Allemande left to the corners all, swing your partners ‘round the hall …. If you immediately related to that ditty, then you obviously appreciate the fine art of square dancing.
The great Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero once said, “Nobody dances unless he is drunk or unbalanced mentally.” Few would agree with that today.
Many of our dance terms are adaptations of early French expressions, for example, “dos a dos” (back to back) is now “doe si doe”, and “a la main” (by the hand) becomes the easier version “allemande”.
The Old English had a great dance called the Morris – an exhibition done by trained teams of six men in two rows of three. That led to “longways” or “line dances” done in two opposing columns (as we see in some period movies).
History shows eight-dancer groups were popular in England over 300 years ago, and were termed “running sets.” The French adapted the English country dance into antics called Quadrille (squares), and that is considered the forerunner of the modern square dance.
Henry Ford used to vacation in Massachusetts and loved to watch the various dance routines at the inn where he stayed. Back home in Detroit he developed a curriculum for teaching squares, established radio programs, and produced a reference book. Ford promoted square dancing in schools and among his factory workers with the idea it would improve co-ordination, manners, social values and exercise.
Later another great, Lloyd Shaw, delved into all the old country dancing and produced a book “Cowboy Dances”. He taught classes and soon square dancing took off like wildfire.
Everyone danced frequently and memorized the steps to a wide variety of capers. Square dancing veered slightly from the traditional ‘memory dance’ when it was realized that a caller could have everyone in the square, plus two or three squares in close proximity, all doing the same moves at the same time. With the arrival of the microphone one caller could manage a whole dance hall.
Rural areas kept traditional dances alive as community gatherings were frequent entertainment in homes or the one-room school house. It seemed like every school section had its own pianist, plus fiddle or banjo players who could belt out the toe tappin’ tunes.
S.S. #12 (Glenlee) in Minto Township was a perfect example of a place where the dancing spirit included school children as well as adults. In 1955 a lively group of young steppers were called the Glenlee Square Dancers. This group of eight was led by school marm Elizabeth (Sanderson) Rourke. Also included in the routine was Roy McEachern on banjo, Albert Weber the violinist, and Marion Sinclair at the piano while husband, Bobby called the numbers. Their son, Archie, remembers practicing and practicing at home, where two of his siblings were also
members of the set.
It all paid off when they went to the competition in Arthur for the Orangemen’s Day Parade and Events. Later the group participated at local fall fairs. While the children came on stage and took their places in readiness for the dance, they sang “Davey Crockett”, and those words were emblazoned on the boys t-shirts.
Rural Weddings were also a great time of community celebration. A few weeks after the wedding a wide circle of friends and neighbors gathered to honor the newlyweds with a “reception” or evening of folk dancing. These were held in the one-room country school house and later the community centre.
But dancing wasn’t restricted to the rural areas. The Harriston “Hog Wrassle”, a regular year-round Saturday evening dance, attracted singles and couples from miles around. Held upstairs at the Legion, the old wooden floors would be just a-thumpin’ from the prancing partners in polkas, schottisches and square dances.
Community entertainment spilled over into various organizations, and the Junior Farmers chose square dancing as part of their program. In the early ‘60s, when nearly every township had a club, Minto Junior Farmers decided to enter the county square dancing competition to be held the following spring. I was fortunate enough to be part of that group, and just as said earlier – we practiced & practiced. Every Monday night we drove to Fergus to the home of Jimmy Leybourne, considered one of the best, both as a caller and instructor. And there our gang, who were used to the wild spirit of the Saturday-night dances, had to pull in our horns to more rigid standards. For “swing” the norm was round and round where the man often tried to swing his partner right off her feet. The squares grew larger and larger, mistakes were made, and couples were often six-beats late for the next instructional call – but no one cared.
In competitive square dancing there is a certain protocol and Leybourne was adamant that it be followed. The square was to remain small, and a swing was only once around.
Our crinolined-skirted / matching-necktie set persevered and we were rewarded the following spring by winning the Wellington County Junior Farmer Square Dancing Competition. A year later we were second in the Provincials.
Leybourne was proud of our group and secured a position for us on live television – Circle 8 Ranch on CKNX Wingham. Here, the ‘small’ square was really important. We had to stay within a very tiny area or we would literally dance ourselves right off the camera.
We also competed at the annual Old Tyme Fiddlers Jamboree in Dundalk. This was a prestigious event where, although we didn’t win, we placed exceptionally well.
For some competitions the group required a caller specific to the unit. For this we gave up one of our lead dancers, Warren Ross, and Mr. Leybourne trained him to do the call chants as well as some singing versions. In his place we picked up another Teviotdale farm lad, Ken Douglas.
Even now, decades later, when I bump into Warren, my mind still hears him singing: “The side couples arch, and the head couples go under, you dip and you dive, go home without a blunder. It’s allemande left as you greet your corner lady, right hand to your partner and you swing that gal around”
There’s a point where one is too old for junior groups, and too young for seniors. These mid-range adults started a troop based in Palmerston and called themselves the Norwell Twirlers. From that original cast of the late ‘60s only Harriston’s Doug and Dorelene Anderson are still actively square dancing. They squared in the basement of the Masonic Hall, plus many nights were spent when the “Caboose Club” danced in the Carol and Vi Homuth sunroom.
Al Havling was their first caller, followed by John Davidson who also called for King Gannon and the Tommy Hunter Show.
This group squared for fun rather than competition, and drove to Hanover for a weekly social event which had 14 or 15 sets of eight each time, and included a beginners club.
In l982 U.S. President Ronald Regan signed an Act of Congress to make square dancing the official national folk dance. In turn, 19 states have adopted it as their own official state dance. Florida is one which has many active square dancing communities.
During that era another group of Minto Junior Farmers wanted assistance, so Doug and Dorelene Anderson took them under their wing and taught these juniors what they had learned. That group went on to secure both county and provincial trophies.
Doug saw a need for callers so he obtained the words for many of the dances and practiced calling to records until he became proficient at square dance calls. He and Dorelene then taught beginners in Hanover for over 20 years. Unfortunately the Hanover Happy Twirlers are now down to about four squares each week.
Bert Thomas spent his teenage and young adult years in Harriston during the 1940s, while his father was minister of the United Church. His sister Hilda (Mrs. Walter) Bridge farmed on White’s Road near Palmerston. Bert married a local gal, Mary Kerr, but later in life as a single senior, started wintering in Florida. In the Fort Meyers area, where he now permanently resides, he became involved with the local square dancers. One winter he had no partner for the set so he was paired up with recently-widowed Alice from Oklahoma.
Alice admits, “I didn’t like him at first,” but after being partners, dancing together as much as three, four and sometimes five nights a week, they eventually danced themselves right into one another’s hearts. They became life partners in 1990. Their wedding night consisted of none other than ….. an evening of square dancing!
For years Bert and Alice “summered” in the Harriston area where they still have property and many friends.
As participants are fond of saying, “Square Dancing is a friendship set to music”.