Square dance emphasizes New York's folk roots

Students and visitors filled the MacVittie College Union Ballroom on Nov. 8 in a celebration of a form of dance that has deep roots in western New York’s history. Led by Geneseo lecturer of music James Kimball, the Geneseo String Band played through classic square dance songs for the eager crowd. A folk dance that reached its peak popularity in the early part of the 20th century, the square dance got its name from the arrangement of the dancers in squares of four couples. Square dancing was embraced widely across the United States––particularly in western New York where many of the songs performed had been written in the past decade.

Some dancers were clearly more experienced than others, as many had come from surrounding counties to take part in the evening’s festivities. Kimball addressed this early on, beginning the night with basic instructional dances to help the beginners along. After starting out with a large circle dance intended to familiarize the dancers with square dance style, Kimball helped to guide the crowd through early missteps and confusion. The dances grew significantly more complex by the evening’s end, but even the inexperienced dancers were able to hold their own.

The bandleader at a square dance is traditionally known as the “caller.” Many of the lyrics to square dance songs come in the form of instructions, similar in that way to modern dances like the “Cha Cha Slide.” As the caller for the evening, Kimball made sure to break down the square dance jargon, taking time to explain terms such as “do-si-do,” “allemande left” and “promenade.”

Still, each new call from Kimball was met with plenty of confused glances as the dancers hurried to keep the traditional square dance shape or remember how to “pass through.” In the flurry of movements, some dancers understandably made a misstep or two and occasionally the square form broke down. Despite beginner mistakes, the dancers still made the most of the learning experience.

Thanks to the good-naturedness of the assembled dancers, Kimball and GSB were able to strip away the initial awkwardness of dancing in a large crowd. While certain dancers began to distinguish themselves as square dance veterans, both rookies and professionals alike were able to enjoy the evening’s events.

Amongst all the dancing and learning, GSB performed a series of traditional songs mostly with ease—they struggled initially in determining what songs Kimball was playing, as many of the songs have very similar sounds and titles. Overall, the band’s performance was strong; they captured the spirit of western New York’s celebrated folk dance tradition.