Square dancing! It’s a conspiracy!

Why does American history have to suck so bad? Last night I saw this tweet, and it led to all kinds of horrifying crap.

You’ll have to look elsewhere to find out about quicksand porn*. The subject this tweet prefaces is…square dancing.

I do not have fond memories of square dancing. In my grade school years, whenever it rained (and this was Seattle, it rained all year long), our physical education classes would immediately devolve into a) dodge ball, or institutionalized, state-endorsed bullying of all the scrawny nerds, like myself, or b) square dancing. Square dancing was horrible and pointless. First, there was all the trauma of the boys and girls being separated and then told they had to pick a partner, which effectively meant both sides would stand paralyzed and motionless, doing nothing, until the instructor got fed up and started pairing us off arbitrarily. Then the horror began.

We had to go through these dance steps — “do-si-do”, “allemande left”, etc. — while listening to annoyingly bad music played on scratchy records. The thing was, no one listened to this kind of music outside of this class. It was the 70s. It was Elton John, Cher, Janis Joplin…jesus, at the school dances they would play “Smoke on the Water” and we were somehow supposed to dance to it. We didn’t do-si-do. We didn’t form lines. There was no choreography. Dancing was The Hustle, The Funky Chicken, The Bump, and the most coordination we engaged in was to know the motions for YMCA.

Square dancing was this alien, inorganic, antiquated assortment of sterile moves that had no part in our lives and never would. So why were all our schools united in foisting it off on us?

It was all Henry Ford’s fault.

Around 1928, Boards of Education all over the United States endorsed their square dancing program. Almost half the public schools in America began teaching square dancing and other old fashion dancing. Not only was this great exercise, but Ford and Lovett felt square dancing corrected the missing fun and teamwork that one-on-one dance lacked. Ford and Lovett felt that having square dancing in schools would help train children in manners, courtesy, and social training, a quality Henry Ford wanted to see excel in people.

It was state-mandated social engineering. Worse…it was social engineering by capitalists and industrialists. Under the influence of Captains of Industry, artifical organizations sprang up to convince state legislatures to declare that this was “American folk dancing”. Never mind that my “folk”, Scandinavian immigrants and other North European rascals, didn’t do much dancing, and what there was involved lots of alcohol (my father’s side) or Lawrence Welk (my mother’s side). It’s an incredibly fake attempt to invent a wholesome united American culture by a terrible, awful, no-good racist.

Yeah, that’s the dismaying bit. Sure, if this was a fake culture that was as authentic as Velveeta cheese, I could just roll my eyes and ignore it. But this is America! We have to imbed an uncomfortable amount of hate in everything. The reason Henry Ford was so keen to contrive a bland American folk tradition was that he hated jungle music and Jews.

Despite being progressive in paying blacks equal pay to whites, Ford sponsored country music events for his workers to keep them away from the supposed detrimental effects of ‘Negro’ music.

Why did Ford hate jazz music so much? Not only was he fearful of “urban, negro” entertainment, he also blamed the Jews for it. No doubt you’ve heard of Ford’s tome “The International Jew,” the anti-Semitic rants that sometimes get lost in history while we keep buying Mustangs. In Ford’s own words:

Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.

Monkey talk, jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks and gasps suggestive of calf love are camouflaged by a few feverish notes and admitted in homes where the thing itself, unaided by scanned music,” would be stamped out in horror. The fluttering music sheets disclose expressions taken directly from the cesspools of modern capitals, to be made the daily slang, the thoughtlessly hummed remarks of school boys and girls.

Oh god.

I have two bits of good news though.

  1. Obviously, Ford failed. We all grew up on the “abandoned sensuosness of sliding notes” and “jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks”, and we liked it. Urban rhythms rule. Square dancing drools.

  2. The alt-right are going to declare square dancing the official dance of neo-Nazism. We’re going to have another reason to point and laugh.

Of course, if you happen to enjoy square dancing as a hobby and form of exercise, that’s fine, go ahead. Just don’t pretend it’s authentic or especially American.

Except in the sense that it’s rooted in racism, like so many American traditions.

*No, don’t google it! Your search history will be forever poisoned with stuff you don’t want to know!


  1. says

    I was hostage to square dancing in the 60s, back when the quip, “This really is square” sometimes went over well. I remember actually choosing a partner at least once. Kay Simpson, who was tolerable, said, “Why me?” and I said, “You were the lesser of twelve evils.” Apart from feeling vaguely negative about it (since, after all, it was something they told us to do, and it was a physical activity that took place in the gym), it was almost neutral. Just another small indignity in the day. At least I got some decent melodies out of it. When I go to my weekly Irish session, I have a particular fondness for Miss MacLeod’s Reel, which got some other name, or maybe no name at all (or probably some generic description for the teacher), and every now and then I recognize another tune from back then.

    And maybe it set me up for folk dancing at CSU, which at least put me in proximity with females who didn’t seem to hate being near me, though I couldn’t generalize from there to real dances in actual social situations. Which reminds me, I ought to look up the Salty Dog Rag on this here internet.

  2. steve1 says

    I endured the square dancing in gym as well. I was perplexed why we did this as I did not view dancing as a sport or exercise for that matter. It was not a strenuous exercise in anyway.
    In 6th grade we had to perform for the parents so there’s that great memory.

  3. komarov says

    Despite being progressive in paying blacks equal pay to whites […]

    As little as he could get away with?

    Of course I might be undeservedly harsh and cynical about a wealthy capitalist but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

  4. remyporter says

    Oh, man, I remember circa… 1996/97, they broke out square dancing once in my high school. It was… weird. The coach obviously didn’t want to do it. I’m honestly not sure why it showed up in the curriculum just that once.

    In college, I did some English Country Dance with the SCA, that was a much better time.

  5. antigone10 says

    I quite enjoy square dancing. Or any dancing. But forcing people to do it sort of sucks the joy out of it.

    I feel like I would have been more okay with square dancing if we had done other dancing too – Jazz, line, party dances, two-steps- and if they just would have randomly assigned the partners.

  6. JP says

    Oh God, I remember doing this in PE in the 90s. I hope they aren’t still subjecting kids to it.

  7. says

    Actually a lot of European immigrants had their own dances, but they were also suppressed or otherwise lost.
    Snoa, Hambo, Telespringar, Pols for the Scandinavians.

  8. Helen Huntingdon says

    I remember hating square dancing in grade school and wondering why we were being tortured. It certainly wasn’t exercise.

    However, I loved Irish ceili dancing when I first learned it at the age of 13, largely because it was extremely brutal exercise (my teacher insisted on perfect form, no matter how long you’d been at it). You know that scene in the movie, “Miracle”, where the players have to skate until they’re falling down and puking? That’s what full-form Irish dance does to you when your teacher has kept you at it long enough in the name of teaching you endurance. It also makes for a hell of an endorphin high.

  9. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I recall square dancing in upper elementary school, in the small gym in the basement. I don’t remember hating it.

  10. cherbear says

    There’s a long history of French, Scottish, Irish and English folk dancing and music in my part of the woods. Jigs, reels, kitchen parties and step dancing are more authentically Nova Scotian, than square dancing. Of course Native American round dancing is the most authentic of all.

  11. analog2000 says

    My early 80’s Ohio elementary school always took two weeks out of the year and square danced in place of daily gym class. I remember being confused because it didn’t seem like exercise. And the coaches clearly knew it wasn’t exercise because we weren’t required to change clothes to do it (for regular gym class we had to change into shorts and T-shirts, then change back into normal school clothing). It actually kind of makes more sense to me if the idea was to teach us social skills or cooperation or something. I don’t think it actually did that, but at least there was supposed to be a goal.

  12. ospalh says

    I wonder, if one were to combine you father’s and mother’s tastes… Maybe a drunk Lawrence Welk would have played square dances?

  13. vucodlak says

    Eh, quicksand porn, like vore, I sort-of get. Not my bag, but I can see how it appeals. Insect sting/bite porn, on the other hand, baffles me.

    I didn’t mind dodge ball too much. I couldn’t throw worth a damn, but neither could anybody hit me. The matches usually ended with the jocks lined up on one side, throwing balls as hard as they could, and me on the other, taunting them, until the PE teacher called the game out of frustration. As a scrawny, nerdy kid, I enjoyed frustrating the more athletically-inclined people. Kickball was the other option most of the time, and I hated it almost as much as I hated baseball. Or flag football- *gag*

    There was definitely no dancing in PE; I’ve never even heard of such a thing, until now. Too many Southern Baptists in our area for anything like that. It’s a shame; I’d have much rather have danced that endured the tedium of kickball. In grade school, at least, I could fake dancing (sort of a waltzy-tangoish ‘style’ that I’d picked up from movies) well enough that girls occasionally asked me to dance with them.

    ‘Modern’ dance did not appeal to me, though. I got sent to the principal’s office in sixth grade for refusing to dance the Macarena* in music class. Talk about alien and inorganic. Besides, dancing is so much more fun with a partner.

    I think that gets to the heart of why I’d have preferred dancing in PE over kickball or dodgeball; dancing would have been a cooperative activity, rather than a competitive one. I have never really liked competition, and my every experience playing sports has only reinforced my dislike (it’s more an unadulterated loathing, at this point). Square dancing I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed, but something like ballroom dancing would have been nice.

    * I did give it a shot, but after a couple of minutes I’d had enough. I had my pride.

  14. says

    I think we did square dancing in both my Separate School Board(as the Catholic school board was called then) and Saskatoon Public School high school gym classes. I do remember in one grade school gym class we learned the Hustle.

  15. Tethys says

    I too remember social dance being used in elementary school PE during the bitter winter months. We learned square dancing (yuk), polka, some sort of group circle dances, and waltz. I remember it being more enjoyable than soccer or basketball, but hated being forced to partner the same stunted boys who bullied me on the playground, just because I was the only girl who was shorter than them. Making children pair up is clearly a universal problem. It didn’t matter who you picked as a partner, several of the circle dances had sections where you would end up switching partners several times.

  16. microraptor says

    I remember doing this in PE in elementary school. Didn’t like it, but I didn’t like anything in PE.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    For a while in the ’70s, I hung out with an Old Left crowd (the sort who not only knew the difference between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, but could name dozens on each side). Their preferred public entertainment was square dancing, on the grounds that it was so grassroots and all.

    I didn’t take part, but felt regular bemusement at the irony/contradiction that these professed revolutionaries gravitated so readily to such a regimented and hierarchical (do as the caller says, exactly! now!) recreation. Sure wish I’d had the information in the above links to fling in their faces.

  18. Randall Slonaker says

    @analog2000. I too was subjected to square dancing as a gym class student in Ohio during the 1980s. You aren’t from Akron by any chance, are you?
    I should have known Henry Ford was behind this! I learned of Ford’s antisemitism when in 1991, I found a library book about his Dearborn Independent newspaper, and his publishing the book, “The International Jew”. Ten years ago, I stumbled across this great book that mentions Ford’s hatred of the Jewish funded, “Negro/Jungle music” industry.
    The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk Paperback – April 1, 2008
    by Steven Lee Beeber (Author)
    4.5 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

  19. MHiggo says

    And here I was, thinking my elementary school PE teacher in central Nebraska was weird for forcing us to do square dancing in the early 1990s. This same teacher also spent two weeks each year teaching kids how to bowl.

    The square dancing stopped in junior high, but it was replaced by line dancing to “Achy Breaky Heart”….

  20. NYC atheist says

    @2 kip
    The other name for miss McLeod is “have you ever seen the devil, uncle Joe?”

  21. says

    I square danced several times a week as a teenager, and loved it. But the stumbling attempts to square dance to an awful scratchy record that they made you do in elementary school bear about as much resemblance to serious square dancing as a baking soda volcano science fair project does to a research lab. Good square dancing needs a live caller who knows his stuff, and becomes increasingly complicated and mathematical as you progress in levels. Dancing at the advanced level, I was always thinking so hard that I wouldn’t notice how much exercise I was getting. I still hate the music, and never have listened to it outside the dance floor. But it has the right sort of strong beat and tempo to work as a background for dancing.

    And I find it pretty typically American. We took something that originally came from elsewhere (English country dancing) adapted it to what was locally available (bluegrass music), and produced something that isn’t done anywhere else.

  22. whheydt says

    One wonders what Ford thought of Ragtime. He might have liked, as it would have been current when he was you. On the other hand. one can only imagine his reaction to Red Square Quadirlles…if he knew about them.

  23. Stardrake says

    komarov @4–Actually, worker pay was one of the few areas where old Henry could be considered somewhat progressive (if for capitalist reasons). He realized that paying his workers enough so that they could afford a Ford would help sell more Fords! So, in the pre-union days, Ford workers were quite well-paid compared to others.

    As for square dancing, I was no better or worse at it than anything else in gym class–I was bad at most all of it! At least in square dancing I wasn’t just a big target. (I was the fat kid before it was “popular”.)

  24. chigau (違う) says

    Ubi Dubium #26

    I square danced several times a week as a teenager, and loved it. But the stumbling attempts to square dance to an awful scratchy record that they made you do in elementary school bear about as much resemblance to serious square dancing as a baking soda volcano science fair project does to a research lab.

    Yes. Me, too.

  25. evodevo says

    Ah, yes…. we did that too … and hated it … but there was a reason – the same reasoning used at Methodist church youth meetings and camp – it’s not REAL DANCING (i.e. the sexy kind). We were allowed to do “folk dances” and square dancing, but NOT THAT OTHER STUFF lol …

  26. stormfield says

    Yes, the compulsory square dancing in middle school was horrible in every way. But in my case, I was invited to join a high school age group that competed in a national competition. I met my first real sweetheart. So happy memories. We still exchange holiday greetings 50 years later.

  27. cedrus says

    FWIW, I’m a serious square dancer. There are three fairly obvious groups. There’s the people who miss the “simpler times” of their mis-remembered childhoods and/or the 1950s, with all the thinly veiled prejudice that implies. There’s also the gays, who took to square dancing as a non-sexual excuse to gather and mingle with their people. And there’s the nerds, who also like structured socialization, but are into pushing the dancers to their mental limits, with the higher levels having hundreds of complex calls that can be modified on the fly. Clubs will dog-whistle pretty hard regarding what type they are. It makes for interesting conventions…

  28. says

    Square dancin’? Y’all ‘r a bunch a’ damn Yanks. Gimme’ a good ol’ fashion’ Texas Two-Step any day a’ th’ week.

    (More seriously, the only good thing I can say about square dancing is that it helped lead to the American folk music revival in the 40’s and 50’s, without which we wouldn’t have had Guthrie, Seeger, or White. Without Guthrie, no Cash and no Springsteen, (and no AJJ or RaTM). Without Seeger, no Bob Dylan.(Although no Seeger would be a bigger loss, sorry Bob.) Without White, no Elvis, Ray Charles, or Nat King Cole.)

    (Okay. I overstate the case a bit, but still.)

  29. bonzaikitten says

    “…the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes…”
    He may have hated it, but he sure made it sound sexy!