Teaching Square Dancing to Grade 7
by Clark Baker
This talk will focus on my experiences in working with 7th graders,
teaching a progressive series of classes, leading to a school-wide
performance. Areas covered include crowd control, choreography,
teaching techniques, handling reluctant dancers, dealing with
attitude, a core vocabulary of calls and skills, teaching words, and
We end with a quick walkthru of calls that look good in exhibition
(Stars, Allemande Thar, Grand Square, Dip And Dive, Heel & Toe, Star
Promenade & Butterfly Whirl) which you could use in any ONS. Finally
we dance the routine to phrased calling.
A school my daughter attended has a May Day performance each year.
Each grade performs a short dance, often related to the central
subject they are studying—those studying Ancient Greece do Greek
dancing. The 7th grade has traditionally danced the Jitterbug. Six
yeas ago the 7th grade teachers decided to give square dancing a try.
They were looking for a dance form that was less partnered and more a
group activity. They knew I called square dances and my daughter was
now past the 7th grade so her classmates wouldn't hold this change
against her, so I said I would give it a try.
- Private school, grades K-8, actively recruited 28% minority. Are
students in private and parochial schools better behaved?
- Students have no choice in the matter. Like most things in
traditional schools, students must do what the teacher says, even if
they don't want to. For example, this was not a voluntary after
- 4 classrooms of 16 students each all meet at once — 64 total.
- 4 teachers and up to 4 apprentice teachers are also present
— used to make up the last square or fill in for absent
- Teachers pre-assign partners and squares before the first meeting.
- Teachers prepare the students for what we will be doing.
- Students have no previous square dance experience.
- Seven to nine meetings of 30-40 minutes each leading up to a 3.5
minute performance on May Day in front of the entire school and
parents. Sometimes 2 meetings per week.
- Initial meetings are a progressive beginner dance
party. From lesson 4 or 5 on, we focus on the specific dance routine
and making it look good in performance.
- The teaching is quick and to the point. Most of the time is
spent dancing what we know and what we have just learned. Some
teaching is done with a demo (using 2, 4, or 8 dancers depending on
- The routine is a phrased patter square with the music and calling
Problems and solutions
- Partners and squares: Getting 64 kids to get partners and
form squares the very first time can be frustrating and waste a lot of
time. My best solution is to have the teachers assign partners and
squares before our first meeting. We keep this pairing forever. We
could allow them to change partners and squares but kids at this age
respond better to structure and are easier to deal with.
- Same gender partners: Occasionally we have a gender
imbalance and the teachers assign same-gender partners. The teachers
acknowledge the situation and ask the kids to deal with it. They
- Holding hands: This is an issue which I don't make a
big deal of but acknowledge once at our first meeting. I do see kids
with stretch their shirt sleeves or sweatshirt over their hands so
they don't have to touch their partner, but eventually the kids are
touching each other. I generally don't get them holding their
partner's hand when they are standing as a couple, for example in a
- Kids who are absent: Each meeting there will be kids
who are missing. Each lesson starts with a quick reteach to catch up
those who missed the previous one. Next we warm up by dancing
everything we have learned so far, reviewing as necessary. See
Teaching Principles That Will Help Students Succeed.
- Progressive teach and you can't fake it: I know that
the final dance requires learning and responding to a certain number
of calls. If a kid is absent or simply sandbagging it, they aren't
learning. They might think they can catch up quickly starting on
lesson 3 or 4 but we know that isn't so. As the instructor, I can't
let people get more than one lesson behind. I am on a short schedule
and they will never catch up. My solution is to make sure everyone is
mostly getting what I am teaching before moving on. If something is a
disaster, I will drop it for the day and pick it up next time. If a
square isn't getting it, I will have everyone else sit down and
quickly work with the square that needs special attention.
- Noise and people talking: Our experience teaching
adults is that they are quiet and respectful in a teaching situation.
I found the 64 kids in more of a gym class setting to be much noisier
that I was comfortable with, especially when I teaching. The gym
teacher has his whistle, the school principal has his authority, but
we don't have many tools. My best tool is to have kids sit down and
ask them to be quiet. Your demeanor is very important. If you are
tentative and unsure, they will respond to that. If you act like you
are in charge and know what you are doing, then you will receive
respect (and less noise). Of course you do have the microphone but I
generally talk without it. Right from the beginning set the
expectation that for these sessions the caller will talk (or call) and
they will listen (or respond).
- Kids who don't pay attention and goof off: Initially
everyone is a bit resistant to our dorky activity. This usually
resolves itself after around three sessions. However, there are
always a few kids who have "attitude" and ruin it for the others in
their square by walking slow, goofing off, hitting or kicking adjacent
dancers, etc. as their way of letting us know they hate it. I have
several ways to deal with these kids.
Initially I just call for all 8 squares and observe what is happening.
I wait until it gets a bit out of hand. Next I have everyone square
up and sit down. Whenever I want to work with one square, or
demonstrate a new move, or talk to them, I have them sit down. If I
don't they will be moving around and talking to their friends. If
they are sitting, they can't move around, and if they aren't near
someone they want to talk to, they won't talk as much.
I tell them that on May Day we be performing in front of the entire
school and your parents so each week we will have a square demonstrate
their progress and mastery of dance. I ask the problem square to get
up and I run them through all the call that they have learned so far
with their classmates watching. Often performing in front of their
peers will shame them into doing better, at least for a little bit of
A second tactic is to give them the "this is teamwork and if you
aren't doing your part, you are letting your team down" lecture.
Also, the "we are going to be performing this dance and you have to
look like you are having fun" lecture. Finally there is the "your
school stresses respect and your principal has invited me to be a
guest at your school and share with you my knowledge of square dancing
and you aren't treating each other with respect and you certainly
aren't treating me with respect". While I hate to "lecture" the kids,
sometimes they need a wake up call.
A third tactic is to talk with the teachers afterwards. They know
their kids and sometimes they need to talk with the kid privately to
induce an attitude adjustment.
- One square is not getting something: With 8 squares, I
must teach well enough that everyone gets the new call the first or
second time. My tools are well chosen words or a demonstration.
Consider attending the "How People Learn" session on Tuesday.
There are still times when I must help one or two squares who aren't
getting it. My solution is to have the other 6 or 7 squares sit down,
be quite, and watch while I quickly work with the square that needs
the individual attention. If I don't have them sit down, the room
dissolves into chaos.
- Losing control: At one point early on, I lost control
of most of the kids while I was helping one square. The kids who I
wasn't helping were wondering from their square, and it was like they
were at a party instead of learning stuff. My only solution at that
point was to put on the square dance music, ask them to square their
sets, and start calling what they knew. In general they would stay
with me for that. This was before I had the "sit down" technique and
I haven't had this problem since.
- Music: Initially I was oversensitive to what music I
was using. My thinking was that kids wouldn't like my patter music
and I should be using alternative patter music—something the
kids would find hip and cool. I was trying to be their friend when I
need to be their instructor. I do own this style of patter music and
at one point bribed them that if they did good today then I would use
"good" music at the end of the lesson. What kind of message was I
sending? Answer: the music I normally use is "not good".
I did use some pop music which they liked, but it backfired on me in
several ways. First, people can only dance to the pop music if they
have mastered the square dance basics: one step for each beat of
music, partner, corner, right and left grand, etc. The beat on our
square dance patters is often easier to find and follow than that on
some of our pop music. You can't use the funky music early on.
Second, the teachers didn't like the pop music! They said it was OK
for practice but no way would we use that in the actual performance.
The performance music had to sound like what people think square dance
music sounds like. Finally, I used some music from Star Wars because
one kid asked for it and I knew I had that music. Later feedback was
that there is just one odd kid who is obsessed with Star Wars and the
rest of the kids don't want it. I pleased him and 63 others don't
like me for it.
- Learning speed and attention span: The kids get bored
easily, can learn fast, and can even learn when they seem to not be
paying attention. Don't underestimate them or what they can do. Show
them once, practice it a few times, and move on.
Calls that look good in exhibition
In addition to our usual one-time party dance calls, I include the
following calls specifically because they look good in exhibition:
- Grand Square
- Allemande Thar, Shoot The Star
- Heel & Toe
- Star Promenade with Butterfly Whirl
- Dip & Dive
- Heads Right Hand Star, with the corners Left Hand Star, Heads center Right Hand Star
I was unwilling to call the dance live because I wanted to get all the
calls in, and wanted to give a try at phrased calling. In the end,
having the routine be recorded on a CD and exactly the same every time
aided in our practicing and made the performance better.
We worked the choreography out and made it work with the patter music.
I recorded it by calling without dancers and waiting the correct
number of beats. This was a new experience for me and took more than
a few tries. Here is the final routine. The numbers in parentheses
are how many beats I wait after saying the command. You can hear the
SHS 7th Grade Square Dance 5/05
Choreography by Lisa Greenleaf
Calling by Clark Baker
Music: Disco Joe
16 beat intro
Bow to your Partner, (2)
Bow to your Corner, (2)
Bow to your Opposite (2)
Join your hands and Circle to the Left (4)
Circle to the Right the other way back (4)
Allemande Left your Corner
Partner Right, Right And Left Grand, charge straight ahead (4)
Dosado your Partner (4)
Promenade Your Partner home (4)
Sides Face, Grand Square (14)
Allemande Left For An Allemande Thar
Go Right - And Left - Men Swing Got A Back Up Star (4)
Shoot The Star To Another Thar, Go Right - And Left -
Men Swing In Got A Back Up Star (4)
Shoot The Star, Go Right And Left Grand (8)
Get Back Home And Square Your Set
All Join Hand Go Forward And Back (4)
Do It Again Go Forward And Back
Heads Face Right, Sides Face Left
Those Two Ladies Chain Across (4)
Turn Her Around And Chain Her Back (4)
Heads Arch, Dip And Dive (12)
Same four circle up four (4)
Get Back Home and the Boys Star Left (4)
Pick up your Partner, Star Promenade (4)
Boys back up for a Butterfly Whirl
Go a turn and a half (2)
Girls hang on make a R hand Star (4)
All back out and Circle Left (4)
Circle Right Go The Other Way Back (4)
Allemande Left Corner (2)
Allemande Right Partner (2)
Allemande Left Corner (2)
With Your Partner Do Sa Do (4)
Give Two Hands, Heel & Toe
Heel Toe, In You Go
Heel Toe, Out You Go
Heel Toe, In You Go
Heel Toe, Do Si Do (4)
Sides face, Grand Square (14)
Head Two Couples Go Forward And Back
Side Two Couples Go Forward And Back
Heads To The Centers Make A Right Hand Star (4)
With The Sides Make A Left Hand Star (4)
Heads Center Right Hand Star (4)
Find The Corner With An Allemande Left (4)
Do Sa Do Partner (4)
All Join Hands, Go Forward & Back (4)
Forward Again With A Great Big Shout (8)
Bow to Your Partner, Corners All
Thank your square, that's it that's all
Each year the kids mostly are "with the program" by session 3.
Session 6 always makes it look like we will never get everything done
in time but they pull it together in the last two sessions. The
performance has always looked good and had good energy.
The teachers look forward to me coming in because, by spring the kids
are tired of always listening to them and they get to hear a new
voice. Also, now that we have the formula down, the teachers know how
it will go and enjoy watching it happen. They will also will dance as
necessary to fill out squares or substitute for missing students.
I am working at another school this year and they also want me to come
in for multiple sessions leading up to a presentation at their spring
concert. This time I have grades 5 and 6 together followed by grades
7 and 8. Working with this school and these grades has been another