Square Dance History Project
The rich story of North American square dance finally has a home in the digital age.

Everyone dances!

Article in The Saturday Evening Post, 1941

Somewhere in your community there's a square dance tonight. At your country club, in a hotel ballroom, at the town hall, the rural school or the farmhouse barn, groups ranging up to hundreds are dancing, shouting and laughing as the caller cries:

      "Turn right back on the same old track
       And swing that gal behind you!"

Mildly popular when limited to staid and inflexible New England quadrilles, square dancing suddenly has captured the public fancy under the impact of the free-and-easy, informal and hilarious cowboy dances. From coast to coast it is epidemic. The younger set is discovering the sweep and freedom of a diversion supposed, until recently, to be suited only to their parents. Manufacturers face a bottleneck in supplying the booming demand for square-dance costumes. Fiddlers prosper.  ...

Credit for popularizing the cowboy square belongs largely to a Colorado schoolmaster. Through his student dancers from the Cheyenne Mountain suburban public school at Colorado Springs, Dr. Lloyd Shaw, an educator with the instincts of a showman and the zeal of a missionary, has spread the square-dance gospel from Broadway to Sunset Boulevard. He loves square dancing for its color and lustiness, but his crusading spirit is born of the conviction that it fosters the spread of democratic processes.

Steamboat Springs - magazine articles

Two magazine articles

Two magazine articles gave publicity to the new square dance festival in Steamboat Springs. Newsweek covered the first festival in its issue of August 28, 1950, and Collier's followed the next year (August 18, 1951) with a two-page color spread.

Square Dance - Steamboat Springs, 1951

Steamboat Springs, 1951, home movie

This silent movie shows children dancing at the second annual Square Dance Festival held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The event garnered national attention. At the first festival, in 1950, about 100 persons were expected but 3,000 turned out, an indicator of the wide popularity that square dance was developing at this time.

Steamboat Springs - ribbons

Steamboat Springs, ribbons

Program of the World's Largest Square Dance, 1950

When the city of Santa Monica, CA, celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, Lloyd Shaw was invited to be the Grand Marshal of the parade and the MC for the square dance that followed, July 13, 1950. Streets were blocked off, PA systems were erected, and some 30,000 people watched as more than 15,000 participants square danced for five hours, into the evening. This program records who called which dances.

Pappy Shaw introduces Cal Golden at the caller's mic

A complete audio recording of the event has been preserved, and we hope eventually to make it available through this site. In this excerpt, Lloyd Shaw introduces, from the Pikes Peak region, "Sgt. Cal Golden of the U.S. Air Force." Shaw tells the crowd that Golden has the distinction of hosting the largest square dance ever held at an Army air field, 1700 dancers. He reveals that Golden "is supposed to ship out tonight. There's a little trouble across the big wet," referring to the Korean War that had started the previous month.

Schlitz beer ad, 1950

Ad for Schlitz beer, with square dance theme, 1950

Full page ad for Schlitz beer that appeared in Newsweek magazine, August 21, 1950, attesting to the popularity of square dance in popular culture.

Modern Western square dancers were not pleased to see square dancing depicted in beer ads, as dancers in many towns depended on the alcohol-free image of their activity for permission to use schools, churches, and other public spaces. In the 1950s and 1960s the major square dance magazines mounted letter-writing campaigns to get beer companies to withdraw their ads.

Hires Root Beer, square dance booklet, 1950

Across the continent from Santa Monica, the Hires Root Beer company in Philadelphia drew on the local fame of fiddler and caller Chris Sanderson as the public face for a 16-page booklet distributed in 1950 as part of the square dance craze of that time. The booklet calls Sanderson "the most famous man in square dancing" and cites numerous accomplishments: four square dances a week for the past 17 years, a total of more than 3,000 appearances (including eleven at the National Folk Festival). The booklet gives dance directions and describes how to host a square dance party with Hires as the beverage of choice.