The Problem with Square Dancing Today

Karl Arnold Belser gives his views on why square dancing is on the decline in the U.S. (originally published in American Square Dance, August 2012). The gist of his argument is that square dancing is in decline because callers are progressing too quickly to too difficult steps rather than letting new square dancers enjoy learning the steps in an easier way.

While I agree with the idea that we need to keep entry-level dance easy, and I would go so far as to say that beginner dancers should be capped off at Mainstream, and not Plus, for at least their first two years, I don’t think that is the main reason why square dance is in decline.

Personally, I think the problem is that square dancing is considered lame. It’s an image problem. If you bring up the subject of square dancing with people who have never square danced (other than at school), they will invariably turn up their nose at it. The problem we have to fix is that people — and especially, but not only, young people — think square dancing is not cool.

Many of the videos that I have seen online do nothing to improve on this situation. They scream “lame” loud and clear. I have only seen one video that gets close to bucking this trend — and it’s a video that promotes traditional dancing, not modern Western square dancing. The production value of the video is high, the people are young, energetic, and even passionate, and the music is good (if traditional). (There are a few problems with the video, though, because there are some poetic interludes that — in my opinion — interrupt the flow of the rest of the video, but if you ignore those parts, the video is generally quite good.) In any case, this is ONE video out of thousands that you can find on YouTube. The rest are pretty, sorry to say, uncool. Personally, I love watching videos of square dance events, and as a new caller, I find them absolutely invaluable as a study resource, so I don’t mean to discourage anyone from posting them, but trust me, we generally do not look overly cool in our videos, my friends.

What is cool? Well, that is hard to define, and it certainly involves personal taste, so it can’t be defined in an absolute way. However, if you are trying to make square dancing appear more cool than it currently does, you probably want to look at things like the music, the clothing, and the way that it is portrayed in the media. I have collected a number of videos and images that depict square dance in popular culture. How many of these examples give a positive impression of square dancing? Very few, if any. Therein lies our problem. Our favoured activity is associated with old-fashioned clothing, unpopular music, and a negative image in popular media. Three strikes!

This explains why many people who eventually do end up becoming square dancers say things like “I wish I had’ve started earlier”. What kept them from starting earlier? Was it difficult steps being taught too soon? No, they probably had no sense of how easy or difficult the activity was before they joined. It was their preconceived (mostly negative) ideas about square dancing that kept them from trying it out.

How can we improve the image of square dancing? I’m no expert, but here are my opinions on how to reverse the trend of declining dancer numbers.

  • Redesign the costumes. Why can’t we have long, flowing skirts instead of short, froofy skirts that flatter exactly no one? If you think that long, flowing skirts would be an affront to the tradition of square dancing, have a look at this video from the 1950s.
  • Update the music. Use music that is popular NOW, not 40+ years ago.
  • Contact your local newspaper and TV stations to do articles/spots on how cool square dancing is, now that the costumes and the music are cool.
  • Post pictures and videos of your club on social media showing how cool square dancing is now that the costumes and the music are cool.
  • Host themed parties that accentuate how fun AND COOL square dancing is. Post videos of these parties on social media and encourage your friends and family members to “like” and share the videos.

Maybe you don’t believe me. Maybe you don’t see things the way I do. Maybe you think modern clothing and modern music have no place in square dancing. You are very welcome to those opinions; however, even if you disagree with my suggestions of how to make square dancing more cool, I think you will have to agree with me that the “negative coolness factor” is one of the biggest reasons square dancing is in decline. I would challenge any club or caller to test out this advice for a year or two and see if they get any more beginners in the doors this way. It’s worth at least trying, in order to save square dancing, isn’t it?

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6 thoughts on “The Problem with Square Dancing Today”

  1. I am LaVern Johnson, who has held a summer Saturday night square dance in Lyons, Colorado, the past 56 years, and have seen an average of 25-30 squares with another one as big, in Estes park with Frankie Lane; in 1958-1993, now down to an average of 10.75 squares (hardly enough to pay expenses, where the callers receive 50% of the gross. I do not know the answer, except to a new interested person who is watching any regular square dance, it seems too complicated. I think we need square dancing in the schools again – this seems to have disappeared; if we had someone under the school’s PE class to go from school to school one day a week, it would be fun for them, as well as help square dancing. I think they should focus on the 5th and 9th grades. We find kids are interested, except they have to dance with us “elderly”. That is a good article, and here, in Colorado and Wyoming, we are making changes we think will help. Thank you for the article. LaVern

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  2. Hi LaVern,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have been teaching Grade 1 and Grade 3 students at my school (all girls) and they LOVE square dancing. I originally held an 8 week lesson and then when it finished, they begged me to do another 8 weeks. And again, and again. I hope that this small contribution will mean that they grow up with a positive image of square dancing and they consider joining a club in the future.

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  3. I partially agree, but we have callers in St. Louis who use modern music, and many people wear casual clothes rather than the traditional dresses. I have made YouTube channels for about five square dance clubs and we post videos. We get students at our clubs’ classes that say they saw the videos and it looked like fun.

    As someone who has been dancing only two years, I do believe that we are losing a lot of people because of the complexity of the calling. Our students are taught mainstream and plus, but we have many people, even those who have been dancing for 30+ years, who can hardly keep up with even mainstream. Too many of the callers, instead of calling what we were taught, call DBD or what is locally called “chocolate.” There is a workshop here that people can take to learn it, but after taking the time, effort and paying the price to learn ordinary dancing, no one wants to have to take yet another ongoing, open-ended class in order to be able to dance what is called.

    What I also see in attracting students in the first place, is that telling them the commitment is weekly for 6-8 months at $5 a class turns them off. It doesn’t seem like much but if they have to travel to the class and pay for gas, as well as a sitter if they have young children, makes it an impossibility for them.

    Also most of our clubs begin classes at the same time- September, and run until about April or May. So if someone new hears about square dancing and wants to try it, they have to wait until September. I received an email through one of the club’s websites that I manage, in about April, saying, “Do I understand that I have to wait until September to take lessons?”

    Recently a few of our clubs decided to try a 12-week “intro to square dance” class and some of the them have the people pay up front. That way there is a commitment.

    Unfortunately, no matter how many people take lessons, there is a pretty high rate of attrition, where people never dance once they graduate, or fall away quickly, and a lot of them dance only about once a month at their club, which doesn’t help them keep their skill level high.

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  4. Shaney, I couldn’t agree more. Square dancing isn’t hard; I’d say it’s a lot easier than hip hop, for sure. But my image of square dancing growing up was of smokey, sweaty senior center halls, and costumes that make my legs look like sausages. I won’t wear a dress like that, but I’d love to dance in a tea-length dress with a nipped waist! Can I add a suggestion to have the dances in more interesting locations, like outside? Plenty of mobile audio tech these days to facilitate that.

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  5. In the Tulsa Area Square Dancing is way down from 20 years ago. Some won’t work with in a Club and some Club Members insist on following a rule because it’s in the by-laws. Also, callers who insist that dancers aren’t listening to the calls. I miss calls from time to time, but there are other reasons square break down.

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  6. Here is my idea!!! No one might like this thought, but, first let’s change the name of “square dancing” to a different name. This would get rid of the negativity of going to a square dance. How about octagon dancing, or four couple partner dancing. Also, change the commonly used names of square dancing. Like do si do, promenade, allemande left. I think if it sounded unfamiliar, we could get more people to try it.

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