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by John Brant

Dancing Speed:
Was it faster in past years?

A conversation with Don Ward
about the history of Square Dancing speed.

By John Brant

QUESTION: The history of Square Dancing is not as clear cut as the history of other subjects. Before such people as Dr. Shaw , Ed Durlacker, Herb Greggerso, and Bob Osgood began writing about square dancing in the late 40's and early 50's there was very little written. How is possible for us to know if dancing was faster or slower than today during the times before those writings?

DON: Actually there are a few acoustic Victor recordings of "country dances" in the period of early 1900's. The next recorded history is the Henry Ford collection recorded in the late 20's and early 30's. The problem with the Ford recordings is that they were based on an "Elite" form of dance not the common square dance. Next are the folk dance recordings of the late 30's-40's. It was not until the early 50's that any square dance labels were formed. Up until then Victor, Bluebird, Columbia and in the late 40's Decca with the Duel In the Sun/Pappy Shaw records were the only source of "square dance" music/calls.

QUESTION: How fast was Square Dancing done in the period from 1880 to the beginning of the Ford era in the 1920's?

DON: Early hoedown music notations called for tempos in the 120's beats per minute (BPM). Today's records are recorded from 128 to 132 BPM. Square dancing was not popular in the country during this period of time.

QUESTION: How fast was the dancing in the 30's and 40's?

DON: Dance speeds were fairly consistent on the 1930-40 folk dance recordings, 126-132 BPM. The Ford tempos were 114-120 BPM. In the late 40's some French Canadian Square Dance recordings were produced by Victor of Canada and Bluebird at speeds of 132-134 BPM. The New England and French Canadian dancers had a short almost clogging step allowing for the faster tempos.

QUESTION: When in the history of Square Dancing did dancing speeds peak?

DON: The Texas style is where tempos began to creep upward. The 1950's saw tempos creep upward to 132-134 BPM. These were found on the "new" square dance labels. The folk dance labels were still holding to 124-128. Again the French Canadian influence was felt on the Eastern based "Folk Dancer" label with music by Bob Hill and His Canadian Boys playing up to 132-134 BPM. The late 1950's and early 60's saw tempos at 138 BPM. With the continuous movement choreography of that time period it was not difficult to dance at this tempo. I actually tried it again and at age 68 did not find it that uncomfortable. The key was that the forward body movement never stopped. Speed walkers set this pace all the time for longer periods than 3.5 minutes of a dance.

QUESTION: Was the faster style of dancing in the 1940's and 1950's a rougher, jarring kind of dance?

DON: No. The dancing I did in the 1940-1950's was a lot smoother than the choreography we do today. In those days choreography maintained forward motion. You never stopped moving... There was none of today's turn, stop, turn, change direction, go forward four steps and repeat the cycle.

QUESTION: Were Square Dancing records recorded at faster speeds in the 1970's and 1980's than now?

DON: I would qualify it as many of the records of the 70's were recorded at the same speed as today, 128-132 BPM. We tend to think that the 60's & 70's were fast, however some of the mid 80's recordings released were at 132-136 BPM.

QUESTION: If many of the recordings of the seventies were not faster than now, then why do many people who danced in the seventies think it was faster?

DON: I am beginning to doubt the actual BPM changed from that recorded. I suspect it was more a perceived speed increase because of the choreography in relationship to almost everything being "boom-chuck" and because of the nature of the rhythm people were taking smaller steps thus having to "hurry" to get through the sequence. Callers may well have been giving the correct amount of beat timing but dancers couldn't cover the required floor distance comfortably with short steps.....thus they thought it was being called fast. Slowing the music down allowed them to adjust their stride a little or cut a corner here and there.

QUESTION: Was there ever a period of time when tempos were over 150 BPM or even as high as 160 BPM?

DON: I don't have a single recording above 140 beats per minute. The fastest I ever danced was at the Santa Monica Diamond Jubilee when Arnie Kronenberger called to live music at 142 BPM.

QUESTION: Has the speed of dancing slowed because of the average age of dancers going up?

DON: This is true to a point, but only if current choreography is used. The choreography of the 50's could be danced at faster speeds by many of today's dancers if it weren't for some on the dance floor that cannot walk 100 steps a minute. To this end dancing has slowed in some areas in order to accommodate slower dancers. And they are dictating, by their actions, how the rest of the dancers dance if callers call to the slowest squares on the floor.

QUESTION: What importance does "rhythm" play in the speed of the dance?

DON: Straight 2/4 & 4/4 time will cause the dancer to take moderate length strides of 20 up to 30 inches. Boom-chuck, which is dominant in today's music, will cause the dancer to cut his stride length in half. A 20-30 inch step is reduced and now covers a shorter distance for each beat of music. We dance in short choppy steps and this hampers the dancing speed.

QUESTION: If the dancing speeds were increased to that of the 1940's and 1950's would more young people be attracted to Square Dancing?

DON: I don't believe so. Look at the "traditionalists" example. Their dance speed 50 years ago averaged 128 BPM. Today they still dance 124-130 BPM and are attracting people in their 20, 30, 40, 50's with their live music.

QUESTION: Is the slowing down of dancing speeds one of the causes of the decline of Square Dancing?

DON: I just don't believe we can make "speed" into a voo-doo doll to stick pins in to justify today's decline in square dancing. There is ample written history that as square dancing became more complex, becoming more exclusive rather than inclusive, the number of new dancers entering the activity began to diminish. This is based on fact! The traditional square and contra dance movement continues to grow in both numbers and lower age of dancers. Why? Limited number of movements, descriptive calling, ease of entry.

Thanks go to Don Ward for sharing his knowledge on this subject. Don, and his wife Shirley, started dancing in 1947 in the Los Angeles area. Don has been calling since the late 1940's. He is a contributing editor to American Square Dance Magazine.

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.

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