Although its lineage can be traced back to 18th-century France, fewer things are as all-American as square dancing. Although dancing to callers while formed in a square started losing favor in the late 19th century, square dancing never completely lost steam. In the 1920s, automaker Henry Ford resolved to revive the tradition and went so far as to develop a national program, opening ballrooms and producing how-to radio broadcasts for schools throughout the country.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. While twerking and Harlem shaking may make waves, square dancing persists. And not just your basic do-si-do and promenades, mind you. Because in America we seem to adore a quirky spectacle, we present this feast for the eyes: tractor square dancing.
Leave it to American ingenuity to come up with a dance that is performed sitting down, but that’s not to say that tractor square dancing doesn’t take considerable skill. The finesse in which the “dancers” maneuver their John Deeres is really quite impressive.
The tradition was born in the 1950s as part of an advertising campaign by International Harvester to illustrate the quick hitching abilities of the company's Farmall Super-C tractor, according to Modern Farmer. During the next half-century, the art never entirely died out, and has had a distinct revival in the past decade. The best-known tractor square dance troupe, Farmall Promenade, was started in 1999 to celebrate the centennial of Nemaha, Iowa, and other groups have followed suit.
While no one is sure how many troupes exist — there is no Tractor Square Dancing Association to keep track of such statistics – the tradition remains strong at county fairs and other celebrations across the country.
Yet the future for this slice of Americana remains uncertain.
With ages ranging between the mid-40s and late 60s, the Country Fest Dancers are one of the youngest troupes performing. And Tove Danovich of Modern Farmer points out, getting swing-dancing lessons is one thing; driving and obtaining vintage machinery is another. The tradition will require an ongoing crop of tractors, and those who know how to drive them, to survive.
“Unfortunately, interested dancers from younger generations face an insurmountable roadblock to joining these groups themselves," says Tovich. "Tractor driving is a lost art.”
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