Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU’s barn is burstin’ with square dance music, memorabilia

It’s 11 tons of scholarship waiting to be examined, including hundreds of cartons of books, magazines, newsletters, vinyl recordings, photographs, audiotapes, videocassettes—even 16 millimeter films and dance costumes — all sitting on shelves in Penrose Library and the Mary Reed Building.

It’s a knee-slapping, toe-tapping window on Middle America in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s and testament to why a generation of baby boomers, even today, knows the phrases “do- si-do” and “allemande left.”

It’; the reason a high school biology teacher in Colorado Springs named Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw is a category of his own in the Library of Congress and it explains why auto magnate Henry Ford is a figure in the history of dance.

It is the Lloyd Shaw collection — more than 72,000 items put together by Shaw and others during their efforts to revitalize square dancing in the decade just before World War II. The collection is part of DU’s Carson-Brierly Dance Library and it arrived at the University two years ago from archives at the University of New Mexico.

Carson-Brierly’s curator is Glenn Giffin, the Denver Post’s classical music and dance critic for 32 years and now the person charged with putting the huge haul of material on American square and round dancing into some form of archival order.

“The books are cataloged. The magazines and periodicals will be by the end of this year. I hope to have the 45s done too, but that’s touch and go,” Giffin says, noting that the 45s alone total about 18,000 records.

Once it’s cataloged, it’ll be up to scholars to take a look at “a segment of middle America that’s never been researched,” Giffin says, and to evaluate the impact square dancing had on the mid-20th century.

That’s no easy task, but one loaded with interesting twists. One is automaker Henry Ford’s role in popularizing square dancing. It turns out Ford was a huge fan of dance, building a hall in the Detroit area and promoting dance in a book he published in 1926 with dance master Benjamin Lovett.

The Ford book inspired Shaw, a Denver native who was a teacher and principal at the Cheyenne Mountain School in Colorado Springs for 35 years.

Shaw loved Ford’s book but believed it hadn’t tapped into the dance traditions in the small farming towns and mining communities of the West, says Herb Egender in A Brief History of Square and Round Dancing. So, Shaw painstakingly gathered material, publishing in 1939 the first definitive book on western square dancing, Cowboy Dances.

He followed the book by establishing the Cheyenne Mountain Dancers, high schoolers who traveled the country giving square dance exhibitions.

Then interest in square dancing exploded.

Educators latched onto square dancing as a “noteworthy contribution to physical education” and introduced it into school curricula nationwide. Recreation specialists taught square dancing to troops during World War II, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma! made western dancing vivid and enticing.

Shaw rode the wave, and he continued to publish, promote and standardize the form, instructing callers, dancers and dance teachers and responding to the impact of new technologies. Electronic amplifiers, for example, enabled a single caller to direct large groups, and the 45 rpm record eliminated the need for live music.

Eventually, of course, the surge petered out, hitting the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s and going underground.

“As an educational movement, it went the way of the Wild West,” Giffin says.

Will interest return?

“Resurgence is possible. Look at the tango,” Giffin says. “Salsa is another one. It was dying out, and suddenly it’s back.”

In the meantime, there are 11 tons of archives for scholars and dance aficionados to pore over. The items won’t go on public display any time soon, but they will be available for study.

Giffin allows there’s been little research interest so far, but he is optimistic that the story in the DU material is a compelling tale yet to be told.

“Once we get all the 45 rpm song titles online, we’re going to have a lot of inquiries,” he says. “There’s value there.”

Hip to be square

Where: The Lloyd Shaw Foundation archive of American square and round dance memorabilia — more than 72,000 items — is stored in the special collections section of the Carson-Brierly Dance Library at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library.

What: Square dancing is derived from a French dance called the quadrille and is composed of four couples who form the sides of a square. Movements are directed by a caller. Round dancing requires participants to form a ring and move in a prescribed direction or as a ballroom dance to progress around a room in couples.

Information: Call the special collections section of Penrose Library at 303-871-3428 Monday–Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Other sources are the Lloyd Shaw Foundation and “A Brief History of Square and Round Dancing”

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