Traditional Family Gathering

On a snowy day in early February, my husband Jim and I took off work to drive four hours west and a little ways north to Rossville, Kansas, for a traditional family gathering. It was snowing and foggy when we left, and the fields were covered with snow the whole drive, but the roads were clear. When we arrived a little before 6:00 at the Potowatamie Nations Community Center just outside of town, the band—Fox on the Run—was already there unloading their instruments. Young girls were carrying evening gowns and fancy dresses out of their cars. Inside, the hall was decorated with blue and silver balls and large sparkly snowflakes hanging by single lines from the ceiling tiles. A food table with a bright blue table cloth was set up along the back wall. To the left of the food table a crucifix was hanging on the wall. The hall was divided in two, with chairs set up on the side nearest the door and a large space for dancing on the other side of the hall. Over the center of the dance hall was a large blue and silver bow draped from the ceiling, with wide ribbons leading out in all directions toward the walls. A small stage was set up on the side of the hall, where the sound man was setting up speakers and talking to the band members. At the far end of the dance hall were several large lighted snowpeople and bare branches that looked like small trees with twinkling white lights.

The organizer, wearing a long dark green gown, welcomed us and asked how the roads were. She told us that a family of ten was driving up from Springfield, Missouri, for the weekend, but another large family from Joplin, Missouri, had decided not to come because of the weather. She explained that the traditional family gathering is held twice a year and always starts with a dance on Friday evening. She expected as many as two hundred people to show up. One year they had a square dance, and the caller brought  records, but she didn’t think the children enjoyed that so much. Another time they hired a contra dance caller and a band, but she thought the caller took too much time teaching and not enough time dancing. She asked Jim about the kinds of dances he planned to call. She wondered if the band could play some swing at some point during the evening, because some of the kids liked swing dancing.

While the band did their sound check, a young boy about six years old, wearing a suit and tie, walked up to a little girl about five, who was wearing a fancy red dress, and held his arms out to her in ballroom position. She placed her left hand on his shoulder and he placed his right hand on her back, and they began to polka around the hall. I whispered to Jim that I hoped he had some harder dances picked out, because it looked like this crowd knew what they were doing. Three girls about ten years old, all wearing long dresses, put their arms around each other’s shoulders and skipped around the hall in time to the music. By that time, more people were coming in, and the level of conversation increased in the hall, as people greeted one another. All the men and boys were wearing suits or nice slacks and ties. A few had on tuxedos. The girls were wearing somewhat old-fashioned formals and evening gowns and had their hair up; a few had ringlets. Only a handful of the girls had short hair. One of the women, a kindergarten teacher, later commented on how proud she was of the girls for having found such modest dresses. “That’s not easy these days,” she said, “with all the spaghetti straps and the plunging necklines.” Several of the dresses looked hand made. There were lots of children and babies and many teenagers, but few old people.

Shortly after 6:30, the band finished with their sound check, and Jim invited the dancers to “find a partner and form a big circle” for the first dance. The dancers were somewhat subdued at first, as though they weren’t convinced this was going to be much fun and were reluctant to leave the conversations on the brightly lit side of the hall, but as the evening went on, more dancers joined in each time, until by the end of the evening, over one hundred people of all ages were dancing together, clapping their hands, skipping around during the longways sets, whooping when the squares went “into the middle and back.” Jim called several longways sets, a couple circle dances, an English country dance, and a couple of old-time squares. During breaks, the band played swing dances and waltzes. One young teen requested “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Jim ended the evening with the Virginia Reel, as he often does when he calls for home-school groups or church groups or reenactment dances. For some reason, this dance is always more popular than any of the other similar reels.

After he completed the walk-through but before the band started playing, the young people began clapping a very fast rhythm. Although the band had not intended to play the tune that fast, they decided to go with it, and Jim started the dancers off with “long lines forward and back” and continued calling through the right-hand turns, the left-hand turns, the do-si-dos, until he got to everyone’s favorite part, where the top couple “reels the set,” and the rest of the dancers clap their hands as the couple works their way down the set and then “sashays” back to the top. The top girl then leads the line of girls around the outside and back to the bottom of the set, while the top boy leads the line of boys in the opposite direction. At the bottom of the set, the lead couple forms an arch and the other couples then duck through the arch and come back to the top of the hall, where the whole thing begins again with a new top couple. There were six or seven sets of dancers at that time; each set had ten or twelve couples; one set had all elementary-age children, others had all teenagers, some had a mix, a few sets included adults.

After a few times through the dance, the sets usually get off from each other, depending on how many couples are dancing, how fast the top couples are able to reel the set, how quickly the lines skip down to the bottom and back up through the arch. Usually Jim will stop calling at that point, and the dancers will continue on their own until everyone has had a chance to reel the set at least once, which often takes twenty minutes or more, depending on how many dancers are in each set. Several of the sets were flying through the dance (the set I was watching had about eight or ten very tall and handsome young men, probably all brothers, who were doing high kicks during portions of the dance and “high fives” as they passed the other men in the line), and the energy in the room was contagious. After twenty minutes or so, when the music stopped and the dance ended, everyone applauded loud and long. Jim thanked the band and quoted Mark Twain who once said that “any fiddler who can fiddle all through one of those Virginia Reels without losing his grip can be counted on in any situation.”

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