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Researchers explore social side of square dancing

Barbara Schneider and Liza McCoy survey hundreds of Calgarians to better understand 'hard work of having fun'
July 6, 2015
Barbara Schneider, left, professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, and Liza McCoy, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, are researching the enthnography of square-dancing. By Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Barbara Schneider, left, professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, and Liza McCoy, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, are researching the enthnography of square-dancing. By Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

In square dancing, four couples dance together in movements picked by the caller. Photo courtesy Liza McCoy

In square dancing, four couples dance together in movements picked by the caller. Photo courtesy Liza McCoy

When Barbara Schneider started square dancing, she was mostly doing it with her husband for their own enjoyment. But as the professor and head of the Department of Communication, Media and Film in the Faculty of Arts, she became fascinated by the social interaction and organization on the dance floor and decided to start researching what she calls the “hard work of having fun.”

“You’re dancing with seven other people," says Schneider. That social aspect of this dance style also drew her colleague Liza McCoy to start square dancing as well. “I started learning to square dance while doing the research,” says the associate professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts.

Together, the two researchers surveyed about 300 of the roughly 500 square dancers in Calgary, completed dozens of interviews and focus groups and conducting  “participant observation” of square dances. “It’s an ethnography of this particular form of dance,” says Schneider.

Most recently, McCoy presented some of her photos of the dance floor at the Canadian Sociological Association at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Pivotal role of the square dance caller 

With square dancing, four couples dance together in intricate movements that are called out. “Square dancing is never done without a caller,” says Schneider, who is especially interested in studying this pivotal role. “It’s a very collaborative form of dancing and the dancers all have to know about 70 moves. The caller can choose from any of those moves in any combination.”  

The caller can pick difficult or easier moves depending on the level of skill among the dancers. “You can see the excitement of the dancers when the caller chooses a piece of music that takes them back to their youth,” says Schneider.

Breaking social stigmas around aging 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, everyone from kids to grandparents square danced. But these days, most square dancers are between 50 and 90. “It has become an activity for older adults and with that comes a lot of stigmatizing,” says McCoy. “It’s viewed as dated and slightly ridiculous and I’m interested in that tension, of creating this really positive experience in the context of social disdain.”

Sociologists often research problems or pathologies among older adults but McCoy says that there hasn't been enough serious sociological attention to the everyday lives of older people.

“We’re interested in this as a form of community where older people are taking roles of leadership and creating a place they go to every week to dance, have fun together and create community,” she says.