Western Dance History
Country Western Dance
by Jake Fuller
Dance, along with music, has always dynamically expressed the spirit and personality of every culture. Modern western dance is part of this global language and its roots run wide and deep. They can be traced to the taverns of Ireland and to the ballrooms of Europe, to the Czarist palaces of Russia and further back still to the fluid tribal rituals of Africa. Representatives from all of these cultures brought their native dances when they landed in America. Widely differing peoples who had little or no exposure to one another gathered and danced on common ground.
The cowboy was not the most limber of creatures. The long hours in the saddle and strenuous work produced dancers of questionable finesse. He was not of a temperament to master intricate dance steps or to gracefully lead a fair maiden across the floor to the strains of a fiddler's reel. Rather he would join a dance with a wild whoop and a goat cry. Joseph McCoy, the first great cattle baron, wrote in 1874 that the cowboy “usually enters the dance with a peculiar zest, his eyes lit up with excitement, liquor and lust. He stomps in without stopping to divest himself of his sombrero, spurs or pistols”. This dance style was not so much original as it was a spontaneous adaptation of traditional moves brought West by various immigrant cultures.
Puritanical thought, religious prohibitions, and traditional customs firmly established in the East began to move West with the pioneers. Worldly pleasures such as dancing were often frowned upon and, when not altogether banned, were designed to keep contact and spontaneity at a minimum. Consequently it was the minuet, cotillion, pattern dances, courtly processions, and “safe” folk dances that were favored by the early settlers.
The open unexplored spaces of the West both shaped the character and determined the inter- action of its settlers. People organized barn dances, husking and quilting bees, cowboy balls and get-togethers. Invitation was by word of mouth and those who heard usually came to dance. To prevent chaos from dominating the dance floor (few people knew the same steps), a figure who soon became legendary emerged. This hero was the caller and it was his job to orchestrate the heterogeneous crowd into harmonious movement.
Working with the steps of formal quadrilles and folk dances, he added a “cowboy waltz” position and helped promote the square dance. This new hybrid was considerably more casual that the traditions from which it derived, but it still inhibited the young who were ready for a dance that would add a more intimate hold on their partner.
A new dance called the Polka started moving West. Having “the intimacy of the Waltz and the vivacity of the Irish jig”, the Polka was embraced with enthusiasm.
The western population included such groups as Poles, Germans, French, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Czechs, and Russians. Each still enjoyed its own folk dances but many found common refuge in the polka. New hybrids were also developed, creating offspring such as the Varsouvianna and the Two Step. German settlers in El Paso, Texas developed the Schottische and line dances which were important precursors of modern western dances such as the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
Folks gathered just about anywhere to dance – on ranches, in barns, in wide open spaces under the stars. Slowly a dance that was specifically “western” began to emerge. Novelty moves and styles popular in Appalachia and the South came West and were absorbed by the new settlers. Freed Black Americans, in particular, exerted a stylistic influence that can still be seen in today's country swing danceing. However, the most important influence came from the cowboy!
The cowboy paid little attention to traditional dance forms. One observer commented in 1873 that “some punchers danced like a bear 'round a beehive that was afraid of getting stung. Others didn't seem to know how to handle a calico, and got as rough as they do handlin' cattle in brandin' pens”.
The swing of the leg when dismounting from a horse became a mighty Polka gallop. Women were handled as if the cowboy were throwing a bleating calf to the ground to be branded. Heavy army-issue boots contributed to crude footwork. The habit of wearing spurs, even on the dance floor, forced the cowboy to keep his feet apart and shuffle as he moved to the music. Several of these cowboy mannerisms, although tamed, survive in today's modern western dance. The “double arms over” move is reminiscent of the final “tying off” of a calf's legs prior to branding. The basic “push pull” position recaptures the rhythm of grasping the reins.
The beginning of the Twentieth Century brought new music and dance. In the middle of this explosion was the Black American. Their principal source of relaxation and entertainment had been their music and dance. In the old South, contests were frequently held on the plantation to see “who owned the fastest dancer”. Fascinated and envious of the rhythmic freedom of Blacks, Whites later “corked up” in black face and toured the country.
By the turn of the century, carnivals, minstrel shows, medicine shows and eventually vaudeville routines frequently showcased Black dancers or White imitators. The Black dance style was referred to as “jazz” or “eccentric dancing”. These fast, gyrating, acrobatic and tap dances had names like the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, Kangaroo Dip, and Chicken Scratch. Black dance was viewed as a novelty, sometimes ridiculed, but the intricate footwork and fluid motions of Black performers were slowly seeping into America's dance repertoire.
By 1916, two years after the Great War began, New Orleans jazz was in full bloom. Just one year later, historian Bernard Grun proclaimed Chicago the “world's jazz center”. Inspired by the improvisational elements in jazz, couples began to experiment on the dance floor: They sep- arated, broke apart, twirled, and jigged.
Throughout the 1920s, radio brought music to the whole nation. Chicago radio station WLS began broadcasting the “National Barn Dance” in 1924. A year later the now famous “Grand Ole Opry” from Nashville was initiated.
In the late 1920s, George “Shorty” Snowden brought the entire Savoy Ballroom audience to its feet with his rapid, break-away solo steps. Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in 1927 in one dramatic “hop” and, when Snowden was asked what his dance was called, he replied, the “Lindy Hop”.
In 1938 Benny Goodman ushered in a new jazz style. His big band swing sound was listened to around the world and soon the Lindy Hop gave birth to the Jitterbug, a fast moving combination of fancy footwork and elaborate spins, twirls and turns, many of which can still be seen in contemporary country Swing moves.
One of the many fascinated listeners in the West was Bob Wills. When jazz hit, Bob was struck. Eventually he formed his own western big band and helped create a genre of music known as Western Swing. Today's modern country swing dance derives directly from the music Wills played and the way people danced to it.
A new musical tempo could be heard after the Second Word War. Be-bop, a kind of wild and dizzying swing offshoot popular in big cities quickly gave birth to “pop” music. Rockabilly arrived in the '50s and by the middle of the decade had become known as Rock 'n' Roll.
Rock 'n roll was music of the '50s, but the dance that accompanied it was very similar to Jitterbug and Swing. The style of dance changed dramatically in the early 1960s when partners were couples only in name and where each allowed his body to dance directly to the sounds, lights and strobes.
Couple dancing regained popularity in the mid 1970s with the emergence of Disco. In the late 1970s, as Disco died and country music rose in popularity, a resurgence of interest in western dance emerged. Older dancers suddenly became models for a new generation.
Now that Swing is back, people are dancing into the '90s with a smile, a hat, and a friendly attitude!