The History of Barn Dancing

By Kaye Wagner
Traditional barn dances are held in a barn

Today, barn dancing provides the same function that it did hundreds of years ago; it provides a group, family or community with the opportunity to socialize and celebrate. Today, barn dancing can also be referred to as country line dancing. Despite its athletic and rowdy appearance today, barn dancing’s roots go back hundreds of years to courtly dances held by the wealthy landowning gentry.

Definition

Barn dancing refers to any type of dancing in a barn. It can also specifically refer to the type of dancing that emerged from the European peasantry and spread to the U.S. pioneers. Modern barn dancing refers to any line, square or round dance.

Origin

Modern barn dancing originated in the 1860s in England and Scotland where peasants went to open areas in a barn to imitate ballroom dancing of the wealthy landowners. Barn dances were held to celebrate the raising of a new barn, a holiday, birthday or wedding. Often, the entire town was invited to attend the barn dance. Thus, barn dances were an important town social event.

Line Dances

Nineteenth century peasants held barn dances and imitated the line dances held in the upper-class ballrooms. The history of these dances goes back to the 17th century when English professional dancers performed the Morris dance, a exhibition of dancing prowess where six men danced together in two lines. This was the first line dance that heavily influenced courtly dancing, and consequently barn dancing, for hundreds of years.

U.S. Barn Dancing

European immigrants brought European traditions with them to the new world, thus resulting in modern U.S. barn dancing, square dancing and circle dancing. The result was a rowdier version of courtly dances because few of the peasants knew the correct steps. Thus, communities created the position of the caller. The caller’s job was to call out the correct steps and organize the crowd into a dance. This position is still relevant today where callers use a megaphone to choreograph even large numbers of barn dancers.

Twentieth Century Barn Dancing

Barn dancing faced a decline in the 20th century when the emerging generation stopped barn dancing and square dancing. However in 1926, two dance enthusiasts, Henry Ford and Benjamin Lovett, published a book of barn dances. Another dance instructor, Lloyd Shaw, scoured the nation looking for examples of local square dancing. He published his anthology of Western square dances in 1939. In 1954, Michael Kidd choreographed arguably the most famous filmed barn dance from the musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

Resurgence

Barn dancing faced another decline in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when the emerging generations favored other dance styles including the swing, the twist and disco dancing. However, in 1980 John Travolta, who had gained popularity from starring in “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever,” starred in “Urban Cowboy.” The movie featured country line dances and its popularity revived country line dancing.

In 1992, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus released his pop-country song “Achy Breaky Heart,” which was marketed with a choreographed country line dance. The song eventually became a hit and helped force country line dancing into dance clubs throughout the nation and the world.

About the Author

Kaye Wagner has been working in the fields of journalism and public relations since 2006 and is a recipient of a National Hearst Award. She is particularly interested in home-and-garden projects, as well as beauty and fashion writing. An avid traveler, she also writes travel reviews and guides. Wagner earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Brigham Young University.