There is a debate raging in square dance groups on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) these days about the square dance dress code. On one side, there are the people who think it is an infringement of personal freedom to be told to wear anything in particular (other than some sort of clothing), and on the other, there are people who feel that the traditional costumes are part of the activity and, therefore, dancers should wear them. There are also people in the middle, since some people like to have a dress code of some sort (e.g. “long sleeves for men, skirts for women” or “dress nicely” or “no shorts”) and some people like to have dress codes for certain events but not others.
Here in Japan, many people like to wear the clothes that match the activity they are doing. If they are hiking, they will have proper hiking boots, hiking poles, hiking clothes, a rugged knapsack, etc., even if they are just going for a walk in an urban area that doesn’t actually require any of these things. Hiking is really just about hiking/walking (i.e. putting one foot in front of the other), but, for some people, the clothes add something to the experience, even if they are not actually necessary.
I think there is a certain personality type that prefers formal to informal, or “proper” to (what they perceive as) improper. There is also a certain personality type that prefers informal, and is less concerned about proper vs. improper.
To some people, the “traditional” square dance attire is old, uncool, unattractive, and difficult to dance in. To others, it brings additional joy to the activity. It is quite hard for people in one camp to understand the point of people in the other camp. (This is true of almost any divisive issue. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with us on many such issues, so we live in an artificial microcosm of agreement. This gives us the feeling that we are in the majority, when in fact, we have just created a convenient majority around ourselves.)
One argument that people often use in square dance debates is “it’s all about the dancing”. The problem is that that doesn’t actually work as an argument. It’s not all about the dancing, because if it were, then we would all show up at our events, dance around like silent robots, and then leave, fully satisfied. “The dancing” itself is even hard to pin down to one thing. Is it the individual steps that we take, or the combination of calls (the choreography) that is “the dancing”? And are simple dance combinations “the dancing” as much as complex combinations? Would the addition or removal of any particular step, call, or program change “the dancing”? Would square dancing be equally enjoyable if there was no touching? Would you still like it as much if there was no talking while dancing? No smiling? No breaks in between dances to catch up with your fellow club members? If you take any of these elements away, is it still dancing? Technically, everything other than the steps that we take and the choreography is not “the dancing”, but certainly those other parts add to the experience to make the dancing more (or less) enjoyable. And what one person thinks of as essential to “the dancing”, others may not find important at all (cf. swinging in the various levels of square dancing vs. in contra dancing).
There are many aspects of square dancing that are enjoyable and add to the overall experience. Having or not having a dress code is certainly going to please some and not others. My opinion on this topic is that there is no one dress code that will please everyone, so a compromise has to be made. One caller came up with a phrase that, I believe, works to appease an actual majority of dancers.
“Square dance attire admired, but not required.”
It even rhymes! This policy statement lets people who enjoy wearing costumes feel comfortable wearing them, and lets people who don’t enjoy wearing costumes feel fine with their choice not to wear them. Voila! Maximum potential enjoyment achieved on this issue! Note that I didn’t say that everyone will be happy, but that this policy creates a maximum number of pleased (or “not annoyed”) dancers. There will still be some uncompromising people who will think that square dancing has been ruined by either the overly strict or overly lax dress code, but I think a vast majority of people will recognize that no one issue can explain or prevent the decline in dancers, and be satisfied with this compromise.