How (and Why) to Host a Square Dance

Few activities seem to generate as much spontaneous joy and wholesome family recreation as a traditional square dance. Here’s how you can host such a dance.
How (and Why) to Host a Square Dance
Square dancing is a facet of American culture that's enjoyable for the whole community. (Biba Kayewich)
Walker Larson
9/18/2023
Updated:
9/18/2023

The fiddler taps out the rhythm with his toes: 1, 2, 3, 4—

In a flash, the room surges to new life with the sweet scooping and soaring of fiddle strains, the deep resonating punctuation of the acoustic bass against the warm, golden background of guitar. The dancers wait in their square formations, still, expectant, smiling. The lights strung across the room twinkle, a miniature constellation of stars.

The caller’s deep voice breaks through the flowing surface of the music, reverberates among the lights above, in a sing-song tone, announcing the first step with an old-fashioned rhyme: “All join hands and circle south; put a little moonshine in your mouth; you’re all going wrong, go back the other way, hold your holts and re-sashay.” The flush of exercise and exhilaration kisses the dancers’ faces—they move in a complicated yet harmonious figure, each person relying on the others in his or her square.

The dancers are all ages: young couples shyly holding hands and catching one another’s eyes in the swirl of the dance, husbands and wives dancing with their spinning toddlers, grandparents shuffling arm in arm, remembering the dance halls of their youths. In between figures, when squared in their sets, everyone begins to clap in unison and in time with the music, and looks to the caller for the next call. The next figure is about to begin. Outside, a great yellow moon broods over the valley and the crickets mingle their song with the fiddle’s.

I was first introduced to square dancing as a teenager, and I have since attended, hosted, and called many dances. Few activities I know of seem to generate as much spontaneous joy and wholesome family recreation as a traditional square dance. Here’s how you, too, can host such a dance and tap into that joy.

There are four main ingredients needed for a square dance: a fiddler (ideally with a few backup musicians), a caller, a space, and dancers. The first three, of course, must be secured before you have any hope of bringing in dancers. We'll take them one by one.

Square dancing is a facet of American culture that's enjoyable for the whole community. (Biba Kayewich)
Square dancing is a facet of American culture that's enjoyable for the whole community. (Biba Kayewich)

The Fiddler

The fiddler is absolutely essential to a traditional square dance. One could, I suppose, get by with canned music, but the lack of a live band takes a lot away from the energy and authenticity of the whole experience. You will need to find someone with strong knowledge of traditional American fiddle tunes, such as “Turkey in the Straw” and “Over the Waterfall.”

They will also need to possess excellent stamina, as the fiddler has a pretty tiring job: playing the same tune for about 6 to 12 minutes straight per dance. An evening of dances might include 4 to 10 different dances, so you begin to see the endurance the fiddler must have. One consolation is that the band gets to rest between dances for roughly the same length as a dance while the caller teaches everyone the upcoming square or reel.

In my circles, we were fortunate to have a talented fiddler within the group of organizers, and he generally offered his services for free. If you don’t know a fiddler personally, it’s time to start asking around. Talk to your friends and family and see if they know anyone. You may also find a fiddler online, though I’ve never tried this myself—I prefer to rely on word of mouth. If you don’t already have a friend or family member willing to play for free, then you will need to hire a professional. On the occasions that I’ve done this, the cost ran between $200 and $500.

You will also need, at a minimum, a backup guitarist for the fiddler. Bass, banjo, mandolin, etc. are great if you can get them.

The Caller

The job of the caller is to come with several dances that he or she knows very well and that he or she will teach to the dancers and then “call,” or announce, step by step, during the dance, to remind everyone of what comes next and to keep everyone in sync.

Learning to call a handful of dances isn’t as hard as it sounds, and there are resources for it online and in a few books. One volume that I found helpful was “Square Dances of Today and How to Teach and Call Them” by Richard Kraus (of course, they’re not dances of “today” anymore—the book is from 1950). So you could consider doing this yourself. Still, if this is your first dance, you’re probably going to want to hire someone with experience. The cost for a professional caller in my area is similar to the cost for a fiddler—about $150 to $500.

Once again, I recommend using word of mouth if possible so that you can find someone trustworthy and skilled. There’s a lot of pressure on the caller—they are the leader for the entire group, and they need to bring a welcoming and enthusiastic demeanor in order to create the proper atmosphere.

The Space

The traditional space for a square dance is a barn—hence the common synonym of “barn dance.” If you can find one in good repair, this is a great option to consider, since it helps create the authentic environment you’re aiming for better than, say, a school gym. That being said, I’ve hosted dances in both a barn and a school gym, and they were still successful even in the latter case—plus there were no barn support beams for dancers to have to worry about running into.
Other options to consider include community centers, ballrooms, sheds, park lodges, or even just a stretch of lawn (if weather permits). The cost to rent your space will vary considerably. We used to rent an old school house for $50—but that was partly due to family connections. Other venues we looked at cost as much as $300 (and, of course, venues can be as much as many thousands of dollars, depending on where you are). If someone in your group already owns a shed or other suitable building, you may be able to use it for free.

The Dancers

With the first three ingredients in order, you’re ready to find the dancers needed to complete the event. For our first dance, years ago, my friends and I put up full-color posters all around our area and simply invited all of our friends and family, and the turnout was quite good. From there, we began building an email list to inform participants of future dances. We didn’t put up posters the next time, but our turnout was the same or greater—much of the growth came through word of mouth. If you begin hosting dances regularly, attendance will likely grow organically with little advertising—at least, that holds true in my part of the country. Other initial advertising methods would include publicizing in your local newspaper, on Facebook, on EventBrite, or through existing email chains.
Naturally, you'll want to take into account your venue’s maximum capacity as you consider how many dancers to invite.

Additional Ingredients for Added Flavor

Sound system. If at all possible, I recommend using a sound system, at least for the caller. If the caller doesn’t have a microphone and some amplification, it may be impossible to hear him or her over the music, which renders the whole effort a bit pointless. Providing sound for the musicians is also a good idea; just be sure to mix it such that the caller remains audible.
Food and drink. Food and drink will add to the festivity. We’ve had bake sales before to help cover costs, but it’s also a good idea to provide some free refreshments, if possible, even if that’s just some lemonade and popcorn. You’ll absolutely want to have free water available since dancers get very thirsty.
Chairs. Most of your space needs to remain open for dancing, obviously, but you should also provide chairs for people to rest on between dances or to sit and watch the merriment. We usually have a single row of chairs lining all four walls of the building, providing plenty of seating yet leaving the dance floor open.
Decorations. String lights are a nice touch, as alluded to in the opening description of this article. For our first dance, which was in the autumn, we also drove some antique tractors (which friends owned) up by the entrance to the old schoolhouse and placed haybales and pumpkins around them.

Covering Costs

The main way of covering costs will be through entrance fees, though if the point is to provide wholesome family entertainment and bring in lots of folks, I recommend keeping the cost of entrance low. You might also consider a bake sale, raffles, or other fundraisers that could run simultaneously with the dance.

If all of this sounds a bit expensive, that’s because, well, it probably will be, especially if you’re hiring the musicians and caller. When I used to be regularly involved with dances, we were able to provide a lot of the key ingredients ourselves (music for free, venue for $50), which greatly reduced cost. Even then, we only just broke even after paying the caller, though that was mainly because we kept the entrance fee as affordable as possible (about $5 per person or $20 per family). It was only once some of us also learned to call that expenses really became a nonissue.

Dances of this sort are definitely not a money-making proposition, and you may have to think of it instead as an investment in your community and family. That’s how we viewed it, so it didn’t bother us if we had to pay $100 or more in order to pull it off. We thought this experience of true culture was well worth it.

Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, TheHazelnut. He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."
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