Articles

Doh-si-doh to your partners all

The hilarious square dance has bust out of the barns and into the ballrooms, setting the country hollering and stomping to the ancient chants of the callers

McKENZIE PORTER October 1 1950
Articles

Doh-si-doh to your partners all

The hilarious square dance has bust out of the barns and into the ballrooms, setting the country hollering and stomping to the ancient chants of the callers

McKENZIE PORTER October 1 1950

Doh-si-doh to your partners all

The hilarious square dance has bust out of the barns and into the ballrooms, setting the country hollering and stomping to the ancient chants of the callers

McKENZIE PORTER

Lady round the lady Gent around the gent, Hen around the rooster, Rooster round the hen.

NOT since 1910 when a blast of ragtime snuffed out the simpering minuet and blew in the brazen turkey trot has such a revolution erupted in the ballroom—the hilarious square dance has arrived. Foxtrot, onestep, waltz, tango, rumba and jive are being spurned for a rumpus of capering and whooping to folksy fiddle tunes like the “Irish Washerwoman,” “Hinky Dink, Parlee Voo,” “Smash The Windows,” the “Fireman’s Reel,” and the “Grapevine Twist.”

Square dancing is a gregarious, uproarious and flirtatious explosion of high jinks which has suddenly captivated North America’s cities after 40 years of growing rural popularity. Eschewing brass a-.d drums the orchestras stick to violins, bass fiddles, banjos, guitars, accordions, pianos and cowbells. Dancers are kept in step by a caller who chants directions through a microphone or loudspeaker a beat ahead of the music and packs his spiel with barnyard jingles.

Canadians are so full of the fever that George Whitehead, a founder of the Central Ontario Square Dancing Association, estimates 50% of school, church, club and charity shindigs next season will be squares. The change from couple gyrations to multiple rompings which began in cities toward the end of World War II and has gathered pace noisily in the last two years is ascribed by most authorities to a cycle of upheaval which always occurs when dancing loses its fun in too much formality.

At a dance in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel last year impatient dancers started yelping for the “Little Burnt Potato,” and “Swamp Lake Breakdown.” At once the gathering snapped jubilantly into a whirl of rustic romps for the rest of (he evening. In cities across the nation band leaders noted the same signs of change.

From coast to coast - depart ment stores are advertising square dance costumes. The Robert Simpson Company offers for women “gay cotton flared skirts with ofF-the-shoulder eyeleted blouses and ballerina shoes”; for men “plaid shirts, blue jeans and moccasins.” Women’s prices range from $1.98 to $15 for blouses, from $6.95 to $25 for skirts.

Square dancing is winning teen-agers away from jive and luring out for frolic middle-agers who haven’t shaken a leg in years.

Although square dancing crept into the cities by way of YMCA, Girl Scout and young folks’ church groups it has now bewitched every strata of society. Last year Montreal’s Mount Royal Hotel and Toronto’s Granite Club followed a lead given earlier by the Rainbow Room in Radio City, New York, and introduced weekly square dances.

It’s boot around boot And shoe around shoe;

You circle a hall us taught to do.

Then a left circle, und follow through

The organizations running squares are as varied as liquorice all-sorts. In Montreal the McGill University Outing Club and the home and school associations are among many keen groups. In Ontario the Department of Agriculture sponsors square dance»! to foster rural community spirits and the Department of Education to acquaint, city schoolchildren with the

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pioneer culture of their ancestors. The Ontario Junior Farmers’ Association stages squares for sheer fun.

Last season the Jewish B’Nai Brith Association turned out to a Toronto square dance in ten-gallon hats and chaps, wore straw in their hair and after the first number ruefully removed their

In January this year Calgary Kiwanians, Lions, Rotarians and others felt square dancing should be established on a national basis, got together, and formed the Canadian Square Dancing Association. So far it has failed to get the dancing clubs organized on a nation-wide scale.

The swing to the squares has brought windfalls to deserving but unexpected quarters.

Elizabeth Clarke, a nurse in the Vancouver Children’s Hospital, wrote a song called “Bluebird on Your Windowsill” with a tempo right in the groove for squares. She pledged the royalties to institutes for crippled children and it has already earned $64,000.

Three years ago Fred Roden, a Canadian veteran who had failed in the printing business, opened a store on Queen St. east in downtown Toronto, dubbed it the Record Corral, concentrated on cowboy, hillbilly and square numbers and since then has bought up four other disk retailers.

Early in 1949 Wes McVicar, instructor in physical training to Toronto’s central YMCA, published a book of square dance calls. A first edition of

2.000 copies, each at 75 cents, was sold out within a month. Reprints are selling well.

Also bunted along in the boom is Harry E. Jarman, Toronto, music publisher, whose sales of square dance sheet music have quadrupled in the past two years. In 1932 Jarman published as a speculation a paperbacked pocket-sized booklet entitled “How To Square Dance.” It took him two years to dispose of 1,000 copies. In the last two years he’s sold

10.000 copies of a revised edition and numerous other sister publications. Bibliographers in the United States, including the director of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, have asked Jarman for copies of the original edition.

Right hand round your father-in-law,

Your father-in-law, your mother-in-

Your sister-in-law, your brother-in-

And now it’s Mrs. Arkansaw.

Riding highest in the square dance surf is a band called Don Messer and his Islanders. Born in Tweedside, N.B., Messer last June drew 5,000 people to a square dance in Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena at $1.25 apiece and took as his share of the gate $3,125. From his records alone he’s now making more than $15,000 a year.

One of the oldest square bands now hitting the jackpot is Toronto’s George Wade and his Corn Huskers. They are picking up good engagements after 15 years of small jobs.

Seeing the trend more than a year ago the CBC put Jerry Gowler’s “Prairie Schooner” square dance show on a program from Winnipeg every Saturday night. This summer they added on the same evening the “CBC Square Dance,” also from Winnipeg, and “Soiree à Quebec” from Quebec City, making almost two continuous

hours of homespun sentiment and music. Toronto’s CKEY competes with Red Hughes and his Prairie Riders.

Most of the Canadian name bands in square music are in the east. Cornwall, Ont., has contributed Sid Plamador; Montreal, Jo La Madeleine and the Stripling Brothers; Rouyn, P.Q., Fernand Thibault. But in Winnipeg Fred Hadaller and His Alberta Cowgirls; in Edmonton, Eamon Gamón; and in Vancouver Burn’s Chuck Wagon Band are all broadcasting, recording and taking important engagements.

Running Don Messer closest is Jimmie Magill and his Northern Ramblers. Magill, a tubby, florid, puckish minstrel of the old school, after years of sawing at country fairs and village street junkets, now leads his band in a coast-to-coast broadcast over CFRB, Toronto, plays weekly for the Granite and Boulevard Clubs, draws royalties on 50 original square dance tunes and is currently cutting disks for London Records. He always wears sneakers and vivid shirts and tortures the catgut while smoking a cheroot.

Magill’s bass fiddle and second violin are Geof Barker and Al Aylward, both of whom ascend to the sublime in Sir Ernest MacMillan’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Recently Magill hired “for volume” Don Gordon, a blond and beefy bon vivant who is recognized in radio circles as tops in Canada at the electric organ.

Gordon is happy in the oompahoompah rhythms of the scores. “It’s fascinating stuff,” he says. “Ninety per cent of the melodies are in two sharps. That’s the easiest key for a violinist. We’re carrying on the tradition of pioneer fiddlers who could play in no

Allemand right in places all.

Now swing with the girl across the hall.

Now run away home and swing your

She loves you best, she told me so

Square dancing is not a revival of a moribund art. John Martin, the American dance historian, who takes this thing pretty seriously, says the wildfire spread of squares is an expression of man’s longing for return to his elemental self.

For 500 years dancing has been condemned by moralists and despised by intellectuals. With the advent of the bunny hug and the grizzly bear in 1910, the Charleston in the 20’s, and, during the last 30 years the tango, rumba, samba, big apple and jive, cries went up cf “decadence”! But this was nothing new. When the waltz was introduced from Germany in the 18th century it was described as “a flagrant and adulterous affront to decency.” The polka, galop, gavotte and schottische were, in their turn, a rebellion against the propriety which ultimately paralyzed the minuet and the quadrille. Whenever the current vogues in dancing become too formal to be fun a new and livelier routine will soon start up.

Square dances are the illegitimate descendants of the courtly 18th and 19th century lancers, quadrille, Sir Roger de Coverley and cotillion. These atrophied fandangos were preserved by rural communities during four decades in which the urban masses flung themselves into the American tempo of the foxtrot, Charleston, jive, swing and bebop.

In their exile to the barn the dances, which were once the essence of formality, gallantry and coquetry, underwent a sharp change. They were crossed with the Irish jig, Scottish reel, sailors’ hornpipe, Lancashire clog hop, Indian chicken dance, central European

mazurka and Latin American zaraband by the polyglot immigrants who coagulated into North American so-

Hurry up, Joe, and don’t be slow; You used to get around there, years ago. Hurry up there, or you will fail To see that monkey on the same old trail.

As the routines became more intricate and more stylized callers were introduced to keep new converts on the rails and to keep the beat. The moves are now widely accepted. There is little difference between the basic steps practiced in Cochrane, Ont., and Dallas, Texas.

To about 300 tunes, ranging from recent originals to two centuries in age, regulars kick up their heels, arch their hands and spin each other in groups of four couples, or in face-to-face or backto-back lines of eight men and women, or in a progressive swapping of partners through a giant circle around the hall.

Certain steps are common to all dances and they have taken on quaint names, such as the allemand left or right, the sashay, the doh-si-doh. These are all corruptions from the French, the traditional language of the dance. Allemand stems from the French à la main droit or à la main gauche (by the hand, right or left); sashay is a corruption of chassé, a sideways skipping movement; doh-si-doh, from dos-àdos, means literally back to back.

Doh-si-doh to your corner again,

A right to your honey, then grand chain.

Grand chain all, all over the hall English, Irish, Scots and all

Tommy Thompson, a World War II veteran who has become one of Ontario’s most popular square dance callers, says: “After a few minutes you can tell the ancestry of almost anybody in the room because they all put in their own little bits. The Scots hold their hands above their heads and whoop like in a reel; the Irish do that knee-andankle action which comes from the jig. I’ve seen an old lady getting in a few Dutch clog steps.”

Thompson, a slender, assured young man, is a plumber’s purchasing agent but in winter equals his salary calling squares. Last winter he averaged five dances a week. He carries in his head the intricate weavings of 75 numbers. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a dance, pick out from 200 people one man who is throwing the others wrong and politely correct his steps.

Thompson broadcasts with Jim Magill’s Northern Ramblers and often calls for square dances given by conventions in Toronto hotels. He holds the mike close to his lips, cocks his head, stands stock still, and in deadpan style rips out instructions in a rasping monotone. He varies the sequences like a drill sergeant and sometimes lets slip a thin pale smile of exultation at his control over the rhythmic swarming hundreds below the stage.

Now the first couple lead to the right, Join your hands and circle four.

Ladies cross their lily-white hands, Gents their dirty black and tans.

The ladies bow, the gents know how, And roll ’em around with a basket roll! You roll ’em high and you roll ’em low!

When red-haired Moira Shearer, star of “Red Shoes,” visited Canada with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the fall of 1949 she square-danced for the first time at a private party and exclaimed, It s delicious. I ve never known anything like it.” +