In 1973, American square dancers tried to call the tune with the House of Representatives, urging it to act quickly on legislation near and dear to their hearts. “What’s the hold up? Get busy now. Let’s not wait any longer,” one demanded. “We’re still waiting for some results,” another pressed, concerned that a years-long petition drive to enshrine the uniquely American folk dance was proceeding more like a slow waltz than an up-tempo jig.
From the mid-1960s through the early 21st century, square dancers from around the country made these demands using petitions, form letters, and handwritten notes. Preserved as House records, this correspondence communicated what turned out to be a not-so-simple request: designate the square dance as the national folk dance of the United States. Although the designation seemed an obvious choice to square dancers, the movement encountered opposition to a national dance that did not represent all Americans.
Steeped in tradition, folk dances are rituals commonly practiced by the people of a region or nation. Evolved from a variety of dances, the traditional American square dance traces its roots back centuries. Four couples—each serving as one side of the square—execute a variety of geometric patterns and moves in time with music. The square formation, as well as many moves, were drawn from the cotillions and quadrilles that were popular in France and England during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some common steps retained their French names, such as the allemande and the promenade. The familiar do-si-do is an Americanized derivation of the French term dos-à-dos, translating as back-to-back.
Square dancing spread across the United States, evolving and adopting a unique flair in each region. Although its popularity fluctuated, square dancing maintained many loyal enthusiasts. During a 1940s revival of the dance style, organizations and clubs formed to host dances, train new recruits, and promote their activity. Within a few decades, these organizations wanted to affirm the importance of square dancing through national legislation.
Through efforts coordinated by national and regional associations, square dancers lobbied Congress to make their hobby the country’s official folk dance. The arguments included in their letters and petitions recommending the designation remained largely unchanged throughout their 40-year crusade. They asserted that square dancing was a great American tradition dating back to at least 1651. Because of its connection to various folk dances from around the world, supporters argued that it reflected the cultural diversity of the country. “It most certainly is a wonderful pastime and since this country is a mixture of all nations and our square and round dances originated in this manner also it seems most fitting,” one advocate wrote.
Not only did square dancing represent America’s history and heritage, it also promoted American values, manners, and etiquette according to its proponents. One form letter asserted that square dancers proved to be “fun-loving, honest, uniquely patriotic and good solid citizens of our country.” Moreover, it served as a social activity for people of all ages and abilities. During a 1988 hearing about designating the square dance as the American folk dance, Representative Leon Panetta of California testified to these values. “Square dancing is an activity that symbolizes, I think, the country’s basic strengths: the unity of the family and a spirit of equality in which all people can equally enjoy this form of dancing.” He continued, “It is truly, I feel, symbolic of the vitality, diversity, history and wholesomeness of this country.”
Between 1971 and 2003, various Members introduced legislation to make square dancing the national folk dance in nearly every Congress. Advocates were temporarily appeased when S. J. Res. 59 bestowed the honor on the dance for just one year, from 1982 to 1983, but no permanent designation ever passed. The various bills drew dozens of co-sponsors, but never enough support to become law. Despite the leagues of support from dance enthusiasts and some Members of Congress, the movement frequently met opposition.
The opposition’s response was best demonstrated during a hearing held by the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service Subcommittee on Census and Population—the committee tasked with overseeing commemorative legislation—during the summer of 1984.
Letters and testimonies shared with the committee voiced concerns about selecting a single dance to represent the country’s diverse population. Largely the product of Western European traditions, some argued the square dance did not represent a significant portion of Americans. “While square dancing is a shared activity of so many Americans, it is not a heritage shared by all,” the president of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington wrote in a letter to Subcommittee Chair Katie Hall. Other folklife experts agreed, including the Director of Florida Folklife Programs who encouraged Representative Hall to “withdraw support for this bill. . . and support measures that acknowledge the diversity reflected in folk dance.” He cited the importance of polka dancing, the hora, and clogging, especially to his fellow Floridians. The Louisiana state folklorist made a similar case against square dancing, by illustrating the diverse dance traditions of his state, from Creole zydeco dances and Cajun two steps to Choctaw circle dances.
Others worried that officially designating any national folk dance would set an unmanageable precedent. A statement denouncing the legislation hyperbolically asked, “Do you want your taxes being wasted in bickering over the selection of a national food, tree, flower, bug, or flavor of ice cream?” Simply put, did a national folk dance really need to be selected? Others shared similar concerns about elevating square dancing to the elite status of national symbols, which only included the national anthem, the bald eagle, the flag, the Great Seal, and the American rose. “It is our impression that Members of Congress have supported this legislation because they mistakenly believed it to be a routine commemorative gesture—not the creation of a new national symbol.”
The Committee on Post Office and Civil Service acknowledged square dancing’s importance to American folk life, but ultimately sided with those who believed it did not represent the culturally diverse nation. H. R. 1706, the bill at the center of the 1984 hearing, died in committee and no national folk dance was named. Efforts on behalf of square dancers continued throughout the 1980s and the early 2000s, but did not find success in the House. Determined to receive some recognition for their favorite hobby, enthusiasts redirected their efforts to individual state legislatures, many of which have selected the square dance as a state dance.
Although Congress never designated it as the national folk dance, the square dance remains a popular activity across the United States and around the globe.
Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 93rd Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; Designate Square Dance as American Folk Dance, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Census and Population of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, House, 100th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 June 1988); H.J. Res. 555, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (1971); H.R. 1706, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (1983); H.J. Res. 180, 101st Cong., 1st sess. (1989); H.J. Res. 15, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (2001); H.R. 645, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (2003); Designating the square dance as the national folk dance of the United States, 96 Stat. 104 (1 June 1982); Square Dance Legislation collection (AFC 1984/024), Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Phil Jamison, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015); S. Foster Damon, The History of Square Dancing (Worcester, MA, The Davis Press, 1952); Smithsonian Magazine, “Square Dancing is Uniquely American,” accessed 4 March 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/square-dancing-uniquely-american-180967329/; GeorgiaInfo, “Georgia State Folk Dance,” accessed 4 March 2020, https://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/government/article/georgia-state-symbols/georgia-state-folk-dance-square-dancing.Follow @USHouseHistory