July 8, 2020

Square dancing community finds new vitality online during pandemic 

UCalgary researchers help bring Calgary clubs into the international scene on Zoom

If there’s a prime time for square dancing in Calgary, the Calgary Stampede has long been it. In previous years, before the COVID-19 pandemic put the event on hiatus, square dancers could be found showing off their finest moves — all 69 of them — everywhere from Stampede parade floats to the pancake breakfasts held across the city. Calgary’s modestly attended square dancing clubs — there are about nine of them — would put on dances almost every night during this 10-day period, so central to Calgary’s western identity. 

But truly, this upsurge in activity was somewhat misleading. In its heyday — from the 1950s to the 1970s — there were about 22 thriving square dancing clubs in the city. During this booming period, a jamboree at the Stampede Corral might attract thousands of enthusiastic square dancers and fans of the dance. 

  • Photo above: Getting around the social distancing requirements of the pandemic, square dancers get together on Zoom.

To be sure, square dancing is a subculture that has long been waning, even as it remains a precious part of life to those — predominantly older adults — who still take part in its joys. 

The culture and community of square dancing has been meticulously researched by University of Calgary professors sociologist Dr. Liza McCoy, PhD, and Dr. Barbara Schneider, PhD, a professor emerita of communication, media and film. They even produced Squaring Up, a charming short film about Calgary’s square dancing community, which they are both a part of. The film received honourable mentions and was screened at the West Texas Film Festival and the Picture This Disability Film Festival in Calgary. 

Despite their expertise on the world of square dancing, Schneider and McCoy could never have predicted the way in which a pandemic would cause this social pastime to evolve and find a surprising new vitality. 

Square dancing

Calgary square dancers.

Liza McCoy

When COVID-19 spread earlier this year and the international lockdown ensued, with social distancing the order of the day, the already fading culture of square dancing could have died out completely. Instead, it’s found a new life online. Square dancing clubs from across the globe have been organizing virtual square dances, wherein couples or solitary dancers can connect and dance with their fellow square dancers from around the world. 

Says Schneider: “We connect on Facebook and get together on Zoom where dancers in Calgary are suddenly dancing with people in Texas, California, Nevada, Montreal, Germany, Australia, Japan. You could probably join a virtual square dance every night of the week now and every time you go online you’re seeing people from all these different places.”

Schneider’s not sure where the virtual square dancing began but it was through her international research connections that the Calgary clubs quickly came on board.

Virtual dancing a challenging new twist

While virtual square dancing has brought a new vibrancy to the community, both Schneider and McCoy stress it shouldn’t be viewed as a resurgence. “The people online are a subset of the people who were already doing it in their communities,” says McCoy.

She adds that square dancing — already a complex activity with so many moves to master — is even more challenging in the virtual realm. “It’s actually very difficult to dance with imaginary people,” she says.

Schneider agrees: “I’m a pretty good square dancer and I’m finding it hard."

It takes a lot of imagination, like dancing with a phantom, really. Where’s the phantom for this next step? I have no idea but I have to figure it out in order to carry out that next step.

"So it comes with a bit of frustration, too, but I’m not ready to give it up because I think it’s an important way of maintaining our community, and I enjoy seeing all my friends on Zoom.”

To be sure, community has always been a central value of the square dancing scene. “This is a community-based activity,” says McCoy. “It’s run by community-based clubs with elected executives and bylaws. When new people come in, they’re quickly embraced and there’s a strong ethos of welcoming friendliness. You dance with everyone and there’s this sense that every individual is important and has the right to take part. And if they need help in any way, they’re helped to take part.” 

No replacement for the real thing

That all-important sense of community is hard to recapture online. “Virtual square dancing gives people the opportunity to continue dancing and maintain connections that are important, but it’s a less-than-satisfactory substitute,” McCoy says.

“It’s a community dance, so, if you’re dancing with your partner, or, dancing alone, and imagining other people, it’s an interesting mental challenge, but it isn’t the same thing. When I’m dancing on Zoom I see a screen with a bunch of tiny windows and for that hour it’s nice to be a part of this international group, but I can’t say I’m making strong connections with, say, another couple in California.”

Square dancing-2

Square dance before social distancing.

Liza McCoy

So, when the pandemic ends, will square dancing go back to the way it was, or, will the virtual community continue in some fashion?

“I don’t think it will go back to the way it was,” says Schneider. “Some people will probably say ‘I’m not going back until there’s a vaccine.’ I think other people will start to dance in person again, but they’ll be more cautious. This might even be a turning point with the way the community is organized. It may be a catalyst to consolidate some of the clubs.” 

McCoy adds: “I think once people have the option to dance again in the traditional way, they will. But you never know if the virtual community will continue in some way. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Community spirit cannot be cancelled — UCalgary at the Calgary Stampede

UCalgary is a proud partner with the Calgary Stampede. Together, we are offering many ways to get your fix of cowboy culture, fairground food and community connection. Learn more.