by Aaron Blum
Why is it that everyone in the United States who went to public school at some point in their education took a gym class that involved square dancing? How did square dancing become part of the standard elementary school gym class curriculum?
Clogging, square dancing, and old-time music have many historical and cultural connections. They have roots in the same region in the United States. For a brief history of the relationship between the three, read Matt Edwards’ excellent article “On Clogging”. When people ask me what kind of music I play, it’s easier for me to say that I play square dance music than to delve into the differences between bluegrass and old-time music. The reason for this is that somewhere along the way, most people did square dancing in school. But even so, no one really knows why. How did a dance that is historically quite regional get spread nationally through public education system’s physical education curriculum?
The answer to this question is actually not hard to answer. It turns out that Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, a promoter of some of the first assembly lines, and developer of mass production, had a lot to do with it. A man that was fascinated by systems, patterns, and production was drawn to square dancing with its figures, squares, patterns, and formations. It makes a lot of sense that Mr. Ford was not drawn to the freestyle, improvisational style of swing dancing.
In the late 19th century, when Henry Ford was a teenager, he was given a fiddle by his mother and began attending square dances. Apparently, he was smitten. According to Paul Gifford, this is a description of some of the dances Henry Ford encountered:
The old standby contradances were the Money Musk, Opera Reel, and Virginia Reel. Square dances of various kinds, including plain quadrilles and fancy or novelty quadrilles (including the waltz quadrille, Prairie Queen quadrille, Caledonians, Lancers and others), made up the bulk of the dances. Circle dances included the Sicilian Circle and the Fireman’s Dance. Round dances included both the older waltz, polka, and schottische and newer, ephemeral dances such as the ripple, raquette, gavotte, and (by the early 1890s) the Berlin, Detroit, bon ton gavotte, Oxford minuet, seaside polka, rye waltz, and dutchess. Balls began with a grand march and ended with a waltz (Gifford, 2010).
Ford’s interest in music and dance waned as he began to work in Thomas Edison’s factories and, later, started, developed, and succeeded in his role as president of the Ford Motor Company. Later in his life, after he left his role as president of the Ford Motor Company, his interest in fiddle and dance was renewed. On a trip to Massachusetts, Ford met Benjamin Lovett, who had formerly served as the president of the National Association of Teachers of Dancing. Ford hired Lovett to teach dance and brought him back to Dearborn, Michigan. Apparently Lovett did not know much about square dancing, as he was more versed in modern dance, but became quite an expert later in his life.
According to Gifford, this is what happened next:
On 21 May 1925, he formed a dancing and etiquette class with sixteen in the group that met in the Engineering Building. Soon, according to Lovett, there was more demand than the facilities could accommodate, and, in the fall, Lovett requested and received cooperation and space from the physical education department of the Dearborn Public Schools. The Detroit schools soon followed suit by introducing Lovett’s etiquette and dancing program. Lovett and Ford’s orchestra appeared at various conferences and public exhibitions around the country during this period. Ultimately, by the late 1940s, Lovett and his staff of a dozen teachers had introduced their dancing program to twenty-four colleges and more than 150 public schools (Gifford, 2010).
Benjamin Lovett also taught two hundred dancing instructors from Ohio and Michigan how to dance and to call the Virginia Reel (Taylor, 1980). His dances began to appear in newspapers with detailed instructions on how to perform the maneuvers (Taylor, 1980). Also, Mr. Ford sponsored a radio program that was broadcast nationally, and Lovett would travel to Chicago weekly in order to broadcast his called dances (Taylor, 1980).
From there, square dancing spread throughout the public school’s physical education curriculum in the United States and Canada. Square dancing in elementary school physical education programs continues to occur today. My friend and I were talking about why square dancing has sustained itself for so long and we decided that it is for a few reasons. Square dancing is accessible. You don’t have to memorize dances. You simply learn the basic steps and follow the caller’s instructions. It is a highly structured dance that requires students to pay attention. Square dancing also encourages social interaction amongst genders (this is a topic for a different Goose Herald post).
Anyways, the next time you talk to someone about their experience square dancing in elementary school, you can now say, well that’s thanks to Mr. Henry Ford and his hiring and promotion of Benjamin Lovett.
Dave Taylor, “Henry Ford and Benjamin Lovett,” Square Dance History Project, accessed November 28, 2015, http://squaredancehistory.org/items/show/787.
Paul M. Gifford, “Henry Ford’s Dance Revival and Fiddle Contests: Myth and Reality,” Square Dance History Project, accessed November 28, 2015, http://squaredancehistory.org/items/show/937.