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Columbia Missourian

Square roots

July 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

Caller and fiddler team up to keep old-time tradition alive

Fairgoers young and old square-danced along to the fiddle as the caller gave the next step. Fast and slow, the caller and fiddler worked in harmony. Both are essential for a good square dance, and both captivated audiences at this year’s Boone County Fair.


Allemande left, grand right and left. Seasoned and beginners danced along as caller Steve Young changed the steps.

After six years of leading people through square dances, Young loves being able to help people have fun.

“I love interacting with the people,” Young said. “If they’re having fun, I’m having fun.”

Square dance is a folk dance for four couples. It was first described in 17th century England, but has become associated with the United States. The various movements used in square dancing are based on traditional folk dances by people who migrated to the United States.

There is a lot of interest in old-time music, Young said, so three years ago he helped start the Missouri Traditional Fiddle & Dance Network. He grew up in a rural town and said he longed for the days when folks flocked in from the fields and gathered in the barn to square dance. So, he fixed up his grandfather’s old barn where his family and neighbors had square dances in the 1920s and started the tradition back up again.

“Musicians were easy to find, but old-time callers to lead the dances were harder to find,” Young said.

He spent time with the callers he did find and bought some calling books off eBay. He spent a lot of time studying, reading and thinking about square dancing.

“I felt like it was something that was going to be lost, so I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “I had to learn how to call.”

The caller sets the stage for the evening and gets people off the chairs and dancing. A caller’s job is important. It’s up to the caller to make sure people are having fun.

The movements of the dance are prompted by calls put together by the caller to form a dance. Some traditional square dances use as many as 40 to 50 calls.

Young said most dances are similar and use the standard moves, they’re just put together differently. Some dances are designed to mix couples up so you get to dance with everyone. He said these dances are more difficult because he has to make sure all the couples get back together again.

Young encourages everyone to come out to the fair and learn how to square dance. “We walk through from beginning to end without music and then put music to it and everyone usually does OK.”


Old-time fiddler John White can’t recall when he began to play except that he’s been playing for at least 50 years.

“I remember my mom taking the time to teach me some tunes; she called my fingers little puppies while showing me where to put them on the fiddle strings to play simple tunes,” White said.

He played with friends and relatives, but his playing really began to improve when he started playing for neighborhood square dances.

He remembers one time when his grandfather played his best version of “Arkansas Traveler,” and when White played it back to him even better, his grandfather awarded him with his first fiddle, a Washington McAlpine.

“It was one his father had given to him,” he said. “It was made in 1904, so it will be 100 years old sometime this year.”

With a small smile on his face, he remembers when his family first got indoor plumbing. He said he soon discovered this little room was the best place to practice. He could hear every note reverberate.

For White, playing the fiddle, no matter how long, is a way for him to relax after a long day at work.

“No amount of liquor, drugs or money can provide as much enjoyment and fellowship as a bunch of musicians jamming and conversing late into the night and sometimes early into the morning,” White said.