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Square Dancing took center stage in Madison’s past

Mickey Starling: Greene Publishing, Inc.

Social activities are a part of all cultures and dancing has been a favorite in most of them. At the turn of the 20th century in Madison County, square dancing was the predominate social activity that was often the talk of the town. According to E.B. Browning, Sr.'s book, "The North Florida Scene," the square dance was wildly popular and almost exclusively accepted as the way to dance and socialize in those distant days. The dance also caused "much denunciation from the non-dancing church members," said Browning.

Square dancing is a modification of English and Scottish folk dances and derives its name from the square formation that participants take at the beginning of the dance. It probably grew in popularity due to the fact that a wide variety of skill levels could be at play within the dance without causing interruption or delay. So, the clumsy farm hand with two left feet could still feel as if they were Fred Astaire, dancing the night away. Some have been known to do some clogging when not in their figures, which are a prescribed sequence of basic movements that would not have included clogging. Browning notes that other types of dance had been familiar for decades, but were not prevalent in the rural South for quite some time. Browning recalls that a teacher did attempt to introduce other forms of dancing in the Hamburg section of Madison County and was met with overwhelming disapproval. "... her efforts were literally blasted off the landscape by the aroused church people; the teacher ran for cover and square dancing continued its unchallenged way," said Browning.

These beloved weekend events were usually held in someone's home, with everything cleared from the floor in advance and coarse meal would be spread across the floor. Local bands, typically made up of family members known for playing at square dances, would set up in the hallway in the afternoon before the big event. In Hamburg, the Deweys, Howards and Kings were often the family bands  used at the local square dances.

Each dance required a skilled caller to direct the dance. This individual needed to be part poet, singer, humorist and auctioneer in order to create the best experience. Expert musicians also added stimulation to their beats by tapping broom straws across a fiddle in perfect time. On one occasion, Browning recalls that a dance was interrupted with the somber news that a couple had overturned their vehicle on the way to the dance. This put quite a damper on the mood of the dancers until the caller was given word that no one was injured. To efficiently spread the good news, the caller used his next call as a news flash, saying, "Car turned, nobody hurt; swing your partner, and do your stuff."

The church continued a fervent opposition to the beloved dance, with some early Baptist churches having ordinances that required members to "express Godly sorrow for having danced." Their other option was to be thrown out of the church, which was a choice often taken. Some pastors were known for buttressing their theology with memorable lines, such as, "A praying knee and a dancing foot don't grow on the same leg."

Browning recalls a story of a young man who was eager to hold a square dance at the home of his uncle. The problem with this plan was that the uncle was a deacon in the church and was strongly opposed to the square dance. The brightly devious young man promised his uncle there would be no inappropriate dancing, but he asked his permission to hold a musical game that he called "Tucker." The uncle was fine with this proposition and the game ensued. However, the "game" was a full-fledged square dance, with a caller who had been instructed to add the name "Tucker" to many of his calls. The uncle thoroughly enjoyed the evening and never became aware that he had been duped. By nights end, the happy and exhausted dancers may have been the first to announce that they were "all 'tuckered' out."

Special thanks to our friends at the Treasures of Madison County Museum for preserving Browning's recollections, as well as countless other volumes of the rich history of Madison County.

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