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Frontier Dances - Bob Cook

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Frontier Dances - Bob Cook


A native of Colorado, Bob Cook's dancing experiences go back to the time when he was a seventh grader at the Cheyenne Mountain School. He was a member of the Cheyenne Mountain Dancers from 1939 to 1941. In this series of articles published Square Dancing magazine from May 1971 thrugh September 1972, Cook looks at a series of chapters that created the dances of the West. (Cook's articles are complemented by a subsequently published series of articles by Ralph Page that looked at the European roots of dancing and focused on dances of New England.)

1 Frontier Dance - The Beginning: focuses on the early Spanish and Mexican dances, and the broad European dances that shaped those of the New World

"To look for the earliest appearance of European dances on the frontier, we must begin long before the covered wagons appeared, before the Sioux had moved from Minnesota to the Great Plains (circa 1670), before the Cheyennes crossed to the west bank of the Missouri River (circa 1690), and even before the dour and joyless Pilgrim Fathers clumped ashore at Plymouth Rock. The significant date for the dance historian is January 26, 1598, when Don Juan de Oñate led his colonizing expedition northward toward New Mexico."

2 Covered Wagon Era: looks at the decade of intense migration from 1841–1851, an examines the new settlers: where did they come from? what dances did they bring with them? what (scarce) documentation do we have about dancing on the way west?

"Who were the first people who, beginning in 1841, drove their wagons westward from Missouri? They came mostly from the border states and territories: Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, western Kentucky and Tennessee. The really diversified representation, the "all-American" population, would not appear in sizeable numbers until California gold fever struck in 1849. Thus, such records as we have of dances along the California and Oregon Trails must concern dances common to those border states between 1830 and 1851."

3 The Miner's Dance: With the Pike's Peak Gold Rush of 1859, vast numbers of people swarmed into Colorado from all parts of the U.S., bringing with them music and dance styles from their home regions.

"1841-1890 was the Golden Age of the Frontier Dance. All that was really exciting and interesting happened in that time — rounds, couple dances, quadrilles, the development of the wild squares. Interesting influences came in with European immigrants, and more influences and variations came in from New England and the mid-Atlantic states. After the Civil War very important things would come up from Texas and New Mexico, and would continue to come from the Midwest."

4 The Clodhopper Dance: Cook argues that it was the farmers who settled the West who made the greatest change in creating a truly American form of dance.

"Included in the cargo the farmer brought west was the American dance — not the "court" dances of economic royalty but the dances known and loved by the folks back home, wherever that had been. It was compounded of dances brought by the Scots, the Irish, the French, the Spanish, by a happier breed of Englishman than the Pilgrim Fathers with their lead shod souls, by black slaves, by Swedes, by all the other nationalities that somehow found their way across the Atlantic."

5 The Cowboy Dance: Cook looks at the larger-than-life role that The Cowboy has played in American mythology, and argues that the cowboy elements have been much exaggerated.

"The so-called Cowboy Dance, in fact, did not really appear until after 1930, when Lloyd Shaw undertook his monumental and nearly single-handed revival of the Frontier Dance. This dance remained basically the old Clodhopper Dance, with some cowboy words thrown in. The dancing public, excited by this fine dancing which they themselves had let slip almost into oblivion, assumed that any "western" dance revival had to concern itself with dances of the cowboys, and at once the official costume became a strange sort of garb which we would call "latter-day cowboy."

6 The Great Revival focuses on the United States in the 1930s, the conditions that lay behind a renewed interest in traditional arts, and the pivotal role played by Lloyd Shaw.

"The whole history of the square dance is chiefly one of sociology and economics, and the warped socio-economics of the 1930's not only furnished an atmosphere in which the old dances could re-green and grow again but also made a great portion of the population again receptive to them. The greatest single response of Americans to their adversities was a resurgence of self-reliance, for there was no money with which to purchase escape and entertainment, nor any of the expensive forms these things had begun to take in American culture. Deprived even of the means of seeing a weekend movie, people turned more and more back to the old traditions and skills. Homemade music, singing and dancing (and homemade beer!) became as common as they had been in 1900. Various government programs made possible the formation of skills and crafts centers, brought about a revival of folk-crafts and handwork. We were urged to turn back to the earth and simplicity which had nurtured us— indeed, there was nowhere else for us to turn."

7 Fun To Fashion: At the conclusion of his historical survey, Cook was asked to reflect on the modern form of square dancing that had emerged from the many currents cited in his articles. His verdict was blunt.

"Like bowling, square dancing has taken on the trappings of a middle class sport. As a sport, it has spawned a whole array of dance-based industries which have made the whole activity as universal and organized as any other organized sport, including advice on the proper use of deodorants and the avoidance of "greasy kid stuff." The square dance has become smug rather than fun, tightly organized rather than loose and easy-going, constricted by artificial rules rather than by such old verities as the limitations of the human body, imagination, or sense of humor. Real patter calling (and the patter dancing which went with it) are now nearly unknown, and the impromptu spur-of-the-joyous-moment elements of the original square dance have been displaced by a strict and rigid etiquette of dancing conduct. The modern dance is becoming brittle and routinized. This has happened before in the history of the dance, always with disastrous results."



Square Dancing magazine

Date Created

May 1971 - September 1972


Spatial Coverage

Item Relations

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