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Square Dancing, A Mather of Life & Death

Square Dancing, A Mather of Life & Death

‘Tis the season to swing one’s partner round and round. And yet everywhere we see dance floors occupied by citizens who can hardly stand up straight. Gone are the days of Fezziwig, Ebenezer Scrooge’s erstwhile boss. Gone the happy days of Christmas Past.

Mr. Fezziwig loved a good square dance at Christmas

Consider the American wedding reception, a ritual in which people drink themselves into malware and stumble onto the hardwood floors of middle school gymnasiums—or the lobbies of swank hotels, as money variously allows. That said, for richer or poorer, square dancing has given way to six or eight easily imitable moves that one can execute under the spell of intoxication. It’s hard to even call this dancing.

I attended a wedding in Minnesota where the groom and bride still clung to the old traditions, bringing couples together through line dancing. It was a breath of fresh air. I had recently given up alcohol, so I sat in great afearment of the dance floor. I chewed my fingernails during the customary mother/son & father/daughter dances. I feverishly questioned those around me, “Do you think y’all will dance?” I was like the Youth in Crane’s
Red Badge of Courage asking his comrades if they think they’ll desert when the battle comes to them.

Cotton Mather, looking less morose than usual.

I didn’t desert after all. And in this line dancing I found much to admire, from the sense of being part of something, to the vertiginous play of swinging round, catching the smiles of strangers as they swing past. The butterflies left my stomach and flitted into the air.

You probably remember the Puritan Cotton Mather—who wrote hundreds of books and pamphlets—from his shady legacy of having constructed the very court for the Salem Witch Trials. So, not a huge fan of dancing. One might recall the scene from The Crucible in which Abigail and her friends are dancing in the woods, an activity associated with witchcraft.

Cotton Mather’s
killjoy father Increase Mather was hell-bent—well, not hell-bent, but very bent—against early versions of square dancing, especially “mixt” dancing. Dancing between girls and boys. He was concerned that it led to sinful behavior. This is obviously correct, but besides the point.
It is often held, however, that Puritans did not dance, which is incorrect. They loved dancing, and that’s why Reverend Increase tried to stop them by writing stuff like this. He was basically an antediluvian Mike Pence with priestly robes and a butt-parted perm-wig—a Fezziwig?
American square dancing has been replaced by club “dancing”, in which hip hop is the preferred music. Emblematic of this, Eminem’s “Square Dance” (The Eminem Show, 2002) notoriously invites the Bush administration (W, if you’re keeping score) to square dance with him. What Shady means by “square dancing” is fighting, and the song even implies that Bush sends others to fight his battles for him:

To join the army or what you’ll do for their Navy.
You just a baby, gettin’ recruited at eighteen
You’re on a plane now, eatin’ their food and their baked beans.
I’m twenty-eight, they’re gonna take you ‘fore they take me
Crazy insane or insane crazy?

Professor Damon’s publisher perhaps missed an opportunity for cover art.

When I say Hussein, you say Shady.

Slim’s famous profanation is actually an example of the
other form of square dancing he’s talking about: a battle of words or rap battle. Either way, agonistic play (from which, antagonism) has replaced the cooperative, unifying play of line dancing. Why get along when you can just send some kids across the pond to duke it out for you?
We thus see a direct genealogy in Mathers from Increase to Cotton to Marshall, from square dancing being celebrated and enjoyed to being a way of engaging one’s enemies. One might refer to this as a “shame” or, what, a Decrease?
A common objection to square dancing is, “I don’t know how”. You don’t actually need to know how to dance. As S. Foster Damon writes in “The History of Square Dancing”, these dances were traditionally learned on the spot. Square dancing isn’t supposed to be intimidating at all, for the ethos is cooperative. The occasional misstep is humorous and only reinforces a spirit of joviality.
I don’t dance particularly well, or often, despite my affection for it. I suspect this is partly due to the annoying cultural prohibition on dancing, especially organized, cooperative dancing. This is a situation I hope will change. How bout we do less fighting and more square dancing?

*This content originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Gregg Murray
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