crime?

The most common justification for these campaigns is the promotion of square dance. If square dance needs the government’s help to survive, wouldn’t it be better to let it die of natural causes? Think about it — the bald eagle is one of the few official symbols of the United States of America, and it almost became extinct. It would be better for the vitality of square dancing if organizers would make changes that would attract younger people to the dance, such as relaxing the costume requirements and the need for hours of lessons. People just want to dance. They don’t want to have to jump through so many hoops just to get there, and have to dress funny, to boot.