This message is kinda long, so here's the executive summary:
Can any of you identify sources that describe wrist-hold
stars in American square or contra dancing before 1949?
I'd be particularly interested in sources that date from
significantly earlier and in sources that describe
wrist-holds as being a new or newly-popular style in
Now the longer version:
Over on the SharedWeight callers' forum, the topic came up lately
(starting Oct. 10 with a message from John Sweeney for those who
want to checkthe archives) of wrist-hold stars vs. hands-across or
other styles and which style is predominant among contra dancers
in different parts of the country. From the responses, it appears
that the wrist hold is currently the usual styling (among contra
dancers) in most areas except for parts of the southeast, and
except when there's something particular about the choreography
that makes hand-across preferable (e.g., two couples star with
hands across, then men drop out while women keep turning by their
On Oct 11, 2016, at 1:14 PM, Dan Pearl quoted a posting by Sylvia
Miskoe to rec.folk-dancing on March 4, 1999 in which she wrote:
Wrist grip stars became popular after the appearance at New England
Festival (NEFFA) of the Lithuanian Dance Group doing their dances and they all
used wrist grips. The square dancers thought it was a neat idea and adopted
[Sylvia, if you're reading this, can you say when this happened?
According to the NEFFA history at
the Lithuanian dancers have been regular performers since the very
first Festival in the fall of 1944. Are you talking about that
first appearance or a later one? Also, was it your impression
that that was how the wrist-hold star first got introduced to
square (and/or contra) dancers in your area? Or do you think it
merely helped popularize a style some dancers were already using?]
I think it would be quite noteworthy if the appearance of the
Lithuanian Dance group at NEFFA could clearly be identified as *the*
point from which wrist-hold stars spread to become common throughout
most of the U.S. Assuming the Lithuanian dancers indeed set off a
local surge in popularity of wrist-hold stars among square and/or
contra dancers, there may nonetheless have been other times and
places where wrist-hold stars were either imported into American
dance forms from some other tradition or independently discovered
by American dancers. However, I can't offer much evidence on the
subject one way or the other.
I'd be interested in any other info on the introduction or use of
wrist-hold stars from before about 1950, either from dancers with
long memories, from written records, or from photos or drawings.
Even an opinion piece disparaging wrist stars as uncomfortable or
as inauthentic for some region would be evidence that some dancers
were using them at the time of writing.
Taking a quick look through some of the sources I have at hand,
I'm surprised to see that the earliest mentions or descriptions of
wrist-hold stars that I've found so far date from 1949. I hasten
to emphasize that I've examined only a relatively small number of
sources, and those only cursorily. Possibly some of you can find
earlier mentions of wrist-hold stars. If so, please tell me about
Here's summary of what I've found in the sources I've checked so
far. I'll start with the definite mentions, descriptions, or
illustrations or wrist-hold stars, including the earliest ones
I've found and a selection of later ones. Then I'll go on to
list a few where the descriptions either definitely indicate a
different styling or don't give enough detail to make it clear
just what styling is intended.
Square Dance Callers Instruction Course
Linked from http://squaredancehistory.org/items/show/581
In the notes on "Texas Star", Ed writes:
Do not teach wrist hold star to beginners at the first
two or three dances. ...
To me this indicates that he does recommend teaching wrist
hold stars eventually.
Sets In Order, Vol 1, No. 6, June, 1949
A description of the dance "Four Gents Star" on page 7
reads, in part:
Four gents star in the center of the square.
The four men make a right hand star taking the
wrist of the gent ahead of them.
I own a copy of the complete digitized _Sets In Order_. This
is the earliest occurrence of the word "wrist" found by a full
text search. (Note, however, that the magazine only commenced
publication in November 1948).
"On Standardization of Fundamentals"
Sets In Order, Vol 1, No. 9, September, 1949
This article, reporting on a meeting of about 100 callers from
Los Angeles and surrounding counties offers the following styling
suggestions for stars:
STARS—Gents, wrist hold recommended.
Ladies, hand hold recommended (because of skirt work).
This is to be formed by each person putting arm out at
about shoulder height with palm of hand toward opposite
Mixed, hand hold recommended.
Star with crossed hands—Just that, take hand of person
across from you.
Merrill's Standardization of Square Dancing
American Squares, Vol. 5, No. 7, March, 1950
This tongue-in-cheek list of styling recommendations includes the
following (on p. 11):
27. Wrist hold in star formations—At call "Gents to the
center and form right hand star", always stop still in center of
set, discuss wrist hold, teach newcomers how to do it. Everyone
will enjoy this. When that chap gets your wrist he'll hurt it
so don't let him get it.
_American Squares_ began publication in September, 1945. This is
the second-earliest occurrence of "wrist" found by full-text
search. The one earlier occurrence has nothing to do with stars.
Square Dances of Today and How to Teach and Call Them
The description of the figure "STAR" on page 11 says:
... The hands may rest in the center, one on top of another,
or they may each grasp the wrist of the person in front of
the dancer. The star is sometimes called a _mill_.
The accompanying drawing shows four boys making in a wrist-hold
A diagram on page 86, illustrating the dance "Skating Away", shows
a mixed-sex group of four dancers in a star with each one holding
the wrist of the dancer *behind* them. I believe this is an
Jane Harris, Anne Pittman, and Marlys Swenson [now Marlys Waller]
Dance A While, 1st edition
[My copy of the 1st edition is a 1951 third printing.]
On page 29, near the biginning of the chapter on Western Square
Dancing, the authors give a list of regional differences dancers
might encounter, including
7. hand or wrist grasps on star figures
Lee Owens and Viola Ruth
Advanced Square Dance Figures of the West and Southwest
The description of the chorus figure "Eight Hand Kentucky Star" on
page 55 reads, in part:
..., all [eight --js] step toward the center and form a
Left-Hand Kentucky Star by grasping with the left hand the
wrist of the person ahead of each in the formation, ...
On page 80, the description for the chorus figure "The Big Wheel"
reads, in part:
The ladies now dance forward to form a Right-Hand Kentucky
Star by each grasping the right wrist of the lady ahead of
her by the right hand. ...
The ladies extend their Star by _changing from a wrist
grasp_ with the lady ahead to an _elbow grasp with the same
lady_, the ladies taking one step outward to form this
This book and its predecessor, _American Square Dances of the
West and Southwest_ (by Lee Owens, with music arranged by Viola
Ruth, 1949) also contain many dances with four-person stars for
which a wrist grasp is *not* specified.
I find it odd that Owens refers to the wrist-hold star as a
"Kentucky Star", since I know of no evidence for that styling
being traditional in Kentucky in the early-to-mid 20th century.
Grass Roots and Fancy Cuttings
American Squares, Vol. 9, No. 11, July, 1954
In this article, Owens again uses the term "Kentucky Star" for
a wrist-hold star, and he recommends this styling for stars
made by more than two couples. In fact, he writes:
It is a physical impossibility to join more than two
pairs of hands--a four-hand formation--in a star figure;
however, there are many eight-hand star figures in the
square dance. This situation is easily handled by using the
so-called "Kentucky Star" (designed for use with any number
of dancers) in such figures by each dancer grasping the
wrist of the person ahead of him in the formation. In the
Kentucky Star, the arms are held at the same angle as in a
four-hand star, and wrists are grasped at shoulder
height. Any number of dancers can form a star which has a
perfect hub without crowding or "reaching" by using this
wrist-hold, which is unnecessary in a four-hand star.
I don't have much experience with eight-person stars, but I have
ample experience to say that forming a six-person star with
hands-across styling is easy. Also, I doubt that a circle of,
say, 20 couples could comfortably form a giant "star" with each
dancer holding the wrist of the dancer ahead, though they
probably could do it by holding the *shoulder* (or perhaps even
the elbow) of the dancer ahead.
Square Dancing for Everyone
The caption of a photograph on page 14 describes a hands-across
... You gentlemen just grab right hands, and you ladies
take right hands over the men's. ...
The photograph, however, clearly shows a wrist-hold star. This
suggest that what someone writes in a book *might* not match
the contemporaneous styling even in the author's own locality.
Square Dancer's Guide
[The copyright page bears no date, but with the aid of Google's
Advanced Book Search, I found a catalog of copyright entries
that lists the publication date as 10 May 1957. The same
catalog list a January publication date for _Square Dancing for
The definition of "Right-and-left-hand-star" on pages 23-24
first describes hands-across styling, then offers the wrist-hold
(or "basket hold") as a variation.
"Square Dancing Old Country Style" (first installment)
American Square, Vol. 13, No. 3, November, 1957
Pages 14-15, 28
The description (by Olga Kilbitsky) of a German quadrille
called "Puttjenter" (Put-yen-ter) reads in part (p. 28):
Music A III--Boys' Mill
Boys join right hands across the
center, grasping the wrist ahead.
1- 4 BOYS circle clockwise in RIGHT-HAND
Mill with eight walking steps,
5- 8 BOYS circle counterclockwise in
LEFT-HAND Mill with eight walking
[Note: The text above is nicely formatted when I look at it in a
fixed-width font. If you view it in a variable-width font and/or
some bit of software on the path from me to you "helpfully"
removes "extraneous" spaces, then it might look ugly to you, but
I think it should still be intelligible. --js]
So we see that the Lithuanians aren't the only nationality whose
ethnic dance traditions include wrist-hold stars. In any area
where a fair number of square (and/or contra) dancers were also
involved in international folk dancing, it could have been easy
for the wrist-hold star styling to have jumped into American
dancing from some European tradition. The case for that actually
having happened would be more compelling if we could find other
contemporary or eyewitness accounts besides Sylvia's intriguing
Video (transferred from film) of a dance called by Dudley Laufman
As John Sweeney pointed out, this video from New England in the
mid 1960s shows wrist-hold stars.
There's some uncertainty about the date. In different comments
David Hoffman gives it as 1964 and 1965. A comment by Jeffrey
Simonson claims the video shows people who started dancing in
May, 1966. A comment by Trina Royar identifies the location as
Richmond, New Hampshire (not Vermont as stated elsewhere). At
1:42 we can see a young Sylvia Miskoe playing accordion.
Ted Sannella [Note correct spelling, with 2 "n"s and 2 "l"s.]
Balance and Swing
The glossary entry for "STAR" (p. 146) reads, in part:
... In New England, the customary way to link up in a star
is to extend arms near chest height, elbows slightly bent,
hands out with palms down, and grasp the wrist of the
On page 43, in a section titled "Effective Lingo", Larry mentions
some of his personal conventions about terminology, including
o Use "star" for a wrist grasp; "hands across" for hands
across even though many callers consciously use "star" for
And now here are jut a few examples of sources in which I did
*not* find descriptions or illustrations of wrist-hold stars.
In some case the authors clearly recommend a different styling;
in others the descriptions are to vague (or the illustrations
are insufficiently detailed) to make it clear just what
styling is intended. Since I didn't pore over these sources
page-by-page and line-by-line, and since I generally don't have
them in full-text-searchable form, it's possible that some may
mention wrist-hold stars in passages that I failed to examine
(and which I would be pleased to have any of you point out).
Elizabeth Burchenal, ed.
American Country-Dances, Volume I:
Twenty-Eight Contra-Dances Largely from the New England States
On page xvi, the figure "Right-Hand Mill" is described as
Four dancers join hands (as indicted in Diagram 11), and
move around in the direction of the hands of the clock.
In the diagram, the dancers arms are represented by a simple
pair of crossing lines, like the letter "X", with no detail
shown of what happens in the center.
"Good Morning": After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-Fashioned
Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford
This dance descriptions in this book were written by Benjamin
Lovett, a dancing master that Henry Ford met in Massachusetts and
brought to Michigan.
Definitions of "Cross Right Hands" and "Cross Right Hands Half
Around" on page 23 say nothing about wrists. On page 27, we
MOULINET--A wheel formation. Four ladies or gentlemen
join right hands across, ...
Mention of wrist-hold stars is similarly absent--as far as I
have noticed--from the fourth edition, published in 1943. In
that edition, an illustration of "Four ladies grand chain" on
page 123 shows hands-across styling.
Beth Tolman and Ralph Page
The Country Dance Book
If wrist-hold stars were traditional in New England in the
early 20th century, we might expect to find mention of them
here. Nope. On page 35 we find
CROSS RIGHT HANDS HALF AROUND: (4 [measures --js])
Four ladies of gents, as the prompter may direct,
give right hands to the opposite, walk in a half circle
to the left and then stop.
LEFT HANDS BACK: (4) From the above position, they
turn, cross left hands with the opposite, and walk
back to place.
An illustration of "Ladies Grand Chain" found on page 6 and
again on page 137 shows what looks like hands-across styling
or might just possibly be interpreted as "lump" styling but
definitely is not wrist-hold styling.
While this offers no evidence *for* wrist-hold stars being
done in New England in the 1930s, it's hardly conclusive
evidence *against* it. I'll point out that (1) there may
have been different local stylings in different New England
communities, (2) definitions in dance books are sometimes
adapted (or even copied verbatim) from older sources without
necessarily being brought up to date with current practice,
and (3) illustrations are not always trustworthy. Apropos
that last point, an illustration on page 33 of _The Country
Dance Book_ depicts "Allemande Left" as an elbow swing, but
the text describes it as hand turn, and an illustration of
"Swing Contry Corners" on page 105 shows dancers turning
corners by right hands while the definition of that figure
(on page 41) says they turn by left hands.
Honor Your Partner
Starting on page 175, Durlacher presents sequences of small
photographs illustrating a number of different square dance
moves. He writes
... They can be studied in two ways -- by flipping the
entire sequence to achieve a moving picture effect, and
by studying each individual frame and the instructions
that go with it. ...
One of the sequences is titled
STAR BY THE RIGHT
BACK BY THE LEFT
The accompanying instructions read (one line per leaf)
First Couple walk to Couple Two
joining right hands in the center
They walk around
once to the left
If the hands
the two Couples
the allotted space
join left hands
and walk back
to the right
is also called
Right Hands Crossed and Left Hand Back
The photos are small and not crisp, and it's hard to
see any detail of the handholds, but they don't seem
to be showing wrist holds has far as I can see.
I'll add that while Owens (see above) refers to a wrist-hold
star as a "Kentucky Star", I have found no mention of such
a hold in any of the following books:
The Country Dance Book, Part V (by Cecil J. Sharp, 1917)
[describing dances collected by Sharp in Kentucky]
Square Dances of America (by Douglas and Helen Kennedy, c. 1930?)
The Appalachian Square Dance (by Frank H. Smith, 1955)
Kentucky Mountain Square Dancing (by Patrick E. Napier, 1960)
[My copy is a 7th printing, dated 1999]
At least some of these do mention figures where dancers move in a
single-file circle with each dancer having a hand on the *shoulder*
of the dancer ahead. The Kennedys' book uses the term "Mill Wheel"
for that figure.
I could name various other sources that *don't* describe
wrist-hold stars. Instead, I'll stop and wait to see whether
any of you can name early sources that *do.*