This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
For at least one hundred years, American dancers have completed the call Box the Gnat, and nobody had any idea what the call had to do with boxes and small flying insects. Some speculated that it was related to an old time call Swat the Fly, but if it is, Swat the Fly evolved from Box the Gnat, not the other way around. One source suggested that Box the Gnat was a corruption of the French phrase baisse le nez (drop or lower the nose/head), but at best that would be a stretch of description of the movement. Moreover, there is no reference in dance histories to any French dance movement baisse le nez, and the French idiom means more on the order of shamed or humiliated. The short answer is that the call should be correctly labeled Box the Nat. Nat is an obsolete word for a pad or mat. Nats were for women to kneel on in church (see below). Nat was a northern English dialect term going back to the 12th Century (see below). When the call was first
noted in the 1910s, nat had completely disappeared from usage, so the homonym was used, so we Box the Gnat. Box the Nat clearly describes the movement as though dancing around all four corners of a mat. The long answer is fascinating. Box the Gnat was but one call in the Kentucky running set: which was uncovered only in 1916, but predates what we think of English Country Dance, and represents the northern part of Britain (as opposed to the Southern/London dances cited in The Country Dance Book).
The running set survived in the Appalachian Mountains virtually intact into the th 20 Century. The dance was not performed to music because of the belief that the fiddle was an instrument of the devil, but was often done to the accompaniment of patting. The basic step of the Kentucky running set was a rapid, smooth, gliding walk that made it appear as if the dancer Oxford English Dictionary was skating over the floor. The arms were held loosely and in later forms, the dance was ornamented with disjointed clogging actions of the legs and feet. A caller called out directions to the dance which usually consisted of an introduction and about 14 different figures. These figures included such moves as "Wind Up The Ball Of Yarn," "Shoot The Owl," "Chase The Squirrel," "Wild-Goose Chase," "Box The Gnat," and "Birdie In The Cage." Each figure was made up of different patterns and actions. For example, during "birdie in the cage," the dancers ran quickly in a circle to the left, circling one woman who spun in the middle in the opposite direction. When the caller shouted 'Bird hop out, crow (or owl) hop in," the woman jumped out of the center of the circle, rejoining it running to the left, and was replaced by her male partner who jumped in. In "chase the squirrel" one of the woman dancers led her partner between another couple, then abandoned her partner and was pursued by the man in the second couple. Traditionally, the running set was followed with a play-party dance game called "'Tucker." During this game, one man went to the center of the circle and all the others danced around him in couples. During the course of the game, the man in the center then tried to capture one of the females and take her away from her dancing partner. When be did, the dispossessed man then went to the center and the process was repeated. (Tap roots: the early history of tap dancing By Mark Knowles. 2002)
Cecil J. Sharp was collecting Appalachian folk songs when he heard about running sets. His introduction to The Country Dance Book Volume V provides an insightful discussion of running sets in the folk dance context.
Apart from its innate beauty and its many artistic qualities, the Running Set is especially interesting in that it represents one particular phase in the development of the Country-dance of which, hitherto, nothing has been known. It is, in a sense, a new discovery. A few words concerning the history of the Country-dance and of our sources of information regarding it will make this clear. The English Country-dance is the lineal descendant of the May-day Round, a pagan quasi-religious ceremonial of which the May-pole dance is, perhaps, the most typical example. Except for a few stray references to the Country-dance in early literature nothing is known of its history prior to 1650, in which year the first book on the subject, Playford's English Dancing Master, was published. This modest little book, containing the description of 104 dances, won so great a popularity that, under the modified title of The Dancing Master, it ran through eighteen editions, the last of which, dated 1728, contained upwards of seven hundred dances. A critical examination of these successive editions shows that the dance degenerated very rapidly during the period covered by them, and the large number of dance-manuals subsequently issued by Walsh, Thompson, Waylett, and others furthermore proves that this decline continued during the two following centuries until, at the beginning of the present century, the only dances that remained were those—chiefly of the Longways variety— that were still being danced by the peasantry in remote country districts of England and Scotland. Now the Running Set in its structure (with one partial exception to which reference will presently be made) and in many other important particulars differs materially from any other known form of the Countrydance. It is built on much larger lines than any other of which we have cognizance. The Promenade movements, which bind the figures together and give continuity to the dance, occur nowhere else; while The Wild Goosechase, The California Show Basket, and Wind up the Ball Yarn are figures which hitherto have only been found in children's singing-games. Moreover, the forceful, emotional character of the dance; the absence from it of all the courtesy movements, i. e., the Set, the Side, the Honour, and the Arms; the speed with which the evolutions are executed, and the unconventional way in which the dancers comport themselves—all tend sharply to differentiate the Running Set from the Playford dances and all other known forms of the English Country-dance. From these considerations we are led to infer that the Running Set represents a stage in the development of the Country-dance earlier than that of the dances in The English Dancing Master—at any rate in the form in which they are there recorded. The fact, for instance, that the movements of courtesy, which occur in almost every one of the Playford dances, are conspicuously absent from the Running Set is of itself the strongest testimony in favour of the priority of the latter. For it is extremely unlikely that these movements, which were obviously due to the influence of the drawing-room and reflect the formal manners and conventional habits of the upper ranks of an organized society, could have found their way into the dance many years before 1650. Indeed, it might be maintained, that it was the intrusion of these and similar movements into the Country dance which initiated and ultimately led to its decline. The only dance in The English Dancing Master which, in its construction, bears any resemblance to the Running Set is Up Tails All (1st ed., 050; The Country Dance Book, Part iii). This is a " Round for as many as will" and consists of an Introduction and three Parts. Each Part contains a fresh figure, which is led successively by each couple in turn, as in the Running Set; but there is no general movement, corresponding to the Promenade, between the repetitions of the figure or between the Parts. As Up Tails All is the only Round of its kind in The Dancing Master it is fair to infer that it represents a late and—in comparison with the Running Set—a corrupt example of an earlier and almost extinct type, rather than the forerunner of a fresh development. The three figures, hitherto known only in children's singing games, of which mention has already been made, are one and all derived from ancient pagan ceremonials. The California Show Basket is an adaptation to the dance of a children's singing-game, Draw a pail of water, which is a dramatic representation of several incidents connected with the ceremony of well-worship. The only one of these ritual acts which survives in the dance-figure is the passing first of the women under the arms of the men and then of the men under the arms of the women, in imitation of the creeping of the devotee under the sacred bush, which was frequently found by the side of the holy well (see Alice B. Gomme's Traditional Games of England, etc., i, p. 100; ii, p. 503). Wind up the Ball Yarn is a variant of one of the “winding up games" such as The Eller Tree, or Wind up the Bush Faggot. Games of this type originated in the custom of encircling a tree or other sacred object as an act of worship, the connection of the worshippers, by means of linked hands, with the central object, being intended to communicate life and action to it (Traditional Games of England, etc. i, p. 119; ii, pp. 384, 510).
The Wild Goose-chase is one of the many serpentine movements—e. g., the Hey in its many forms— which are so often found in dances of religious or magical significance (cf. the movement in Morris Off in The Morris Book, 1st ed.). Lady Gomme (Traditional Games of England, etc., ii, p. 511) cites an Irish custom recorded by Lady Wilde in which young men and maidens with clasped hands described curves very similar to those in the dance figure. Wind up the Ball Yarn, it is interesting to record, has been appropriated and used very effectively by the Russians in one of their ballets. The ring-movement around a central dancer in The Bird in the Cage and Tucker is not unlike one of the figures in the Scottish Eightsome-Reel (itself a Nature dance) and is probably derived from some sacrificial ceremony. The dancer within the ring may be the victim about to be seized and sacrificed as in several of the Sword-dances (cf. The Grenoside Sword-dance) and in the Morris Dance, Brighton Camp (The Morris Book, iii, P. 55). The fact that these indubitably ancient figures are incorporated as organic movements in the Running Set and (with the exception of Tucker and The Bird in the Cage) occur in no other recorded dance, still further strengthens the claim that the Kentucky dance belongs to a stage in the development of the Country-dance earlier than that of any dance known to us. If this contention be conceded we have next to enquire how and at what period the Running Set found its way to America. Now the fact that the dance could not have reached America before 165o (unless it came over with the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower!) does not in reality conflict with our hypothesis, although at first sight it may seem to do so. For, bearing in mind the physical difficulties of communication between one part of the country and another in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is extremely improbable that the successive developments of the Country-dance proceeded uniformly at one and the same time in every part of England. Now The English Dancing Master was published in London and addressed primarily, if not exclusively, to Londoners, or at most to those resident in the Southern and Midland counties of England. In what form, however, the Country-dance existed at that period in other parts of England, we have no means of knowing, although, as the civilization in the North has always lagged behind that of the South, we may assume that it was of a less advanced type. It may be, therefore,—indeed, it is extremely probable—that dances of the same species as the Running Set were, in the middle of the seventeenth century and for many years later—i. e., for some while after they had been discarded or superseded in the South —still being danced in the Northern counties of England and the Scottish Lowlands, the very districts from which the forefathers of the present Southern Appalachians originally emigrated. Although, then, we may be unable to ascribe to the Running Set a definite date, we may with some assurance claim: —that it is the sole survival of a type of Country-dance which, in order of development, preceded the Playford dance; that it flourished in other parts of England and Scotland a long while after it had fallen into desuetude in the South; and that some time in the eighteenth century it was brought by emigrants from the Border counties to America where it has since been traditionally preserved. This explanation at any rate accords with, and follows logically from, the facts so far as they are at present known. Further investigations, however, in the Southern Highlands and in other parts of America may, perhaps, lead to the discovery of more examples of this particular type of Country-dance, and it may then become necessary to modify the theory above enunciated. It is interesting to note that the dancers who were "men" and "women" in Playford's book have become "ladies" and "gentlemen" in the Running Set which, by the way, is also the title given to them in the eighteenthcentury dance-books. The "Promenade," too, is, I take it, also an eighteenth-century expression. This adoption of an eighteenth-century nomenclature in the description of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century dance is at first sight a little disconcerting, but it really proves no more than that the jargon of the dance travelled more quickly to the North of England than the dance movements themselves, a fact for which we have every reason to be thankful. When the last book of English folk-dances was published—now some years ago—it looked as if the available material were at last exhausted, and that our knowledge of existing traditional dances had practically reached its limit. That further and most valuable material actually existed at that time in a country several thousand miles away from England, patiently awaiting the call of the collector, certainly did not occur to me, nor, I am sure, to any of my friends or collaborators. And even when, later on, I had penetrated into the Southern Appalachians and found the old Puritan dislike, fear, and distrust of dancing expressed in almost every log-cabin I entered, the possibility seemed more remote than ever. My surprise, then, can be imagined when, without warning, the Running Set was presented to me, under conditions, too, which immensely heightened its effect. It was danced, one evening after dark, on the porch of one of the largest houses of the Pine Mountain School, with only one dim lantern to light up the scene. But the moon streamed fitfully in lighting up the mountain peaks in the background and, casting its mysterious light over the proceedings, seemed to exaggerate the wildness and the break-neck speed of the dancers as they whirled through the mazes of the dance. There was no music, only the stampings and clappings of the onlookers, but when one of the emotional crises of the dance was reached—and this happened several times during the performance—the air seemed literally to pulsate with the rhythm of the "patters" and the tramp of the dancers' feet, while, over and above it all, penetrating through the din, floated the even, falsetto tones of the Caller, calmly and unexcitedly reciting his directions.
The scene was one which I shall not readily forget and, in the impression which it made upon me, it recalled to my mind the occasion when I first saw the Handsworth Sword-dance, a dance, with which in a curious, subtle sort of way, the Running Set has a close affinity.
Therefore, we can conclude that the original name of the dance motion was Box the Nat, but as nats dropped out of use (by kneelers or prie dieus) and the word disappeared, the dance continued. Presumably, when Sharp transcribed the name of the call, he wrote the only Gnat he knew, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. The associated dance movements for Box the Nat/Gnat have evolved over the years. Sharp recorded it as follows from 1916:
BOX THE GNAT First man turns his partner half-way round with the right hand and once round with the left hand. First man turns right and left in like manner with second woman; while his partner does the same with second man. First man turns his partner half-way round with the tight hand and once round with the left hand. First man turns right and left in like manner with third woman; while his partner does the same with third man. First man turns his partner half-way round with the right hand and once round with the left hand. First man turns right and left in like manner with fourth woman; while his partner does the same with fourth man First and fourth couples hands-four. First and fourth couples Do-si-do-and-promenade- home. Variations BOX THE GNAT As danced at Quicksand (Breathitt Co., Ky.) and explained by Mr. Sewell Williams. First man and first woman arm-right and face second couple. First man arms-left with second woman; while first woman arms-left with second man. First man arms-right with his partner. First man arms-left with third woman; while first woman arms-left with third man. First man arms-right with his partner. First man arms-left with fourth woman; while first woman arms-left with fourth man.
Handhold to begin Box the Gnat
As danced at Hindman (Knott Co., Ky.). This is the same as the Hyden version given in the text, except that in the left-hand turn the man turns completely round on his own axis, clockwise.
The description makes clear that box is being used in the nautical sense, i.e., to go in all four cardinal directions. This particular usage of the verb dates to the 16th Century according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a possible clue in dating this call. Therefore, the call involved a particular dance step with each couple in the circle or square or boxing around the nat or set. By 1951 Box the Gnat had fully entered square dance. In Square Dance! by Ralph J. McNair (Garden City Book, Garden City, NY), the call has gained its buggy association (as dancers try to make sense of a silly sounding call):
BOX THE GNAT It is surprising how much dancing it takes to box one small insect. a. b. Into the center and everyone shout. . . . Suggested opener: Call 12, lines a and b [Circle Left], with the lines being called, not sung. First couple balance, next you swing, then lead out to the enter of the ring. Andy and Amy balance and swing, then they go to the center of the square where they stand facing each other with Amy's back to Cal and Cora, and Andy's back to home position. Box the gnat. Andy and Amy join right hands and, with a quick pull, change places. To do this, Amy walks forward three steps and turns around to the right on the fourth step. Andy takes a step forward, turns left, and backs under their joined right hands; this must be done as a quick and continuous movement. Box the flea.
Andy and Amy repeat the action described under call line c but with left instead of right hands joined. This time Amy walks three steps forward and turns around to the left on the fourth step. Andy takes a step forward, turns right, and backs under their joined left hands. They are now back in the same position that they were in at the beginning of call line c. e. Box that pretty gal back to me. Andy takes Amy's left hand in his left, pulling her around behind him so that she will stand on his right. To do so, he must extend his left arm around behind his back. At the same time, he takes two steps forward and makes a quarter turn right. Amy takes three steps around behind him and makes a quarter turn left. They drop hands and stand facing Bill and Bess. f. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Andy repeats call lines c through e with Bess while Bill does same with Amy. The gents end by swinging the ladies around behind them so that Amy stands on Bill's right as his partner and Bess stands on Andy's right as his partner. g. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Andy repeats call lines c through e with Amy while Bill does the same with Bess. The gents end by swinging the ladies around behind them so that Amy stands on Andy's right as his partner and Bess stands on Bill's right as his partner. h. Circle four and don't be slow, break that circle with a do-si-do. Around you go in the center of the floor. One more change then circle four. The two couples join hands, circle left, and do-si-do. When they have finished the do-si-do, they again join hands and circle left. i. Pick up two more and that makes six. The four-hand circle breaks to pick up Cal and Cora between Andy and Bess. j. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Each gent repeats call lines c through e with his corner lady, ending with the following partners: Andy— Cora; Bill—Amy; Cal—Bess. k. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Corners repeat call lines c through e, ending with the following partners: Andy—Bess; Bill—Cora; Cal— Amy. I. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Corners repeat call lines c through e, ending with their original partners. m. Circle six and don't be slow, break that circle with a do-pas-so. A left and a right and a left and then, join six hands and circle again. The three couples join hands, circle left, and do-pas-so. The do-pas-so is essentially a variation of the do-si-do for three or four couples. Partners face each other, join left hands, and walk once around each other; corners join right hands and walk around each other; again, partners join left hands and walk around, this time the gent putting his right arm around his partner's waist and turning her once around counterclockwise and back to place in the circle. When they have finished do-pas-so, the three couples again join hands and circle left. n. Pick up two more and that makes eight, circle eight and all stay straight. The six-hand circle breaks to pick up Dan and Dot between and Cora. o. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Corners repeat call lines c through e, ending with the following partners: Andy—Dot; Bill—Amy; Cal—Bess; Dan—Cora. p. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Corners repeat call lines c through e, ending with the following - partners: Andy—Cora; Bill—Dot; Cal—Amy; Dan—Bess. q. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Corners repeat call lines c through e, ending with the following partners: Andy—Bess; Bill—Cora; Cal—Dot; Dan—Amy. r. Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty gal back to me. Corners repeat call lines c through e, ending with their original partner. s. Circle eight and don't be slow, break that circle with a do-paso. A left and a right and a left and then, join eight Box the Gnat ends in this position as Marilyn touts the utility of hands and circle again. always carrying a fork
t. u. v. w. x. y. z.
The four couples join hands, circle left, and do-pas-so as described in call line m. All eight swing. . . . Suggested filler: Call 1, line I [Allemande Left, Right & Left Grand, Promenade Home]. Second couple balance, next you swing. . . . Bill and Bess lead off for call lines b through s. All eight swing. .. . Suggested filler: Call 1, line I [Allemande Left, Right & Left Grand, Promenade Home]. Third couple balance, next you swing. . . . Cal and Cora lead off for call lines b through s. All eight swing. . . . Suggested filler: Call 1, line I [Allemande Left, Right & Left Grand, Promenade Home]. Fourth couple balance, next you swing. . . . Dan and Dot lead off for call lines b through s. Into the center and everyone shout. . . . Suggested ending: Call 12, line k [Then it’s into the center and everyone shout. Back to your places and circle about. All the way round to your home you advance and when you get there you have finished this dance.], with the lines being called, not sung.
The current Callerlab definition is currently under review, but as it stands, this is how Callerlab see Box the Gnat:
Box the Gnat Starting formation - facing dancers (man and lady). Dancers step forward, join and then raise their right hands. The lady steps forward and does a left-face U-Turn Back under the raised joined hands, as the man walks forward and around the lady while doing a right-face U-Turn Back. Dancers end facing each other, each in the other's starting position. STYLING: Start with a handshake position. The joined fingers must be held so that the man's fingers may turn over the lady's fingers easily while still providing some degree of security or stabilization. At the completion of the movement, the hands should be in handshake position. TIMING: 4 steps from point of contact.
There isn’t much left of that old time religion or that old time call. Stripped long ago of its pagan roots, and in more recent years stripped of meaning, and finally reduced to a small, but very stylized dance movement, Box the Gnat lives on. What we dance today could well be the last remnant of the Kentucky running set that has endured. Modern Western Square Dance has drawn from many traditions; a melting pot or salad bowl, which ever metaphor you prefer, with a little from there and a bit from here. At one point in the 1970s, the list of square dance calls had bloated up to about 5000. Then Callerlab came along sorting out calls, discarding many, and refining definitions to ensure regularity. While our dance forebears would undoubtedly recognize what we call Mainstream, anything else would bedazzle them. They would wonder whatever happened to the rest of Box the Gnat? April 25, 2010 San Francisco Daryl Daniels
(Left) Dan and Abby complete a Box the Gnat. (Right) A full square doing Box the Gnat
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.