Introduction to Missouri Traditional Dance

If music is dancing with your fingers, dance is fiddling with your feet. Dancing lends context and meaning to the music, gets the musicians out of the house (or the woodshed, as the case may be), and, well…it’s fun.

If you’re a musician, dancing is the best way to learn what makes great dance music, and playing for dances is the best way to learn rhythm, consistency, and drive. If you’re a dancer, you can be part of the music without spending years learning an instrument, and have a great time without a TV or computer screen in sight.

You don’t have to be young and fit or old and fusty to enjoy dancing to some great music, you don’t have to wear a bolo tie or a fluffy skirt (unless you want to!). In fact, all you need are functional legs and a knowledge of right and left.

Traditional dances that are still current and common in Missouri can broadly be divided into two categories:  square and round dances.  Square dances generally consist of four couples arranged in a square, thus the name. Round dances generally consist of individual couples doing their thing, usually in a loosely counterclockwise pattern around the floor. Round dances include the waltz, polka, and two-step, any of which you might see at a Missouri dance.

Confusingly, round dances and circle dances are not the same thing. Circle dances are occasionally done at Missouri traditional dances, usually as mixers. They generally consist of a large number of couples arranged in a circle and doing moves (“figures”) generally associated with square dancing. Because circle dances are not widely known or consistently done in Missouri, our pages will concentrate on square and round dances.

Less common, but still seen occasionally, are the schottische, a walking dance usually associated with scandinavian roots, but which was once popular all over America, and the varsovienne. The varsovienne is rarely known by its name these days, but can still be seen once in a while, particularly in German-American communities in the central part of the state.  It is a type of dance similar to a schottische, done in couples proceeding around the floor, usually with specific steps that match a specific tune.  The most common examples are the “Little Foot Waltz” and the “Heel and Toe Polka”.

Introduction to Square Dance

Square dance is a general term for a whole family of dances which consist (usually) of four couples arranged in a square formation. While there are a huge variety of styles and configurations, just as in fiddling, here we’ll describe the most common in Missouri. This is definitely not an attempt to say these dances are more traditional or local than any others (they’re not); it’s simply a record of what kinds of dances people are currently doing in our neck of the woods.

A square dance consists of two main parts, a figure and a break. The figure will be unique to that particular square dance, while the break is a more repetitive, familiar part that usually involves all four couples. It’s not unusual at a particular dance for all the breaks to be the same, so they’re an easy and predictable part for the dancers to rest their brains, if not their feet. However, more “western” style square dances may have fancier breaks, or breaks that change each time through–this is one of those areas where you just have to listen to the caller.

For the figure, there are a couple of broad categories as well. For the sake of ease, couples in the square are usually referred to by numbers. Couple 1 has their back to the band, couple 2 are to their right, couple 3 are facing the band, and couple 4 are the remaining couple. Couples 1 and 3 are “head” couples, while 2 and 4 are “side” couples. A figure will usually either start with the head couples doing moves, then the side couples (as in “Swing on the Outsides, Insides Too”), or it will start with couple 1 doing moves, followed by 2, 3, and 4 (as in “Split the Ring”). Depending on the length of the dance, a break may be done after the first couple, the first two couples, or all four.

A square may also be “traveling” or not. Traveling means that each time through the figure, the ladies will move up to the next gent, meaning that each gent gets to dance with each lady before the dance is through. Whether squares are traveling varies more by location than by the particular square. At a particular dance, most or all squares may be danced as traveling squares. The exception is the venerable Texas Star, which is nearly always danced as a traveling square.

Here we’ve provided calls for the first time through the “figure”, as well as some ideas for breaks. Typically after the first time through, one of two things will happen:

If the ladies didn’t change partners:
The next couple  or couples will lead the same figure. If couple one started, then you will repeat the dance with couple two leading. If head couples started, you will repeat the dance with sides leading. Depending on the caller and the dance, you may do a break between each repeat of the figure, or after doing two or four repeats.

If the ladies did change partners:
This is usually done with a short figure. Repeat with gent 1 still in the lead (this is usually called as “same old gent and a brand new gal”). Keep on this way till everyone has their partners back (gent 1 has done the figure four times), then break, and start with gent 2.