Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Folk dance in the Great Plains has its roots in many traditions and reflects the history and culture of its peoples. Native American dances, with their origins in ritual, ceremonies, and initiation, were passed on from one generation to another. European folk dances evolved in the same way, although they came to serve a social rather than ritual function. In some Plains communities, a specific ethnic identity has continued unbroken to the present. In Lindsborg, Kansas, for example, descendants of Swedish settlers still maintain their tradition of Swedish music, dance, and festivals. Modern technology and communication bring an everwidening mix of dance from other lands, which reflects the universality of folk dance and the diversity of the American and Canadian nations. However, some uniquely North American forms of folk dance developed in the Great Plains.

The settlers who entered the Great Plains in the nineteenth century brought the dance forms that they knew: the quadrille and the popular couple dances of the time. Farther east, the quadrille, a dance performed by four couples in a square formation, had become increasingly complex. A specific quadrille, the Standard Lancers, for instance, consisted of five different sections; thus, people felt the need of formal instruction under a dancing master to learn and memorize the sequence of figures. A second source of what evolved into square dancing in the Plains was the big circle dances of the Appalachian region. In these dances, alternate couples moved out to the couple on their right, performed a few figures with them, and then moved on to the next couple. A third feature of the square dance was the caller. Since dancing masters and dancing schools were not available to the pioneers, dancers relied on one person to call out the figures. These figures were performed in a four-couple square rather than a big circle, but they still had the visiting-couple format, in which one couple went out and danced various figures with each of the other couples in succession. Interspersed with the square dances were couple dances consisting of simple patterns danced to the rhythms that had become popular in nineteenth-century Europe: the waltz, polka, schottische, and a version of the mazurka called the Varsouvienne.

In the Southern Great Plains these same square dances and couple dances were featured, but there was also a strand of folk dance coming up from Mexico. Both Spanish colonial dances and dances of Mexican influence were popular, many of them done to waltz or polka music. The "fandango," or Spanish ball, was a popular assembly where dancing and socializing took place. However, the opposition of the churches to dancing was particularly strong in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, resulting in the flourishing of "play parties" instead of dances. Another factor in this region was the great distances that separated people, as well as the scarcity of both musicians and women. On the great cattle ranches of West Texas, people would come from fifty miles around if a fiddler were found and a dance scheduled. The furniture would be taken out of the largest room in the house, and the dancing would continue until dawn. Given the gender ratio, men would either wait their turn to dance or put on an apron or tie a scarf around their arm and dance the woman's part. With regional variations, these same square dances and couple dances took hold throughout the Great Plains, including the Canadian Prairie Provinces. In addition to private homes, granges and military posts provided settings for dances and social gatherings.

In the twentieth century these dance forms continued in pockets throughout the Great Plains, but a new approach to folk dancing developed. Researchers, teachers, and recreation leaders revived the dances of the previous century and made them popular once again, but this time as a recreational activity. Researchers also collected ethnic dances in Europe and brought them again to the United States. Over time, square dancing evolved into a highly organized activity with a long sequence of lessons required before dancers could join clubs.

A folk dance that is currently popular in the Plains states is the contra dance, a "longways" dance in which couples face each other in long lines. Contra dancing, which originated in England and was popular in colonial America, employs figures used in square dancing but keeps them to a limited number. It endured in New England and has now become popular across the country. A major feature of contra dancing is the use of live, rather than recorded, music. In the Canadian provinces, club square dancing and international folk are the predominant folk dance activities. All the current folk dance forms–contra, square, and international folk–are sustained by local associations as well as regional and national organizations, some of which produce annual festivals to further promote their activity.

Enid Cocke Manhattan, Kansas Susan Sanders Lawrence, Kansas

Casey, Betty. Dance across Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Harris, Jane A., Anne M. Pittman, Marlys S. Waller, and Cathy L. Dark. Dance a While. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Shaw, Lloyd. Cowboy Dances. Caldwell id: Caxton Printers, 1939.

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