Category Archives: Opinions

Square Dancing in Popular Culture

I have been collecting references to square dancing in popular culture, such as examples of square dancing on TV, or songs with the words “square dance” in the title. For the most part, it is pretty bad news. Our image is pretty hokey and, for the most part, not actually representative of what we do.

I do think we have a huge image problem. I am constantly telling my friends how much fun I have at my square dance club, but I can see the doubt in their eyes from the moment I utter the words “square dance”. I also see the surprise on their faces when I tell them that we dance to all kinds of songs, like Michael Jackson hits and What Does the Fox Say?, at my club. I can tell that some of them are intrigued, but getting any of them to actually commit to coming to a class is all but impossible. I know that people have tried changing the name of our activity from “square dancing” to “pattern dancing” in order to give it more appeal. While I laud the efforts of anyone who is trying to effect change, I don’t think that making our activity even more obscure will help.

I think we need to find a way to get square dancing mentioned in a positive way in popular culture. For example, if someone famous AND VERY OBJECTIVELY COOL is seen to like square dancing, and if that famous+cool person can be seen square dancing to current, popular, (preferably non-country) music in regular clothes, there could be a chance of us redeeming the image of our beloved activity. I’m not sure what else would work to get rid of that “look” that people get in their eyes when the words “square dance” are mentioned.

Great Article about Tradition and Dancing

This article is specifically about contra dancing, but the parallels with square dancing are quite obvious.

Tradition, an odd word, seems to refer to a thing of the past; tradition is all around us though, and continues because we continue creating it. Gender-free, techno, and blues-infused contra exists because contra dance is a living, breathing tradition; these new styles and expressions are in response to the evolving needs and interests of the dance community. The way we approach these changes will reflect the community norms of contra dancers as a whole, and of smaller micro-communities throughout the contra dance network. As a community we decide what makes contra dancing itself. We decide how far we can push the tradition before it stops being contra dance. Our own needs and innovations create the tradition, and it creates us.

Read the article here:
May 13, 2014

Every Argument About Square Dancing Ever

I think we should change X.
I agree.
I disagree.
It’s because of X that we are losing dancers.
But I like X.
That has nothing to do with it.
But I don’t like X.
That has nothing to do with it.
Callerlab blah blah blah.
Callerlab isn’t blah blah blah.
By the way, it’s not a level, it’s a program.
X is fun and dancing is supposed to be fun.
But, the dancers are too old to do X.
The problem isn’t X. It’s that there are too many calls to learn.
No, it’s that we push dancers too hard.
No, it’s that dancers can’t dance the basics.
No, it’s that we don’t advertise.
No, it’s that our videos are not good enough.
No, it’s the dress code.
No, it’s the music.
*collective sigh*

Here’s my take. Just make a pledge to have as much fun as possible with your own club (however you define fun to be) and try some new things sometimes. And stop worrying about the sky falling. Square dancing is less popular than it used to be, but so are ballet, board games, and sewing. That’s just how the world works. Focus on making it as fun as possible for yourself and your club, and have the spirit of adventure to try new things.

Square Dance Club Options – Impact Analysis Worksheet

This worksheet (Square Dance Club Options) is designed to help clubs think about their policies and the impact of their policies on the composition of their clubs. It is fine for clubs to have whatever policies they like, but it is also important to take into consideration how certain policies encourage or discourage certain people from wanting to join the club. There is no magic set of policies that will make square dancing clubs appeal to everyone. The important point is to think of your target audience and make sure your policies make your club appealing to those kinds of people.

You can download the file as a pdf or as a word processing document through Google Drive. You can download the word processing document by clicking on “File” and then “Download as…”.

The Square Dance Dress Code Debate

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.

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?