If dancing makes you smarter, we must be geniuses…

I keep reading articles about how dancing can help improve memory and brain function and ward off the effects of aging. That makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know that any of these brain studies have focused on square dancing or other called dances, such as contra dancing or English country dancing, but it seems to me that those particular forms of dance would have even more benefits than other forms of dance. Not only are you moving your body in time to the music and getting all that good oxygen to the brain, but you must also listen to the caller and process verbal instructions, making quick decisions about what move comes next and responding to the other dancers. Furthermore, while you are doing a “left-hand allemande your corner” or “partner by the right” or “ladies chain,” you are exercising your brain as well as your body. If that doesn’t get the left brain and the right brain working in coordination to build new pathways, I don’t know what would. And then when you add in the social benefits of being in a room full of other dancers who are smiling the whole time, what’s not to like? But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the research: Dancing Makes You Smarter

Anyone who knows us knows we love to dance. We usually try to dance two to three times a month at our regular contra dances on the first and third Fridays and our regular square dance on the second Saturday of each month. But this fall has been even busier than usual. There have been several weekends where we danced Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. For example, last weekend, we went to an English country dance on Friday, a square dance on Saturday, and a school dance on Sunday. On top of that, we also play in a couple of dance bands and Jim calls many dances, so when we’re not actually dancing, we’re still heavily involved in the dance community, playing, calling, rehearsing with the bands, holding callers jam sessions, or just jamming with other musicians.

And that’s not counting the annual dance weekends held in various places around the state, such as Pilgrim’s Progress in Lawrence, Kansas, or the special dances my husband is asked to call, such as the street dance at the Urban Farm harvest celebration last August, the barn dance held in connection with a teen’s birthday celebration, the private house-warming party for a young couple who were celebrating their commitment to each other, the wedding dances, the high-school “proms” for home schoolers, the square dance and cake walk for First Night, and the costume balls for the children’s department at the public library.

We also enjoy traveling to other dance communities when we get a chance. This fall we drove to Fairfield, Iowa, one weekend for Jim to call a contra dance; our friends Dave, Amber, and Nate played for that dance. Unfortunately, we can’t get to all of the dances we would like to attend. It has been ages since we have made it to a dance in Kansas City or St. Louis. We missed Solefest in Springfield around Halloween. Last Saturday we missed two of our favorite dances that were happening the same night as the Hallsville square dance–one in the village of Elsah, Illinois, and another held in a gorgeous old mercantile building in McKittrick, Missouri.

Although I love variety in all things, I have to admit that the monthly square dances at Hallsville are my favorite. Master fiddler John White started these dances about ten years ago, modeling them after old-time square dances he remembered from years past, where the community would gather on a Saturday night at the one-room school (Lily Dale), fire up the wood stove, get out their fiddles and banjos and mandolins and guitars, and make their own fun. At first it was just the musicians who would gather to play, but as anyone who has ever heard old-time fiddle music knows, you can’t help but get up and dance once the music starts. John tells stories of how they would push the school desks back against the walls and lay their coats over them, and the babies would sleep while their parents and grandparents made music and danced late into the night.

At the Hallsville square dances, we dance in a functional but not particularly attractive building with a concrete floor, with central heat and air conditioning, and with metal folding chairs rather than school desks against the walls. But we still come together as a community–children, parents, and grandparents alike–and make our own fun. It is the epitome of “good clean fun.” The activities start about 4:00 in the afternoon, with an old-time jam that can include master fiddlers in their seventies, as well as young children who are learning some of the old tunes from John, and all ages in between. After the jam, more people show up for the carry-in dinner. John’s wife Betty, who taught school for many years, always decorates the hall in themes appropriate for the season. This month she spread brown and orange and yellow cloths on all the tables, and she brought her band of banjo- and fiddle-playing battery-operated singing and dancing turkeys for the counter near the food table, along with a large inflatable turkey.

Dinner ends about 7:00, and after dinner, the musicians pick up their instruments again, and the dancers line up for the Virginia Reel, a favorite among the children (some of whom have even learned to call the dance themselves when Jim and the other callers are not there). After the Virginia Reel, if we have a large enough group of dancers, we might do a circle dance or an Appalachian square, often ending with a figure called Wind the Ball. Then we start the regular squares. Sometimes we will have several callers present at the dance, so they will each call from within their own square. Other times Jim will put on his headset and call for the entire hall. Sometimes we dance squares that everyone knows, so we don’t need a caller. Some of the favorites include Texas Star, Two Little Hobos, Right Hand High, Little Sisters, Sally Goodin, Grandpa’s Baby, Grapevine Twist. In between square dances, the band will play a waltz or a polka or a schottische or a Two Step, depending on which musicians are there and what they feel like playing. Sometimes people will get up and do some clog dancing.

Like many other old-time square dances that, unfortunately, have become less common over the years, the Hallsville square dance is a place where people of all ages come together just for fun. There is no “club.” You don’t have to pass a series of lessons to join in. You don’t need to wear fancy outfits. There is no admission cost and no paid performers. We all just pitch in and make our own fun. And if we’re also building brain cells in the process, that’s all the better!

Here is a taste of what it’s like to be part of a rich tradition that is still alive and well in the twenty-first century.

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I really should get a hobby

My mother and I have lately taken to texting or emailing each other to set up an appointment to talk, because we are both so busy we can no longer just pick up the phone and expect the other one to be available. But this week was particularly nutsy. For someone who enjoys spending evenings at home reading or knitting or puttering around the house, I have managed to fill up every night with at least one activity. Part of the busyness is because I am playing in a band for the English Country Dance on Friday, so we scheduled extra rehearsals this week. But that was no reason to fill up the rest of the evenings, sometimes with more than one activity. Here’s how my week looks (so far):

Monday–Band rehearsal
Tuesday–Book club to discuss the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, followed by a callers’ party (where dance callers try out new dances on willing volunteers)
Wednesday–Meet with the interior designers about turning our den into a space for dance and music; and then go watch a silent movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Ragtag CinemaCafe
Thursday–Band rehearsal
Friday–English Country Dance
Saturday–Square Dance
Sunday–Family Dance at Lee Elementary School

Mom’s schedule was just about as full, with lunches and birthday parties for her best friend and a trip to the car dealer to see about that “check engine” light, on top of all her regular activities. She and two of her friends have written a novel together and have been doing book signings and readings, as well as working on their next book. We’ve decided that instead of one long phone call like we prefer, we will try to catch up through a series of shorter calls during my breaks at work.

Why I won’t be moving anytime soon

Before we bought the house I am now in, I had moved twenty-five times in about as many years. For the first eight years of my life, my dad was in the Navy, so of course we moved every time he was transferred to a new duty station: to Nova Scotia, then Florida, then California, then Tennessee, criss-crossing the country. When he had shore duty, my mother and brother and I moved with him; when he was at sea, we returned to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky while we waited for his ship to return. At the early age of two, I learned to hold tight to my favorite doll on moving day and not lay her down even for a moment, lest she get packed into a box and disappear for a year or more.

Even after dad got out of the Navy, we continued to move every eighteen months, as though he were still receiving orders to ship out. Those were unhappy years for my parents, but I didn’t know that at the time. Usually we just moved from one rental house to another, so I didn’t have to change schools that often. But I must surely hold some kind of record for having lived in the most houses that have since been torn down and turned into parking lots. (When we used to go back to my hometown and I would point out the places where I used to live, my children thought I had actually lived in the parking lots.) There was the two-story house my grandparents owned on Jackson Street, the three-story mansion on Hamilton Street, the small frame house on Clayton Avenue that we rented from the college, the large farmhouse across the tracks, the two-story bungalow on Willis Avenue, and the one-story bungalow on Walnut Street. Possibly there were others that I am not aware of.

Now I find it almost impossible to believe that I have been in the same house since 1989. And it’s not because it was my dream house or anything. There are plenty of things not to like about this house. In fact, if I had known I would end up staying here so long, I would have bought a different house, one with more character, more yard, less suburbia. One with an actual garage that was attached to the driveway and not bizarrely located down the steps. I do like the wooded back lot, however. You’d think, though, that having moved so often in the past, I would have plunked my furniture down here and refused to move another thing. But instead, over the years I have completely rearranged the house numerous times. I’m not talking about moving the couch from one wall to the other. I’m talking about completely repurposing rooms over and over again. Maybe, like my dad, I’m still searching for something I can’t find, only within a smaller frame of reference.

Now that the children have grown, and it’s just the two of us most of the time, our latest plan is to turn the downstairs den into a space where we can hold old-time music jams and square-dance parties. But obviously, we won’t be dancing and playing music all the time, so I’d also like it to be a multi-purpose room, where we can sit by the wood stove and read or knit or work on projects. We need an open space for dancing, but we also need decent storage and work space for our projects. We need plenty of straight-backed chairs for musicians, but we also need comfy chairs for reading. We need a smooth surface for dancing, but we also need rugs for the coziness factor.

Last spring we hired a contractor to take out a wall (one we had actually put in ourselves years ago to make a bedroom for my older son when he was a teenager and needed to get away from his little brother). Before the contractor came, we had to move everything out of what had been a fairly traditional bedroom and a den (in the bedroom a queen-size bed, a dresser, a wardrobe, and large shelves full of boxes of things left behind by the boys when they moved out; in the living room a love seat, a rocking chair, a coffee table, a television and stand, shelves and shelves of books, a NordicTrack; and in the “hall” between the two a chest freezer and a four-drawer file cabinet). Now that the space has been cleared out, we are trying to be very thoughtful about what we move back in.

I have decided this challenge definitely requires a professional, so I have made an appointment with a designer this week. I have great hopes that he will be able to come up with an awesome plan. The same designer picked out a fabric for a wing chair I had reupholstered last summer, and I am loving it. It was exactly the right fabric, but I didn’t know it until I saw the chair next to my stone fireplace.

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November is National Writing Month

For the second day in a row I find myself wide awake at 5:00 a.m. Must be feeling the energy of all those writers who have pledged to write 50,000 words during the month of November–whether as part of National Novel Writing Month or National Blog Posting Month or Academic Writing Month or Digital Writing Month or some other challenge they have set for themselves.

I personally thought this would be a great time to get back into my blog. I can’t believe I have not posted to my blog since July. As so often happens in my life, the years when lots of stuff is happening are the years when I tend to abandon my journals and blogs. I guess that makes some kind of sense, because when I’m not doing much of anything I have plenty of time to sit in my chair and write about not doing anything or imagine things I might do some day, whereas when life is more demanding, I don’t have the time or energy to write about what’s happening. By anyone’s standards, though, this has been one heck of a year, both at work and at home.

But trying to summarize where I’ve been sometimes has the unintended consequence of causing me to miss what’s going on in the present, as though I’m trying to drive down the highway while keeping my attention on the rearview mirror. I used to find it strange that my dad, upon returning from a year or 18 months at sea, would greet people as though he just saw them that morning. He seemed to make no attempt to catch up on news, and he didn’t offer any hints at what he himself had done during all that time. He’d say, “How about them Wildcats?” or “Nice dress” or “Think it’ll rain?” or “I’ll have the usual.” Strange, perhaps, but I’m beginning to realize that dad makes more sense than most people think. How could we really ever hope to make up for lost time? We might as well jump into the present with both feet and create some new memories.

On that note, I’ll let you know that my attention is on playing at the contra dance tonight for Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers. I will be playing keyboard with a band called The 32 Bartenders. (No, we won’t be serving up alcoholic beverages. We chose the name because all contra dances and tunes have 32 bars.) The other members of the band are Tom Verdot on fiddle and banjo, Thom Howard on guitar and mandolin, and Rebecca Logan on flute. This is the first time all four of us have played together for a dance. I am the newest member, so I’m a bit nervous, but I am having so much fun playing with these fine musicians. We will be playing mostly New England style contra dance tunes, which is somewhat new for this area. Many of the bands around here play oldtime stringband music and fiddle tunes. It’s been fun breaking out of the standard oom-pah, boom-chuck, I-V style of backup, but I have a long way to go before I am able to play the tunes the way I hear them in my head. For now, I need to focus on keeping a steady rhythm for the dancers.

On Tuesdays when the weather is fine…

On most Tuesday evenings, Spring through Fall, you will find me on the patio at Ragtag CinemaCafé playing old-time music with several of my friends, just for the fun of it. We usually arrive about 7:30 and play until about 9:30. Usually the group includes Pippa on fiddle, Cliff on guitar, Molly on mandolin, Jim on banjo, Rhett on banjo, and me on keyboard. Sometimes others will also join in. Every now and then spontaneous dancing will break out on the patio.

Although we occasionally play together as the Two Cent String Band for dances or other events, where we might actually earn a few dollars (we’ll travel hundreds of miles for tens of dollars), on Tuesdays we just enjoy getting together and playing tunes. It reminds me of when we were kids and you would go around the neighborhood with your ball or your bike or your skates and try to find someone else who wanted to play with you. Now it’s like, “Hey, I have a banjo. Want to come out and play?”

I took piano lessons for years and years, starting when I was 5 years old, and I always enjoyed learning to play and performing at piano play parties for Christmas and at the spring recitals (well, except for that time I forgot the entire Moonlight Sonata, but we won’t talk about that). I even considered majoring in music in college, but I thought that would be too impractical. But it’s only been in the last 15 years that I have met people who decided to pick up difficult instruments like the fiddle and learn to play–just because. Not because they wanted to be professional musicians. Not because someone told them it was good for them. They just wanted to play.

It turns out there are people all over town who get together regular as clockwork to do just that. In addition to our little group that plays on Tuesdays, there is an Irish session that meets at someone’s house on Wednesdays and a bluegrass/old-time jam that meets on the same night at a different house. There is an old-time jam at the Historical Society. A few miles north of town, in Hallsville, master fiddler John White hosts an old-time jam the second Saturday of every month, followed by a pot luck and square dance.  I’ve heard tell of a blues jam and song circles around the area. Who knew?

WTF–The Year is Half Over

We’re not even going to talk about the last blog post, where I went on and on about my New Year’s Resolutions and how I was going to get organized and accomplish amazing things. But the good thing about resolutions is that you can make them any time. You can always start over. The first of every year, every season, every month, every week, every day, even every hour you can decide once again to pay attention and do those things you meant to do. Today is as good as any day.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand why my dad, after being away at sea for 18 months at a time, would never ask upon his return what my brother and I had been doing while he was gone and never told us what he had seen and done. Instead he would act as though he had just stepped out of the room for a minute and would talk about Right Now, and How About Them Tigers, and Did You Get a Look at That Car and Looks Like It’s Going to Be Another Scorcher. Eventually I figured out that if you spend all your time trying to recover a past you never shared, you miss out on what’s happening now.

I don’t know what it’s been like where you live, but here in the Midwest, every growing thing has been about a month early this year, which only adds to the sense that time is slipping by in a frightening way. The daffodils were fading by mid-March. The strawberries had a brief moment of glory not too long after. The corn is by now way past knee high and we still have another two weeks before the Fourth of July. Peaches are already ripe. We picked blueberries two weeks ago and put them in bags in the freezer. And all this with no rain to speak of. We did have a good rain the last weekend of April and then nothing for six weeks, until last week when it rained almost an inch, and all the gardeners were ecstatic.

With everything coming on so early, by the time we were able to pick up new queen bees in late April, the main honey flow was already over, and we’re beginning to wonder if we will be able to harvest any honey this year. But we’re taking one day at a time, and we have established a most satisfactory routine.

On Sunday afternoons about 4:00 or 5:00, we head out of town to the apiaries to check on our bees.  This year we have five hives in two different locations: two hives that wintered over and three brand new hives that we made from splits from the established hives. Both bee yards are on land belonging to friends. The established hives near the well-manicured University farms are having some trouble finding enough nectar this year, but the new hives, which are down by the river, where things are a bit wilder, are next to a large field of clover and are drawing out beautiful white comb and filling the cells with light honey.

After checking each hive and marveling at the amazing bees, we head down to Coopers Landing, where we listen to live music, eat Thai food, visit with friends, and watch the sun set over the river.

Pippa and friends playing some old-time music at Coopers Landing.

We’re Big in Lupus, Missouri!

Lupus is a tiny river town located in Moniteau County, Missouri, with a population of 28 or so. The original riverside trading post was named Wolfe’s Point, but when the residents discovered that the name was already taken, they changed it to Lupus, which of course is Latin for wolf. A boomtown in the early 1900s when the railroad came through, with hotels and saw mills and banks and a city hall, the town is now a shadow of its former self. Yet there is a spirit in Lupus that defies reason, especially on a cool November night when the wind is high and the moon is full. Add in the dogs roaming freely down main street and the mighty Missouri River and trains moving past in the dark, and you have a song worth singing at the Lupus General Store.

photo of Lupus General Store at night

Lupus General Store all lit up for a concert, November 11, 2011

To get to Lupus from Columbia, Missouri, you head west on I-70, then take the Wooldrige Overton exit and follow state road 179 south for a ways, then take county road P for another 4 miles or so. Before you cross the railroad tracks and drive straight into the Missouri river, stop. You are in Lupus. The general store and the city hall building will be on your left.

Most of the houses in Lupus are elevated on stilts about 10 feet high to reduce damage from floodwaters. The story is that after the 1993 flood, FEMA offered residents money either to move out of the floodplain or raise their houses up on stilts. Most went with the stilts, which also had the advantage of providing additional storage space below the living areas.

The town is best known for its chili festival each October, which has been going on for thirty-some years. When I first moved to Missouri, I had never heard of the town of Lupus, so I mistakenly assumed that the chili fest was held to raise money to fight the disease. I have since learned that the festival started out as a fundraiser to help pay the electric bill for the city hall and the four street lights in town.

Doug Elly, mayor of Lupus for fifteen years, is credited with bringing musicians to the chili fest. He and Meredith Ludwig also sponsor the concert series in the Lupus General Store, which has brought in hundreds of folk musicians and bluegrass musicians to play for small but enthusiastic audiences over the years. The concert on November 11 by Bill Poss and the Useful Tools was reportedly the eighty-seventh of these concerts. Posters from previous concerts line line the walls and fill a flip book of plastic sleeves on the counter by the old cash register.

The musicians come from all over the world. Bill Poss (vocals and guitar) grew up in Detroit and now lives in Texas; the Useful Tools (Justine Fischer on bass, Kori Heppner on drums, and Matty Simpson on banjo) are from Canada. We once attended a screening at the General Store of a documentary on American roots music that was made by Dutch film makers. The joke among performers at the General Store is expressed in a bumper sticker displayed near the old cash register, “We’re Big in Lupus.”

The cinder-block building was built in 1926 to replace an earlier wooden building. The store is no longer a business, but the building is chock-full of merchandise that never sold and memorabilia from years of river life.

photo of front counter at the old general store in Lupus, Missouri

The old general store is filled with merchandise that never sold, many items still with their original price tags.

We were among the first to arrive, but everything was all set up for the concert, with several electric guitars, a banjo, a bass, and a drum set toward one end of the room next to the wood stove, and rows of couches and old chairs facing the stage. A large tapestry depicting a howling wolf hangs behind the stage. We let ourselves in and charged ourselves $7 for admission, then wandered around looking at the shelves and walls filled with old merchandise, while a small black cat ran under our feet and rubbed up against our legs. The room glowed warmly from the light of candles and lanterns; strings of twinkling white fairy lights and red hot peppers hung from the walls and ceiling. The coffee was percolating in the back room, and the hot water was ready for tea. Shortly before 7:00 Doug Elley showed up with the band members. Doug was carrying a big bowl of potato soup for the break.

interior of the Lupus, Missouri, General Store set up for a concert

Waiting for the concert to start at the Lupus General Store.

By the time the concert started, most chairs were filled with all the usual suspects, including young children, as well as men and women in their eighties. Several local folk musicians were also in the audience, including the legendary Lee Ruth and his amazing beard.

The musicians would undoubtedly be staying long after the concert ended for a song swap and music jam. We weren’t sure what to expect when we saw the drum set on stage (a first for the General Store, as far as I know), but when the band stepped up and began singing, “Hay for Sale,” we knew we were in the right place.

More about the band and the town can be found here:

  • Video of Bill Poss and the Useful Tools singing “Hay for Sale” in Bloomington, Indiana on October 31, 2011
  • Video of spinning fire hoop at the 29th annual chili fest in October 2010
  • Road Essay about Lupus, Missouri, by Dana & Susan Robinson, who performed at Lupus General Store in October 2010:
  • Lupus General Store Blog, including an essay written by a local singer/songwriter who grew up in Lupus.