Kickin’ up Yer Heels

Step back in time—how do you celebrate a barn raising in the Old West? A wagon train coming to town? A wedding? The end of a cattle drive? Or something as regular as a Saturday night?


The towns in the West were full of independent, rugged people, looking to make a mark on the world or at least on their own pockets. Town dances invited all to attend; cowboys and miners, outlaws and lawmen, bankers and merchants, cultured women and soiled doves. Dances were important to bring a community together for courtship and friendshipping. It was also a vehicle that mixed the social classes, giving people opportunities for advancing one’s class. America’s class system wasn’t as rigid as had been the countries of Europe and the attendees of the dances proved this especially in the West.

Immigrants found it easy to hoe-down with their neighbors as many of the dances originated in Europe and changed very little from the folk dances people already knew. The Polka was a favorite in the new West, but other common dances were the Quadrille, Grand March, Waltz and Scottish Fling. As dances evolved, new steps became incorporated and a dance master would call out the steps to keep the group in sync. This evolved into an American original, the square dance. It seemed to fit the American ideal of a mixture of people and ideas that work together to create a new culture.

In many western towns, women were scarce. And just as in Shakespeare’s plays, men would assume the female role. “Heifer branding” solved the problem as burly men would don a piece of fabric tied round their arm or strap on a bonnet or apron to take the place of the fairer sex and the party continued.

Hurdy-Gurdy Girls traveled to western towns in a group of several women, chaperoned by a married couple, often with children. They hired out for dances and then traveled on to another town.

Saloons found that dancing brought in more men and more money, and employed women as dance hall girls. These women were looked down upon by “proper” ladies, but they were not prostitutes as they were accused. Men would buy a dance ticket for a dollar, then spend it on a partner of his choice, dancing together for a quarter of an hour. The interaction allowed for dance and conversation with men starved for female companionship.

The women generally earned half the price of the tickets they claimed. If they took the man to the bar after the dance, they received a commission on the drinks as well. The dance hall girls could make more in a week than most men made in a month. They also made more money than the prostitutes did, and when given an opportunity, the soiled doves made their way into the dance hall ranks.

Towns also sponsored regular dancing events. In Albert Benard de Russailh’s travel journal, Last Adventure, published in 1851, he wrote of dances in San Francisco. “I am occasionally reminded of our balls at the Salle Valentine on the Rue St. Honoré. There is one important difference: Parisian rowdies often come to blows; but in San Francisco hardly an evening passes without drunken brawls during which shots are fired.”

Dance in the Old West is part of the mystique of the era and was as vital to building their culture, as it is today. It was used to release energy, bring together neighbors, socialize, and provide recreation. So come on out to the barn—let’s dance.

One lucky commenter chosen at random will receive her choice of one of Jo Noelle’s ebooks! To be entered in the giveaway leave a comment on your favorite dance or your favorite dancing memory.

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Works Consulted:


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28 thoughts on “Kickin’ up Yer Heels”

  1. I remember going to Jacques barn when I was a teenager. Square dancing in the dark. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks for dropping by! What a great blog! I so would have been a dance hall girl if I had been a single woman back in the old west time since they made more money than most men! I never knew how square dancing came about. I’m always learning things from authors about history that I never learned in a history class!

      I like to line dance, dance to rock music is actually my favorite, and two-step. I haven’t been to a dance or to a bar/dance hall in many, many years so I only know the very old line dances like four corners, the electric slide, cotton-eyed Joe and one other that I can’t recall the name of this morning. These are all from the 80’s and early 90’s that I know. I lived in El Paso, Texas for many years and attended many weddings, Quinceaneras, New Year’s Eve parties, as well as Birthday, wedding showers, baby showers and just weekend parties that included dancing. I guess the Hispanic culture just loves to dance! Lol Thanks for the memories!

      Great book covers! I would love the opportunity to read your book! A giveaway is an awesome way to find a new author to add to my go to authors list. Stay safe in these difficult times!

  2. I love dancing of any kind! That’s why I loved that show Dancing with the stars!!! My favorite is the Pasodoble!

  3. When I was a kid, we camped. At one of the campgrounds, they had a barn and square dancing on Saturday nights. They had dancing for the campers, and there were serious square dancers in full attire.

    There also was a western store near where I grew up–it closed about a decade ago. You could buy square dance apparel, boots, hats, saddles, and anything else. My dad used to buy boots there. I was always fascinated by the dresses.

  4. Been to 6 dance events. Had a date for one. Did not dance, just listened to the music.
    Two friends asked me to dance and did a fine job of putting up with me by encouraging me.
    Got asked to dance once. He criticized me so much that I left him standing in the middle of the far end of the dance floor. No way to treat anyone that told you they did not know how to dance.
    Dancing is just not for me.

  5. I grew up dancing. My parents took me and my brother from very young ages to dances. My Dad and I could two step, Waltz, Cotton eyed Joe, jitterbug. My brother and mom could too, then we would switch and mom & dad danced and me & Trophy(my brother’s name) would. Wow thanks for the memories.

    • I grew up in the country. Every summer for the city-celebration, we’d have a Children’s Dance. Parents brought even toddlers and we were taught all the old dances. It was so much fun!

  6. I have never been to any dances and I don’t know how to dance. Plus, I have no coordination so it wouldn’t be pretty anyway.

    • Thanks for commenting, Janine. My great grandfather wasn’t much to join a dance either, but he played the violin and would fiddle for the dances in his hometown in Colorado. That would have been at the end of the 1800s.

  7. Hands down, my favorite dancing memory is meeting my husband (20 years ago!) at the country line dancing place in town. We like to joke that we met at a bar even though neither of us drink. It was my first time to go to this place, and my friend’s mom warned us not to talk to anyone there. Needless to say, I ignored her advice and said yes when the nice young man asked me to dance–even though I had no idea what I was doing! Something must have worked, we were engaged just 7 weeks later.

  8. I love watching people dance. The two step, waltz, rumba, country line dancing … I love it all! So much fun. Lived reading your blog.

    • Thanks, Kathy! Being a writer is so enjoyable, but my favorite part is definitely the research. I could do that for hours–in face, sometimes I get so lost in it, I forget to write. 🙂

  9. Welcome. This is a very interesting post. My husband and I learned ballroom dancing together before our wedding. We chose the waltz to practice for our first dance. We practiced and practiced. Honestly I loved those times where my serious, straight, engineer husband to be, would let loose and have a blast. It was full of laughter and love. I really had a hard time letting him lead. In so many dances that I did before it was necessary that I lead. I guess I just chose men who didnt know how to lead. But anyway, on our day, we got up to do our dance. And we were smiling. We were going to have fun. Near the beginning my shoes would not stay on so I kicked them off. Opps one almost hit a friends date in the head. (they got married and 36 yrs later we are all still friends LOL) We were having a blast with the music we chose. When we were done, one of my moms friends (who taught ballroom dancing at one time) asked us where we learned the Venetian Waltz? What? We thought we were just waltzing. Because we added in our practice a lot of turns and sped it all up a bit. Cool we did a dance we didnt know about. 36 years later we still waltz.

  10. I think one of the dances I enjoyed the most was when my husband and I went to a Celtic festival. They had an evening of Scottish folk dancing. We had not done it before, nor had several of the others. The dances were in groups of 4 couples. They ran everyone through the steps first, then put it to music. The dances were easy and enjoyable. It reminded me a bit of square dancing, but was different. I love to dance, but now walk with a cane and have balance issues, so my dancing days are pretty much over.

    I have heard the term Hurdy-Gurdy Girls many times in the past, but never really knew who they were. It is interesting how much more they made than the prostitutes did. I guess that is an indication of how important a social relationship was. As important as it was for town and other events, it seems to be an indication that dancing was/is an acceptable way to meet and interact someone of the opposite sex and possibly start a relationship. For those already in a relationship or just friends, it is an enjoyable way to interact with each other.

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