Thriftstorm #1: The Land of 2,542 Dances

Thriftstorm is Captain Video’s secondhand anthropology project. Follow @Thriftstorm on Twitter for the latest news on things people were just going to throw away.

Artifact: The Square Dancing Encyclopedia, by Bill Burleson. Revised June 1977.

Description: Softcover book made of 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper with typewritten text photocopied onto both sides. Occasional illustrations.

Source: A remarkable estate sale that ran from the end of August to the beginning of October in 2017. I made four separate weekend trips to it, and each time there were different things out for sale. I bought a lot of stuff there; expect to see more of it here in Thriftstorm. I’ll refer to it as the Long Estate Sale going forward.


EXPLODE THE LINE. ILLEGITIMATE CHAIN. JAM THE ELEVATOR. Code phrases for a top-secret mission? Only if that top-secret mission is square dancing! Friends, I don’t know how many square dances you think there are, but prepare to learn your estimate is low.

Published in 1977, The Square Dancing Encyclopedia is a bracing look at how hard it was to inventory knowledge in the age before computers were household appliances. All the way from entry #1 (“A SET OR SQUARE”) through entry #2,542 (“KNOCKOUT”), this book is typed, and most of the images appear to be hand-drawn.

The vast majority of the pages are simply packed with numbered square dances. A typical entry looks like this:

2143. GOTCHULATE. From parallel oceans waves or two-faced lines: Center four walk and dodge, ends circulate to end in 3 and 1 lines where the couple wheels as adjacants (sic) recycle to end as facing couples or one couple trailing another.

The terms each entry uses are explained in a section at the beginning. An Ocean Wave is “three or more dancers standing shoulder to shoulder with each facing alternately.” Likewise, Two-Faced Lines “can be two couples with each couple facing opposite directions.” Know the terminology and each entry breaks down into something like a short computer program, controlling the movements of the four couples in each square.


This makes The Square Dancing Encyclopedia far more valuable than you might reasonably expect something called The Square Dancing Encyclopedia would be. You can reconstruct thousands of square dances whole if you have this book and know the basic square dance template. You might think to yourself, “That is the last thing I would ever want to do. No thanks.” Fie on you, hater! Archaeologists of the deep future will need only this book and knowledge of the mullet to reconstruct square dance culture whole.

Bill Burleson, in the book’s introduction, makes plain that he understands the gravity of his undertaking:

Non-square dancers stand in awe for hours watching our great recreation. We have the precision of a drill team and flow of a professional waltz team. This flow was not born in us but mastered thru hours of dancing and study. Everyone of us started as beginners and know that the precisions of square dancing come only with hours of dancing.

However – in the next breath – Bill sagely cautions us against temptation:

Many time you will run into dancers doing extra little twirls. Possibly this can be accepted if all four couples in your set agrees, yet you will be wise to refrain from them as you will run into someone who will fight you every step of the way. Actually, these twirls are frowned upon as they interfere with others who must wait until they are completed. We cannot know the handicaps of other and must respect their wishes.

Guard against the twirls, square dance neophyte! They bring only sorrow!

Square dancers stand out from others by the clothes we wear. Be proud of them and always wear them to the dances you attend. We are a proud group that has feelings of courtesy, politeness and friendliness for everyone. Cleanliness and deodorants are very important to us as many pass under our arms and are closely associated to us. Men should always wear long sleeve shirts since no lady wants to grab a sweaty arm. Our image is known world-wide. Protect it. Drinking before going to a dance is frowned upon.

Once you know the terms and are suitably attired, it’s time to wow your new square dance friends with such classic moves as

  • 1034. ALAMO TEA CUP
  • 475. LOAD THE BOAT
  • 477. SINK THE BOAT
  • And more!


If this isn’t enough square dancing for you, you could sign up for updates, which cost $3 and required you to mail in self-addressed stamped envelopes. (“I am sending over 12,000 supplements out and have found it impossible to decipher and address so many envelopes,” Burleson explains. “Each supplement will consist of all the movements I can find to compile in each four-month period.”)

The book’s pages are three-hole punched and held in with brads, so a subscriber could presumably have just added new pages to the back. I don’t know what this looked like in practice; a brief skim online only turned up this edition and a later revision published in 2002. However, mentions that this catalogue eventually passed 5,000 entries. That is a staggering amount of typing, and it’s hard to imagine any one person ever did all the dances in even this edition.

I’ll close with The Square Dancing Encyclopedia‘s most important section: The Ten Commandments.


Next time: Get ready for Easter with Rankin-Bass’ Here Comes Peter Cottontail on VHS!