Dr. Ralph A. Piper was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1905 and started square dancing in 1917 at the age of 12 in the town halls and grange halls around Manchester. After working in the cotton and rolling mills along the Merrimack River for a year and a half, he went to Springfield College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1924 in physical education.
His first position was as coach of swimming and tennis at Kansas State. He then went to the University of Minnesota as Head Gymnastics Coach and Instructor of Physical Education.
Ralph got his Ph.D. at New York University and joined up with the first organized square dance club in the United States, the American Square Dance Club. After dancing, they sat around and sang under the direction of Burl Ives.
During World War II, Ralph served as Chief of the Army Rehabilitation Programs for all of the Army hospitals. It was while serving in this capacity that he had the opportunity to visit and call for early square dance groups across the United States. Following the War, he presented 48 squares of dancers at the Festival of Nations in St. Paul, Minnesota.
He used singing calls that he picked up from a little book called Good Morning by Henry Ford that was actually written by Benjamin Lovett in 1924. In those days, anybody who stuck his head in the door was invited to come in with "You can dance!" and "Dance with us!" and "If you can walk, you can square dance!" "But now, it's so different -- if you take a course for eight weeks and you graduate, you might be able to join a square dance club."
Ralph had a shop at Michael and Mary Ann's place on 14th Street where they sold equipment, dresses, and paraphernalia.
Ralph was friends with Dick Kraus and also Olga Kulbitski of whom Ralph says, "She was the best lady partner that I ever remember for following. I would start to tell her what wer were going to do and she would say 'Don't tell me, just lead me and I will follow.' She was a wonderful dancer."
In 1946, he set up a physical medicine service at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, California, and danced with folk and square dance groups there.
Ralph served on the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Committee for the games of 1948, 1952, and 1956. In 1959, he was elected to the Helms Foundation National Hall of Fame and was named "Coach of the Year" by the National Association of Gymnastics Coaches in 1962. He was on the Olympic Committee in Gymnastics for 14 years.
He was on the editorial board of the Roundup magazine, and in 1947 was co-founder with Morry Gelman of the Folk Dance Federation of Minnesota. From 1947 to 1952, he was chairman of the Folk Dance Committee of the Folk Arts Association of America. From 1948 to 1951, he conducted workshops and short courses in square dancing and called at festivals from Canada to Florida and from New York to California for more than 35 colleges and universities. He represented the National Dance Section of the 1954, 1967, and 1968 National Conferences of Physical Education, and in 1954, he conducted a square dance workshop at the annual convention of the National Recreations Association in Des Moines, Iowa.
In the 1949, Ralph started the American Squares summer camp with Charlie Thomas (originator of American Square Dance Magazine) and Jimmy Clossin. Also in 1949, he started the first America Square Dance camp at the Medford YMCA Camp in Medford, New Jersey. They then moved to Laredo, Minnesota. People such as Don (contras) and Marie (children's rhythms) Armstrong and Rickey Holden came to that camp. In 1953, he assisted in the formation of "Swingmasters," the Minnesota Callers Association, for whom he served as an officer and taught caller clinics.
In 1956, Ralph and his wife Zora taught on a Fulbright award at the University of Rangoon in Burma (now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), at the National Teachers College in Teheran, Iran, and at the University of Baghdad, Iraq. The same year, he was Chairman of the National Rules Committee of Gymnastics.
Between 1956 and 1969, Ralph called in 36 countries, 38 states, four Canadian provinces, and nine countries (out of the 83 countries that he visited). He did call some after he retired in 1970 at Laguna Leisure World in Laguna Hills. His teaching after 1970 was on a voluntary basis.
In 1969, Ralph represented the National Association and the Dance Division at the annual Congress of the International Council for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in Africa, where he conducted sessions for delegates from all over the world.
Ralph attended Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw's summer school for three summers. Ralph said of Pappy, "Pappy was an interesting person, a great philosopher. I never knew of anyone with a philosophy that said one thing and did just the opposite. Pappy used to say, don't teach square dancing to young children, like elementary kids, but he did all the time. He said don't mix square dancing with folk dancing, but he always included folk dances in his programs."
In 1984, Dr. Ralph Piper received the Springfield College Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 1997, he received the Callerlab Milestone Award. He is listed in Who's Who in American Education and Who's Who in the Midwest.
Ralph's many articles and publications include
- Developing the Creative Square Dance Caller. 1956. 155 pp.
- Night Football, Status, principles and standards of lighting. Self published, 1941.
- One Hundred Seventy-five Folk and Round Dances.
- Physical Education Notebook.
Ralph died in 2000 and is buried in Ft. Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Dances Ralph taught include Right Hand Up and Left Hand Under and Round Just One.