Folk and Social Dance

In the early 1800s, America was still a very young nation, largely being explored and settled by pioneers. Dance as artistic expression was not practical under these conditions. People did not have leisure time or money to spend on cultivating dance as an artistic form. Therefore, dance as a means of social interaction became extremely popular. In the cities of New England and the Southern colonies, people were considered to be well-bred if they studied dance along with the other arts from an English tradition. However, on the frontier, where there were few dancing masters and no strict etiquette to follow, dance was for fun and frolic.

Dancing was carried on at country fairs, log rollings, quilting parties, and special holiday celebrations. After dinner and sports or games, the climax of every gathering was a dance. The men and women of the frontier loved to dance, doing Virginia reels, country jigs, and shakedowns. It was a favorite form of entertainment everywhere, commented on with surprise by traveler after traveler amazed to find such rollicking gaiety in frontier settlements. (History of Dance in Art and Education by Kraus, Hilsendager, and Dixon) In the 1830s, new forms of social dance, such as the waltz and polka, became popular social dances. All of these dance forms were widely condemned by Puritan religions that believed dancing was sinful. However, eventually many society folks spoke up in favor of dance, and dance grew as an accepted pastime of the middle and upper classes. A typical evening of dancing might contain such dances as the lancers, waltz, polka, march, quadrille, York, Portland fancy, and Virginia reel.

Another common folk dance used for recreation and socialization was the square dance. Square dances today are very much like they were almost two centuries ago. Partners (usually a man and woman) faced each other as a lively tune began. A caller would yell out instructions to the partners to follow. The caller was an American invention. At first, dancers were able to memorize the steps, but eventually the dances became so complicated that a caller was needed. The better a caller, the more elaborate his or her calling style. People square danced in town squares or in barns, wearing simple work clothes.

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