Saturday, November 21, 2015

How To Play For A Square Dance

With square dance mania sweeping America like the swine flu (no, really, it is), more tyros are getting involved in playing music for these crazy kids. 


There are particular considerations when playing for a square dance that even an accomplished player may not realize. Following a few simple tips presented here will make your square dance playing more successful --- that is, the dancers will have more fun. By the way, the comments below apply particularly to Southern, Western and Midwestern-style square. For New England squares tunes suitable for a contra dance will work fine. Of course, these are generalizations for the less experienced player. If what you're doing now works by all means stick with it.

Let's talk about what makes for a good square dance tune. Watch this little video of the late, great, Bob Holt from Ava in the Missouri Ozarks. Bob spent most of his musical life with his fiddle tucked under his chin while playing for square dancers.


So what makes a good tune for a square dance? Well, it needs to be rhythmic, as Bob describes above, and have forward momentum. The tune should lead the beat as if the speed is increasing -- but it's not. The festival back-beat groove, while great fun in the campground trance jam, doesn't work so well on the dance floor.

It should have readily discernible A and B parts - either high and low (or fine & coarse as the old-timers used to say) or have significant and recognizable melodic differences. Stay away from crooked, navel-contemplating, droning, whippoorwill-in-the-forest type tunes and stick with the standards that have 8 bars per part so you end up with a total of 32 bars when the tune is played through one time. 

You can't go wrong with the Tommy Jackson repertoire. 


Tried and true square dance tunes are: Liberty, Sally Goodin, Mississippi Sawyer, Wagner, Ragtime Annie, Polk County Breakdown, Soldier's Joy and Arkansas Traveler. 

Be aware of the key of the tune. A seasoned caller will use patter calling - a rhythmic monotone set to the key of the tune. When in doubt ask the caller what key they like best. And remember that men v. women callers may prefer a different key. Finally, because of this patter avoid tunes that change keys between the A & B parts as this will disrupt the caller's flow.

As for tempo this can vary from region to region. I've seen dancers in the Ozarks cruise along at 140 beats per minute with ease - but that is pretty dern fast. Check these samples...


Cabool, MO Square Dancers with Bob Holt



Bible Grove Dancers (NW Missouri) led by Burrell Snyder. 
Classic patter calling!!


Lastly, a square isn't all about squares. Peppy square dancing is pretty strenuous, even for a younger crowd, so it's good to intersperse the squares with some couple dances like the waltz, schottische and two-step. Future blog post will discuss some of these other forms.

If you're looking for sheet music for some of these great tunes you can download for free HERE. Be sure to Subscribe to my YouTube channel, too.