If you live in the United States, chances are high that, growing up, you had to take square dancing in gym class. I myself spent a week at my Rochester, New York, high school learning to allemande left and right—skills I was highly unlikely to ever need again. At the time, although I thought it was odd, I was merely grateful for not having to change into my gym clothes.
As it turns out, there’s an unusual reason why so many American students spend their formative years learning to do-si-do. Twenty-eight out of 50 states have declared square dancing their official dance. This is part of a coordinated campaign—a dancespiracy, if you will—to make square dancing the official dance of the United States, in the hope that doing so “would give square dancing and its related activities more visibility and have a positive effect on recruiting new dancers.”
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But the institutionalization of square dancing isn’t just about the joy of dance. It’s also about America’s legacy of racism and anti-Semitism—and the surprising tools that get used in the effort to uphold whiteness.
To understand how square dancing became a state-mandated means of celebrating Americana, it’s necessary to go back to Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Vehicles. Ford hated jazz; he hated the Charleston. He also really hated Jewish people, and believed that Jewish people invented jazz as part of a nefarious plot to corrupt the masses and take over the world—a theory that might come as a surprise to the black people who actually did invent it.
In volume three of Ford’s The International Jew series, written in 1921, he writes:
“Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”
Like Hitler, who greatly admired Ford and even mentioned him approvingly in Mein Kampf, Ford believed that Jewish people were evil geniuses diabolically planning to control the world. Black people, he thought, were not necessarily evil, but certainly not as swift as white people, and were particularly prone to being manipulated and controlled by “the Jews.”
His view of race now forms the basis of the “Democratic Plantation” theory that many of today’s conservatives have embraced, arguing that liberals and Democrats are “the real racists” in that they nefariously support social welfare programs only in order to manipulate black people into not voting Republican.
Ford hired black workers, and paid them the same as his white workers. But he was very concerned that they, along with his other workers, would be morally corrupted by the evil forces of jazz. Jazz, he believed, would lead them astray, propelling them toward liquor, tobacco, sex, and all kinds of other sins.
Ford and his wife had long had an interest in what he termed “old fashion dancing.” When he bought the Wayside Inn in Sudsbury, Mass, in 1923, he hired a man named Benjamin Lovett to not only teach square dancing to him and his wife, but also to guests of the Inn. At this time, however, the dance form was already seen as old-fashioned and, well, square. Even in the country, where these kind of dances had once been popular, jazz and swing were taking over.
By bringing back square dancing, as well as other primarily Anglo-Saxon dances like waltzes and quadrilles, Ford believed he would be able to counteract what he saw as the unwholesome influence of jazz on America. People, he imagined, would leave the dance halls and cabarets in droves to swing their partners round and round at liquor-free square dance clubs. If jazz was the cause of America’s moral decay, he reasoned, the road to repair it could be as simple as replacing it with fiddles and square dances.
In order to bring his dream to life, Ford poured tons of money into square dancing and country music in general. In 1926, he published an instruction manual for aspiring square dancing instructors titled “Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-Five Years, Old-Fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford.” He also required his employees to attend the square dancing events he created for them, funded fiddling contests and radio shows promoting “old time dancing music,” as well as the creation of square dancing clubs across the US—where modern, Western-style square dancing as we know it now was really created.
Perhaps ironically, given Ford’s intent to squash the influence of black music, America’s square dancing tradition—like nearly everything else—was in fact built by black people. While European dance traditions like the French quadrille certainly informed the evolution of square dancing, the addition of the call-and-response form of calling out dance moves initially started with the black slaves, who were required to perform at white dance balls in order to reproduce the steps themselves without formal dance training.
Nonetheless, Ford saw these dances as intrinsically white, and thus more intrinsically wholesome. Along with his wife and their square dance instructor Benjamin Lovett, he campaigned to bring square dancing to the physical education classes of students across the country, believing it would teach children “social training, courtesy, good citizenship, along with rhythm.” The schools agreed, and by 1928, almost half the schools in America were teaching square dancing and other forms of old-fashioned dancing to students.
Although Ford never fully supplanted jazz, he did spark a revival of interest in square dancing. Newspapers published full-page dancing instructions; 34 colleges across America started teaching early American dancing. It was practically a national rage again for a few years—before dying out again.
But square dancing did not go quietly into that good night. In the 1930s, another square dance aficionado—a Colorado school superintendent named Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw—helped revive the tradition once again, and continued Ford’s quest to spread square dance to schools across the country. He added to Ford’s “Good Morning” instruction manual and created the “Lloyd Shaw Folk Dance Program,” traveling the country in the hopes of getting schools to implement it into their physical education programs. As you might have guessed, he was successful in these ventures.
Through the next few decades, Modern Western square dance clubs popped up all over the country. In 1965, these clubs—initially led by the California-based National Folk Dance Committee—began their long quest to establish square dancing as the official folk dance of the US.
From 1973 to 2003, there were over 30 bill proposals to make square dance the official folk dance of the United States. Curiously enough though, those who were most opposed to this were folklorists and square dancing purists, who thought that the Western-style square dancing promoted by these clubs was tainted by newfangled moves and their tendency to use recorded music rather than live fiddlers.
The attempt to nationalize square dancing was granted in 1982—but only temporarily. Sponsored by the late West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, a bill passed by the House and Senate and signed by then-president Ronald Reagan declared square dancing the national folk dance of the US for the years 1982 and 1993. The bill praised square dancing because “the American people value the display of etiquette among men and women which is a major element of square dancing,” and as a “traditional form of family recreation” that “dissolves arbitrary social distinctions.”
The temporary status of the US national dance had a lot to do with the country’s general caution about declaring national symbols. The US has a national bird (the bald eagle), a national tree (the oak tree), a national flower (American rose), and a national mammal (the bison)—but not much else. Declaring a national symbol is a very big deal. Thus, the plot to designate square dance as the official folk dance of the country was somewhat doomed from the start.
Yet, the square dancers would not be thwarted so easily. National groups like the United States Square Dancers and the American Folk Dance committee of LEGACY, International coordinated local and state square dance clubs to lobby their legislators to make square dance their official state folk dance. By convincing two-thirds of the states to do this, they hoped to be able to reintroduce the bill to Congress. To what end? Having more people to square dance with, I suppose.
Since no states at the time even had previously established “state folk dances,” square dance didn’t exactly have a lot of competition. Leaders of these clubs pushed the idea of square dancing as emblematic of “family values” and “American heritage” upon legislators in hopes of getting them to sponsor such bills, to great success. In a letter to the Washington Post defending the push to make square dance the official state dance of Maryland, Richard Peterson, state chairman for Maryland for the American folk dance bill, pleaded, “If we don’t begin to preserve our true American heritage now, what will we have to leave our children?” To which one might respond: Oh, I don’t know—maybe jazz?
Indeed, as Eric Zorn wrote in 1990 for the Chicago Tribune, there’s nothing inherently wrong with square dancing—but there is something sinister about declaring it to be more valuable than any other form of dance. “Legislatively recognizing one folk dance form, or any art form, and placing it above all others is wrong because it denies the diversity of cultural, ethnic and social traditions in America,” he explained. At a 1988 hearing in Washington DC, Zorn wrote, the people testifying against a motion to make square dancing the official American folk dance included “an African-American tap dancer, a Puerto Rican folk music and dance leader, [and] a Native American Indian dancer.” The tap dancer, Honi Coles, noted, “I could walk up and down 125th Street [in Harlem] and shout, `Square dance! Square dance!` and no one would have the faintest idea what I would be talking about.”
As innocuous as state-sponsored square dancing may seem, it’s just one of the many small ways that oppression has shaped the history and culture of the US. If Henry Ford hadn’t been a racist and anti-Semite who believed jazz would be the ruin of our country, square dancing would probably not be a state dance anywhere. And you almost definitely would not have had to do it in gym class.