Bob Osgood, Sets in Order, and the Square Dance Hall of Fame

Bob Osgood was always a promoter. Having seen square dancing at a California YMCA conference and a rural Arizona wedding, he introduced squares at his college mixers. In the Navy during World War II, he helped organize square dances for servicemen, both in Los Angeles and on shipboard – the latter with male sailors taking the ladies’ parts.

After the war Bob landed a job with the Squirt soft drink company. His duties included editing the company magazine and traveling across the country to advise local bottlers on advertising and sales techniques. Bob took advantage of his travels to seek out local square dances wherever he went; he found that dancers and callers were interested in knowing what their counterparts in other areas were doing but had no easy means of communication.

Back in the Los Angeles area, Bob got to know the few square dance callers who were active at the time. In 1946 he met Lloyd Shaw, who was visiting from Colorado, and wangled an invitation to one of Shaw’s summer institutes for dance leaders. Shaw’s tours with his performing high school team were inspiring ordinary Americans to take up square dancing, and his institutes were inspiring callers to take a more professional attitude toward teaching dancers. The 1947 session had a lasting effect on Osgood, who became an enthusiastic champion of square dancing and the Shaw philosophy.

It was Charles Dillinger, the artist and printer for the Squirt Reporter, who suggested that Bob start a square dance magazine. The dream became real in November 1948 when Lloyd Shaw’s Cheyenne Mountain Dancers came to Hollywood and Pasadena. The first issue of Sets in Order doubled as the program book for the performances, with the center pages listing the 30 dance selections. Staffing the magazine were representatives of two recently formed local square dance associations, which sponsored the shows (along with the local folk dance federation), provided ushers and ticket takers, and paid for 5,000 copies of the magazine/program. Enough subscriptions were sold at the shows to make Sets in Order a going concern. By the time Osgood called it quits in December 1985, a total of 444 issues had rolled off the press – all personally supervised by Bob, and all with the help of several staffers who were there from the start. The latter included Bob’s colleague Charles Dillinger as well as photographer Joe Fadler and ex-Disney cartoonist Frank Grundeen.

There was hardly a facet of square dancing that Bob didn’t explore. The magazine’s office near Beverly Hills had a dance floor where workshops and parties were held; around the walls were shelves with books, recordings, dance shoes, and dance-themed jewelry for sale. Within a few years, Sets in Order had its own record label, with new releases nearly every month. In 1950 SIO collaborated with seven local dance associations on a street dance to mark Santa Monica’s diamond anniversary; the event drew an estimated 15,000 dancers and 35,000 spectators. In 1951 Bob started running vacation weeks at Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey Peninsula; the weeks were modeled after the famous Lloyd Shaw institutes, but aimed at ordinary dancers rather than aspiring leaders. In later years Bob led groups of dancers on tours to Hawaii, Europe and Asia. Much of the advice and information from the magazine was reprinted in book form, ranging from pocket-sized pamphlets to a 600-page callers’ textbook.

At first Sets in Order was a regional publication. The first issue was billed as “The California magazine of Western Square and Round Dancing.” While some features were aimed at dancers or callers anywhere, the club directory was confined to Los Angeles County and the news section dealt with the two umbrella groups, Associated Square Dancers (“A-Square-D”) and the Western Square Dance Association of San Gabriel. But Osgood dreamed of going bigger. In the second issue he offered a free year’s subscription to any club outside the area. By mid-1949 the tagline had become “The Magazine of Western Square Dancing”; in 1951 the word “Western” was dropped, and starting in 1958 Sets in Order was billed as “The Official Magazine of Square Dancing.”

Bob Osgood maintained several distinctive editorial policies through SIO’s 37 years. Although controversial subjects were sometimes dealt with, he never criticized any person or group by name. He championed Lloyd Shaw’s watchword: “Keep it clean, keep it simple, keep it folk.” The magazine printed new square and round dance material as well as old standards, but Bob always advocated providing places where newcomers, and people with limited time to commit to a hobby, could dance comfortably.

Increasingly, Bob saw Sets in Order as the guardian of all that was good and valuable in square dancing. From the start, he devoted space nearly every month for spotlighting individual callers, round dance teachers, and behind-the-scenes organizers. In 1956 the Silver Spur award was unveiled to recognize leaders who had made extraordinary contributions to the well-being of the activity. Appropriately, the first recipient was Lloyd Shaw, Bob’s inspiration for founding SIO.

But Bob wanted to do still more in this vein. In 1961 each monthly issue of Sets in Order was dedicated to an individual or couple who was generally acknowledged as a leader in the square and round dance field. On the cover of each issue was a portrait of the honoree, painted by Gene Anthony, a shipmate of Bob’s during the war.

During the 1960s the prevailing form of modern square dancing changed radically from its traditional roots. The number of movements a dancer was expected to memorize, and therefore the number of lessons required to join a club, were steadily increasing. Many long-time leaders felt there was too wide a gap from entry level to club level, and advocated the promotion of a “limited basics” program to attract potential dancers who would not or could not devote more than a few nights a month to the hobby. Bob Osgood, in line with Lloyd Shaw’s maxim “Keep it simple,” assembled a “Gold Ribbon Committee” of his calling friends to address this and other problems in the activity. Throughout 1969 he published the reports of various subcommittees; at year’s end he announced the formation of the Sets in Order American Square Dance Society. Subscribers would hereafter be known as “members,” and the magazine (renamed Square Dancing) would be a benefit of membership. The society’s stated goal was “the promotion, protection and preservation of American square dancing.”

The 1970 monthly issues featured a second round of cover portraits by Gene Anthony, who had become a square dancer since painting the first ones. The originals were hung in the dance hall within the SIO office building, and the display was dubbed the Square Dance Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame was more than a name for a set of portraits. When Bob called a meeting in 1971 to float the idea of a national callers’ organization, it was the Hall of Fame members that he invited. Some of them had discussed the issue with him in the 1960s, but now they felt a new sense of urgency. They met again in 1972 and 1973 and decided that an umbrella group could do good things for the activity, but they started cautiously, adding members through personal invitations. They adopted the name of Callerlab and drew up a charter using the American Medical Association as a model, viewing themselves as a professional group rather than a trade union. The first Callerlab convention met in 1974; since then the group has met annually, expanded its membership many-fold, agreed on several lists of calls to be used depending on dancer experience, and published call definitions and teaching aids. Thanks to the breadth of experience and diversity of viewpoints of its members, Callerlab is generally acknowledged as the most authoritative body in the modern square dance world.

In 1985 Bob felt it was time to cut back on his activities, particularly those involving monthly deadlines. The magazine was such a reflection of his personality that he decided to end its long run rather than look for a buyer. In addition to the letters and papers relating directly to his editorship, Bob had amassed a sizable collection of square dance books, recordings, and ephemera over the years. He gave the Hall of Fame portraits to the Lloyd Shaw Foundation; they now hang on the walls of the Lloyd Shaw Dance Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The rest of Bob’s books and papers, along with the Lloyd Shaw Foundation’s massive collection, are now housed at the University of Denver in Colorado and form part of that institution’s extensive Dance Archive.

Bob Osgood is gone, but his influence will be felt as long as people square dance – in the many books, articles, and recordings he created and produced, and in the spirit of cooperation that is the key to the existence of Callerlab.

Compiled by Tony Parkes from information in:

  • The monthly issues of Sets in Order (later Square Dancing) magazine as digitized by Gardner Patton
  • Interviews with Bob Osgood and Jim Mayo conducted by Bob Brundage for the Square Dance Foundation of New England
  • Articles on Bob Osgood and his square dance career by Paul Moore