The cowboy was not the most limber of creatures. The long hours in the saddle and strenuous work produced dancers of questionable finesse. He was not of a temperament to master intricate dance steps or to gracefully lead a fair maiden across the floor to the strains of a fiddler's reel. Rather he would join a dance with a wild whoop and a goat cry.
Joseph McCoy, the first great cattle baron, wrote in 1874 that the cowboy "usually enters the dance with a peculiar zest, his eyes lit up with excitement, liquor and lust. He stomps in without stopping to divest himself of his sombrero, spurs or pistols." This dance style was not so much original as it was a spontaneous adaptation of traditional moves brought west by various immigrant cultures.
The open unexplored spaces of the West both shaped the character and determined the interaction of its settlers. People organized barn dances, husking and quilting bees, cowboy balls and get-togethers. Invitation was by word of mouth and those who heard usually came to dance. To prevent chaos from dominating the dance floor (few people knew the same steps), a figure who soon became legendary emerged; this hero was the caller and it was his job to orchestrate the ranchers, ranch hands, cowboys and ladies into harmonious movement.
Working with the steps of formal quadrilles and folk dances, the caller added a "cowboy waltz" position and helped promote the square dance. This new dance was considerably more casual in that the traditional dances where bodies didn’t touch, but still inhibited the young who were ready for a dance that would add a more intimate hold on their partner.
A new dance called the Polka started moving West. Having "the intimacy of the Waltz and the vivacity of the Irish jig", the Polka was embraced with enthusiasm.
The western population included such groups as Poles, Germans, French, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Czechs and Russians and each still enjoyed their own folk dances, but many found common refuge in the polka. New hybrids were also developed, creating offspring such as the Varsouvianna and the Two Step. German settlers in El Paso, Texas developed the Schottische and line dances which were important precursors of modern western dances such as the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
Folks gathered just about anywhere to dance -- on ranches, in barns, in the wide open spaces under the stars. Slowly a dance that was specifically "western" began to evolve. Novelty moves and styles popular in Appalachia and the South came west and were absorbed by the new settlers. The most important influence came from the cowboy!
The cowboy paid little attention to traditional dance forms. One observer commented in 1873, that "some punchers danced like a bear 'round a beehive that was afraid of getting stung. Others didn't seem to know how to handle a calico, and got as rough as they do handlin' cattle in brandin' pens."
The swing of the leg when dismounting from a horse became a mighty Polka gallop. Women were handled as if the cowboy were throwing a beating calf to the ground to be branded. Heavy army issue boots contributed to crude footwork. The habit of wearing spurs even on the dance floor forced the cowboy to keep his feet apart and shuffle as he moved to the music. Several of these cowboy mannerisms, although tamed, survive in today's modern western dance. The "double arms over" move is reminiscent of the final "tying off" of a calf's legs prior to branding. The basic "push pull" position recaptures the rhythm of grasping the reins.
All I can say is, "Yee-haw." Way to go--cowboy!