Square Dancing designated as
"The Official National Folk Dance" - good or bad idea?

By: John Brant

Passing legislation to make Square Dancing the state and nationally designated "Official National Folk Dance" sounds like a good idea to most square dancers. It would give us pride in our hobby and would be good publicity. We need all the help we can get promoting our wonderful hobby. How can anyone oppose such a good idea? There are, however, a large number of people who oppose the idea. This is an issue that has sparked controversy across the board with many people in many different forms of dance.

Square dancers have been trying to get official declarations at the national level for about 20 years. In 1984 and 1988 Congress voted down proposals permanently making square dancing the national official folk dance. The fight has been taken to the states where about half of the states have now designated Square Dancing as the state's official folk dance (has passed in California). The strategy of square dancers is to get the designation passed in most states before trying again at the national level.

Stephen Zisk, an enthusiast of many dance forms and a round dance cuer from Seattle, is one of those many people opposed. He believes the legislative campaign is being done with as an expression of pride of square dancers, but other views have not been considered. He says, "I believe this pride in the activity is good, but the effort to express it by getting an "exclusive" label is bad. We would do much better to direct this energy into recruitment, image changes, and other necessary activities to help the survival of square dancing. When we see lobbyists trying to get declarations of "official" support for the consumption of milk or meat, designations of special holidays, or other "pork-barrel perks," we are concerned and angry. If we could see ourselves as many "folkies" see us, as special-interest lobbyists trying to force unreasonable ideas on an unwitting public, we would be similarly angry".

The central argument surrounds the definition of "folk dance" and if making square dancing the national folk dance will be of any benefit. Stephen Zisk says, "MWSD (Modern Western Square Dancing) is no more a "folk" activity than bowling or fishing. To be sure, MWSD could be considered a derivative of a folk activity, just as bowling is a derivative of earlier games (Bocci) which might qualify as a folk activity. But these considerations do not make MWSD a folk dance in its current form". Veronica McClure, a dance enthusiast from Harvard, said "I am concerned that the dance community does not understand that there are lots and lots of people who not only oppose the idea but harbor bad feelings towards MWSD because of it. Personally, I think this country needs ideas and symbols which unite it rather than cause further divisiveness. I also remain greatly concerned that the powers-that-be within MWSD did not share with the rank and file dancers the reasons why congress rejected this petition twice before. Also, do dancers understand the thousands if not over a million dollars that we force all taxpayer to cough up when such specialty petitions are finally brought up in congress and that these proceedings take up time on an agenda that should be looking at far more serious matters? I question what the modern square dance community thinks it will get out of any designation as the American folk dance. What has happened in states where the declaration has been achieved? Is square dancing flourishing there and not in the states which don't have the declaration?"

Winning the battle in Congress would be a large victory indeed. Congress has only designated 5 national symbols in history. They are: the Flag, the Great Seal, the National Anthem, the Bald Eagle , and the American Rose. But would it be a hollow victory? Remember, the country nearly allowed the Bald Eagle to become extinct. Background of this article: When I started to write an article about this subject I figured it would be a short "fluff" article about how nice it might be to some day have square dancing the official "National Folk Dance". Little did I know, until starting to read about the subject and contacting the opposition , it was a very "hot" topic with fans of other forms of dance. Thanks go to Stephen Zisk (an amateur dance historian and cuer from Seattle), Veronica McClure (a Harvard dance historian), and Julie Mangin (author of an influential article on the Internet) for their help putting this article together. With their help we square dancers are able to see the issue is more complicated than we knew, and the feelings of people in other dance forms need to be considered when discussing this issue.

This article may be reprinted with no further permission from the authors and/or publications. Permission has been granted in advance for the reprinting with the stipulation that credit be given to the contributing author/publisher.