Square Pegs


BRANDON—Your parents did it. Your grandparents did it. George and Martha Washington did it. Even King Louis and Marie Antoinette did it, though maybe not so much with each other.

We’re talking about dancing, of course!

Dancing has been around in some form or another since mankind can recall. Most likely the first rendition was the Hot Coal Boogie, performed by a barefoot caveman. Dancing has known many forms and variations since then.

Frequently flaunted as a status symbol, dancing was often the domain of the wealthy or powerful, from European nobility to tribal leaders. The expanding colonization of the 18th and 19th centuries began to change that.

On the continent of North America, French, English, African, Celtic, Spanish, and Native American cultures collided. Each culture contributed to and adopted from the other cultures. Their dance traditions reflected this. Over time, many other cultures also contributed.

The hardy colonists occasionally put down their hoes and gathered to socialize, usually at the biggest barn or structure available. They serenaded the cows, pigs, and chickens with fiddles, washtubs, harmonicas, or anything that would make a joyful noise. 

Drawing from existing dances, such as quadrilles or cotillions, they adapted the dance movements to their own styles, eventually synchronizing the movements as specific calls. Square dancing, contra dancing and the American hoedown were born. The colonists had taken dancing from the realm of elite status symbol and shared it with the populace, a legacy worthy of preservation.

On March 8 at 6:30 p.m. at Brandon Town Hall, Peter Tobin and the Cast Off 8s, will share their joy of square dancing with the public, who will have a chance to participate in this American tradition. Peter is the caller for the group, and he’s agreed to provide some info on the specific genre of square dancing.

PETER TOBIN, CALLER for the Cast Off 8s square-dancing troupe, with Bennett Eddy. The Cast Off 8s will be performing at the Brandon Town Hall on March 8 at 6:30 p.m.

Amy Quenneville (A.Q.): Most of us who grew up in the area remember the Horseshoe, Old Lantern, and those venues where each song had a routine that never varied. How is Western Style square dance different?

Peter: Those were barn dances. They usually had live music. For a specific song, the routine was almost always the same. A routine or several routines, could be taught in one night. After a few go-rounds the caller was not even needed, as the dancers knew what to do. In modern western square dancing, the music is pre-recorded. The dance patterns change at the whim of the caller. The dancers need to know the different steps, or calls, and to perform them in the order given by the caller. A skillful caller varies the order and complexity of the calls to keep the dancers moving smoothly to the beat of the music.

A.Q.: Are there any specific skills required to be a square dancer?

Peter: Few skills are required to become a square dancer. A sense of rhythm is helpful, as is knowing left from right. One should also enjoy socializing with friends in a smoke-free, alcohol-free setting.

A.Q.: You are an accredited caller. Calling is more complicated than it looks. What exactly is the role of caller in a square dance?

Peter: The caller’s job is to deliver the calls to the dancers so they can enjoy dancing smoothly, to the beat of the music. He/she must keep the calls complex enough to be interesting without breaking down squares. He/she should be to get each dancer back to their partner and to their home position regularly.

A.Q.: What type of training is required to become a caller?

Peter: Most common is attending callers’ school, where caller coaches teach all aspects of calling. I have attended one school in New England five times, learning new things each time.

A.Q.: When people think of square dancing, they often recall the “yodeling cowboys” of earlier years. Can you tell us about the music used in modern square dancing? 

Peter: Today, we use all types of music. I have jazz, big band, Texas Swing, Carolina Beach, classic rock, country and western, classical, rap, pop, etc. Songs should be in 2/4 or 4/4 time and have a recognizable beat between 120 and 130 beats per minute. Otherwise, almost anything goes.

A.Q.: How does your teaching program work? Are there beginner and advanced dancers in the group?

Peter: Workshops usually start in September, once a week until late spring or so. Experienced dancers help by dancing with the new folks during the learning process. By the end of these workshops, most dancers will know all the Basic and Mainstream calls and could dance anywhere.

A.Q.: Many members of the Cast Off 8s are planning a trip to Portland, Maine to attend the NE Square and Round Dance Convention in April. But square dancing often has regional styles or traditions. Can square dancers dance universally? Can dancers find opportunities to dance while traveling?

Peter: Modern western square dancing is the same all over the world. The calls are always in English, though the songs might be in other languages. The steps are universal. Though there might be some minor regional differences, you can square dance comfortably most anywhere.

A.Q.: When and how did you first get involved in square dancing? 

PeterMy parents began square dancing in the early 1960s and used to drag me and my brother to dances all over Vermont. In our teens, we learned to dance ourselves. My wife’s parents also danced when she was young. After we were married, we danced for a couple of years but stopped when our children were young. We started again after our girls were grown and have been dancing ever since. Now our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson are dancing as well.

A.Q.: Thank you, Peter, for your contribution to the legacy of American square dance.

Jacob Bloom, Dancing Master, attributes the following quote to a French visitor in Philadelphia around 1795:

 “Dancing, for the inhabitants of the United States, is less a matter of self-display than it is of true enjoyment. At the same dance you will see a grandfather, his son and his grandson, but more often still the grandmother, her daughter and the granddaughter. Each one dances for his own amusement, and not because it’s the thing to do.”

It’s nice to know some things about dancing haven’t changed.

The Cast Off 8s, square-dancing troupe extends a hearty invitation to the general public to join them at the Brandon Town Hall on March 8 at 6:30 p.m. There will be light refreshments, community level dancing, and a lot of fun. Be there AND be square!

[Editor’s Note: Amy Quenneville is an active member of the Cast Off 8s.]

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