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Box the Gnat - a short history

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Box the Gnat - a short history

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Box the Gnat - a short history
by Tony Parkes

Nobody seems to know when "box the gnat" took on the standardized meaning it has today in recreational square and contra dancing. In Instant Hash (1962), Rickey Holden (who is passionate about square dance history) doesn't include it on a list of terms whose originator and date of introduction are known. In his overall list of square dance vocabulary, he notes that it appears in two 1955 books but not one from 1950.

What I can say is that the definition wasn't always standardized. The book 5 Years of Square Dancing includes a dance routine titled "Box the Gnat." Like everything else in the book, it's reprinted from Sets in Order magazine, somewhere between 1948 and 1953 inclusive. Following a note that the term is controversial, two versions of the dance are given. Both use the call "Box the gnat, box the flea, box that pretty girl back to me," but in California the lady ducks under the joined hands, and in Texas it's the gent. The floor pattern also differs: both versions start from a circle of eight, but the California version is (all with corner) box the gnat, box the flea, box the gnat one more time but then the lady walks behind the gent to her original place. Repeat all with partner, starting with left hand, to the call "Box the apple, box the pear, box that pretty girl over there." The Texas version also begins with corner, but it's a partner-change maneuver: box the gnat (gent going under), box the flea (ditto), lady walks behind gent to end on his right. The call is to be repeated until partners are reunited.

In Western Square Dances (1941) and again in Square Dance! (1951), Colorado caller Ralph McNair includes a "Box the Gnat" dance that uses what Sets in Order calls the Texas version. Couple 1 performs the figure together in the center, then leads to Couple 2 and does it twice with "corners" to reunite partners. The two couples circle four and docey-doe, then lead to the next, where they circle six, do the figure three times, and do-paso. They pick up the last couple, circle eight, do the figure four times, do-paso, and promenade home.

(If "box the gnat" began life as a complete routine and only later became a building block, it's in good company. Allemande thar and Alamo style have similar histories.)

By the time of Sets in Order's Year Book of Square Dancing No. 1, comprising the dances from 1954 through 1956, "box the gnat" was being used in its modern sense, as one call among many in several patter and singing routines. The inclusion of patter dances titled "Gnat Trail," "Gnats to You," "Gnu Gnat" and "Going Gnats" (all by different authors) suggests that the term had been adopted recently enough for dance composers to be temporarily fascinated by it.

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posted to trad-dance-callers listserv

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August 14, 2012

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