Croakers Square

Is square dancing a racist activity? No. Absolutely not. No less an authority than the Smithsonian Institution clearly points out that square dancing is a uniquely American creation that combines European, African, and Native American dance styles.

OK, so why do some consider square dancing a racist activity? Ah, that answer is a bit more complicated.

Quick History

If we try to trace square dancing’s origins, we largely end up with a variety of folk dances from England, Scotland, Spain, and even Scandinavia (seriously? Yep.). These meshed with 18th-century French dances like the quadrille and the cotillion, where couples danced within “squares.” It’s particularly easy to see the French influences, since we still use many of the original French expressions in calling: “promenade,” for example, or “allemande” or even “dos-à-dos”…or more commonly, do si do.

All these dance styles and techniques came over with settlers to America. Thing is, America isn’t England, Spain, or France: it started as–and remains–a melting pot. That meant that all the different folk and popular dance traditions started coming together, intermingling, and becoming something new.

Having said that, there were also influences from areas outside Europe. Enslaved people brought music–and new musical styles–to the art; working as callers, they introduced new steps, helping to create a new form of dance that they themselves were often not allowed to participate in.

Native American ceremonial dance styles were also incorporated, according to dance historian Phil Jamieson from the Square Dance History Project. Like most things American, square dancing is based in the merging of multiple cultures and peoples.

Enter Henry Ford

Despite his brilliance, auto magnate Henry Ford is strongly connected with many anti-Semitic opinions and viewpoints. He was also a music lover, and while he couldn’t really be called a music snob, he did seem to feel that the music industry (and the entertainment industry in general) was being taken over Jews … and that because of this, popular music was somehow undermining the moral fabric of the nation.

Taking a page from Hitler–who publicly expressed admiration for him–Ford began using his vast fortuned to promote what, to his way of thinking, was considered proper American (read: white European) dance and music styles. This included efforts to bring waltzes, quadrilles, and yes, square dancing back to the forefront. He sponsored radio programs, paid for instruments and lessons, and published his own manual.

He also campaigned to insert square dancing into the phys-ed classes of schools. Ford was popular enough (and rich enough) that Boards of Education across the country were suddenly gung-ho for square dancing. In all, nearly half the public schools in the US began teaching square dancing and other old fashion dancing, mostly due to Ford’s efforts.

To be fair, Ford truly believed square dancing was not only great exercise, but that having square dancing in schools would help train children in manners, courtesy, and social training. And to a large extent, it actually worked.

That was the problem, though. Ford wanted the dance to promote “American” values, but those values weren’t genuinely rooted in history, culture, or–let’s face it–reality. It was a noble enough idea–but we all know where the path of “best intentions” leads.

A Bad Vibe

Ford isn’t wholly responsible for the mid-century whitewashing of the American dream, of course, but he was tooting a big horn, and as loudly as he could. In hindsight, we have the ability to look beyond that period gain a more historically accurate picture; when we do, we see that Henry Ford’s views were obviously racist and anti- Semitic…but his views were also WRONG.

Square dancing is not Caucasian creation, nor is it a Jewish creation. It is an AMERICAN creation that may borrow from other traditions but is completely its own thing. At one point, square dancing was actively used to support white supremacy; you could say the same thing about Volkswagens. In the future, we may look and say the same thing about the Internet of Things.

But a think is not inherently evil just because it is misused by some. If Henry Ford hadn’t been a racist and anti-Semite, square dancing may never have gained the popularity it enjoyed in the 1950s. But in neither case can square dancing be called racist…unless you consider “Americans” a race, that is.

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