Older Bodies, Dancing Together: Gender, Embodiment and Aesthetics in a Canadian Square Dance Club

Saturday, July 19, 2014: 8:45 AM
Room: Booth 40
Oral Presentation
Liza MCCOY , Sociology, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada
Barbara SCHNEIDER , University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada
Square dance in North America is a social activity primarily enjoyed by older women and men. In square dance, eight people (four couples) move with and around each other, forming elaborate moving patterns in response to on-the-spot instructions issued by a caller. In the structure of the dance moves and the names of the calls, as well as the caller’s patter, square dance encodes an idealized version of heteronormative, “old time” gender relations featuring gallant masculinity and girlish femininity, which is further expressed through traditional 1950s-era square dance costumes:  western shirts and bolo ties for the men; full, flouncy skirts and puff-sleeved blouses for the women. In the present day, these “invented traditions” coexist amidst a range of self-presentational options, as well as frequent urgings from within the square dance community to “update the image” of square dancing.

Since 2011 we have been researching the organization, practices and experiences of square dancing through an ethnographic study of a square dance club in Calgary, Alberta. Although not designated as a seniors’ club, almost all of the members are over 50, and most are in their 60s and 70s, with some in their 80s. Our research has involved participant observation as club members, interviews, focus groups, photographs, and a survey of 200 dancers from 13 square dance clubs in Calgary. In this paper our focus is on square dance as an embodied, gendered activity of aged and aging men and women who meet every week to dance. We examine the gendered forms of square dance (calls, moves, dress) as resources that actual, individual dancers take up, play with, alter, embody and resist. We also consider the ways dress-up and collaborative dancing offer older bodies the almost transgressive pleasure of countering stereotypes of old people as infirm and unlovely.