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.

Advertisements

Last Night’s Fun

Some days I surprise myself at how old-fashioned I can be and how much fun I can have doing things that people have done for hundreds of years. Last night was a good example. Usually on Tuesday nights a smallish group of us get together for an old-time music jam. When the weather is nice, we play outside on the patio at Ragtag CinemaCafe; when it’s cold or wet, we play at someone’s house. Although most of us can read music, we generally play old-time fiddle tunes by ear, and we’re always excited when a new fiddler shows up in town and can teach us some new tunes. All of us dance as well as make music, and two of the musicians also call dances, so we have in the last few months talked about starting a “callers jam,” as well. Why waste all that good toe-tapping music, when people could be dancing while we’re playing?

Finally, last night various forces converged, and we were able to hold our first callers jam. Even on short notice, we were able to gather about a dozen friends to make music, call, and dance together on a dreary November evening. It was way better than getting all worked up watching the Election 2012 returns come in. We had already voted, and there was nothing more could be done about that. Might as well dance!

Lucky for us, Krishna and her husband own a house that is for sale and is currently vacant, so no one even had to clean house to host our dance party, and there was no furniture and no rugs to move out of the way. In addition, we had a beautiful hardwood floor to dance on, and miracle of miracles, the people who had recently moved out of the house had left an upright piano that was in decent condition and mostly in tune. There were a few notes that wouldn’t play, but it was great fun pounding on that old honky tonk piano, while Pippa and Will played fiddle, and the dancers kept rhythm with their feet.

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.

20121104-184558.jpg

20121104-184616.jpg

20121104-184624.jpg

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?

Farley’s Music Hall

Farley's Music Hall was built in 1885.

I love the old dance halls and am always thrilled to discover such places still standing, usually in small towns, where the community still gathers to dance and make music together. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the village dance hall was the place where young people could mingle and where friends and neighbors could relax. Most dance halls at that time were single-story buildings with a wooden floor, benches along the sides, and a small stage at one end for the musicians. These community halls offered entertainment, refreshment, and opportunities to socialize after a hard week of work. In many communities, dance halls were built by ethnic groups, fraternal organizations, or individual social clubs. The dance halls tended to be family friendly, while the roadhouses and taxi-dance halls were often located beyond the jurisdiction of town and tended to draw a wilder crowd.

Inside Farley's Music Hall.

Farley’s Music Hall in Elsah, Illinois, was built by Dr. Farley in 1885 and served as the center of village activity for many years. In addition to dances and musical events, numerous other gatherings were held in the hall, including travelling medicine shows, literary club meetings, church socials, and school plays. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Knights of Pythias bought the hall and added a second floor. After the building was severely damaged in the flood of 1993, Historic Elsah Foundation purchased the hall and began the difficult process of renovation.

Today Farley’s Music Hall once again serves as a gathering place for residents of the village and visitors from around the region. On the calendar for November and December are two community dances, a lecture, and a Christmas hymn sing. The village of Elsah is not a historical museum, although it feels that way; people actually live in the charming stone houses and other nineteenth-century buildings. There is no commerce in the village, since the one restaurant closed, although there are a couple B&Bs–the Green Tree Inn and the Maple Leaf Cottage Inn. Many of the residents of the village are retired; others work at Principia College up on the limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Some villagers commute to nearby St. Louis, MO, or Alton, IL, for work; others telecommute.

We have had the good fortune of dancing at Farley’s on two separate occasions so far–once in May for a graduation party for a young friend of ours, and this past Saturday, for one of Elsah’s regular community dances. (One of the bonuses of being married to a dance caller is that you get to dance in all kinds of places you might never have found on your own, and you get to dance with people you might otherwise not have met.) The community dances were started about eight years ago by residents of the village to give their children a place to play music and socialize. Both dances were charming. The first time we went to Elsah, I knew I was going to love the place, as soon as we turned off the river road onto the narrow village street and saw the warm glow through the windows and heard the fiddle music through the open door. It felt like walking into a story book, where the dancing was in full swing by the time we arrived.

Last Saturday we went earlier in the day and had dinner at the home of the dance organizers, then walked down the street together to open up the hall for the dance. The hall is intimate enough that the band can play acoustic, so we only needed one speaker and a microphone for the caller. Our hosts had made snacks for the break, which they set up on a table in the small foyer, along with a cooler of water. The chairs were already set up around the perimeter of the hall, so after we got everything ready, we began the somewhat anxious wait for people to show up.

Class members from the Folk School of St. Louis provided the music for the contra dance in Elsah, Illinois.

The band (members of a group music class at the Folk School of St. Louis) began to arrive around 6:30, but the dancers were slow to arrive, and we were beginning to wonder whether the band would outnumber the dancers. Jim, the caller for the evening, began sorting his dance cards into ones we could do with as few as six dancers, squares if we got eight dancers, or “as many as will” if we got enough dancers to fill the hall. Shortly after 7:00, however, our anxieties were relieved, when several students from Principia arrived, and before long the hall was filled with music and dance. It was an altogether satisfactory evening.

Dancers lined up for a contra dance at Farley's Music Hall.

Plays Well With Others

I finally did it: bought myself a portable electric keyboard that I can carry with me to jam sessions. I love playing music with friends, but since my main instrument is a piano, not having my own keyboard puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to where I can play. I obviously can’t lug my spinet everywhere I go. Most halls have either removed their pianos or don’t keep them in tune. (The hall in Ashland at one time even had the cover nailed down it was so horribly out of tune.) For a while I thought maybe I could teach myself to play fiddle, which would be a whole lot easier to carry around  than a piano, but as it turns out, the fiddle is HARD (and I already know how to play the piano).

Occasionally, if I’m lucky, one of the other keyboard players will bring their keyboard along and let others play a few tunes. Musial Wolfe is a great one for sharing, but since his wife died, he doesn’t come to the old-time jams or square dances as often as he used to. He is coming up on the first anniversary of her death, and it’s just hard for him to get out sometimes.

Several other piano players I know switched to accordions for jam sessions, but you really only need so many accordions! Besides, I don’t know how to play the “lap piano,” as they call it. The buttons are just confusing, and the whole thing with the bellows makes me feel completely uncoordinated and awkward.

Lately the members of the Two Cents String Band have been coming to my house to play music on Tuesday evenings, which has been great fun.

photo of old-time musicians playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and piano in the living room

Photo by Cliff White on his fancy pants new iPhone.

But when the weather turns nice again, they are going to want to go back outside to play on the patio at the Ragtag CinemaCafe/Uprise Bakery. They also play once a month at a local pub, 44 Stone Public House (supposedly named in honor of the combined weight of the owners), and the pub does not have a piano. And tonight a whole bunch of people are heading to Jefferson City for Cliff’s fortieth birthday party, and they are sure to bring instruments along.

The only thing that had held me back from getting a keyboard was the price. I knew I wanted one with weighted keys, which I assumed would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000, at least. I have played Rolands, which are awesome, but those are out of my price range for now. I am not interested in all the fancy rhythms and built-in sounds and demo loops, but I had resigned myself to having to accept at least some of those in any electronic keyboard.

I already had a small Casio that has all the features that I don’t want and none of the features that I do, but it is decent and I thought maybe it would sound okay for a birthday-party jam. So yesterday during a break from work, I decided to walk a block to Crazy Music and at least buy a keyboard stand and a bench (sort of as a down-payment, a promise to myself that before winter was out, I was going to get a better keyboard).

Of course, once I got there and said what I was looking for, I was shown a Korg keyboard, which had everything I was looking for and at a price I could afford—$450 for the floor model! I tried it out and liked what I heard and liked the way the keys felt. I said I would think about it, but I knew that after work I would be back to pick it up. Now I need to save up for the rolling padded case!

Carrying on the Tradition

“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.”

On days when we get to dance, this traditional carol plays in my head, and I feel happy deep inside. This was definitely a dancing weekend. Friday night was our regular contra dance, with one of my favorite bands, River Ridge String Band, and out-of-town callers from Cape Girardeau, John and Kathy Coffman, who called some interesting dances that John had written. They are also beekeepers, so several of the dances had bee themes. We had a good crowd of people, including several newcomers, which is always fun. They seemed to enjoy themselves. After the dance, about a dozen people went to Flatbranch Brewery for socializing.

Saturday night Jim drove north of town to Centralia with a couple members of the Nine Mile Band (another favorite) to play for a community dance at a church. I stayed home and fooled around the house.

Sunday we both attended a children’s dance at Lee Expressive Arts School, which I enjoyed a great deal, partly because it brought back such good memories of when my older son went to school there in first and second grade. In fact, his second-grade teacher was at the school yesterday and asked about him. It is a strange thought that the little boy I can picture so clearly walking beside me on the way to and from school, talking to me about what happened in class that day, getting angry about some injustice on the playground, is now a captain in the Army.

Photo of children's traditional circle dance.

Traditional Circle Dance at Lee School

The school was not a magnet school back then, but it did have a large number of international students. Since the school was in the University district, most families did not have much money, but they did value education and had great ambition for themselves and their children. Many of the parents were studying engineering or medicine at the time and would some day make a lot of money, but in those days, their children were on reduced-price lunches.

Now that the school is dedicated to expressive arts, the halls are filled with amazing works of art. As you walk in the school, there are two large trees made of paper, and near the entrance is a display of amazing storyteller dolls that the children made out of clay and painted.

photo of clay storyteller dolls made by schoolchildren

Storyteller Dolls Created by Students at Lee School

One of the kindergarten teachers started hosting the dances a couple years ago. Since then the physical education teacher has also gotten interested in traditional dance and has taught a few dances to the children during regular PE classes. The dances are usually held three or four times during the school year, on Sunday afternoons and are open to the public. This was the second dance this year, and the dances were geared toward second and third graders this time, though other ages were welcome.

Our friend Krishna, who is just learning to call dances, did a great job selecting the dances and then teaching them to the children and calling them as they danced. Originally she had asked Jim to be her back-up caller, in case she didn’t feel comfortable calling for the whole dance (from 2:00 to 3:30), but she did fine. That left Jim free to play banjo on stage with the band.

Krishna started out with a dance that I thought would be too hard for the children—the Patty-Cake Polka—but they caught on right away. She called about six dances altogether, including some circle formations and some longways sets. One of the longways sets was called The Grumpy March, which was very cute. The children start out standing across from each other in longways sets. Then the caller has them grump across to the other side of the set, as though they are mad at their partners and just had a fight. Then when they get to the other side of the set, they march away from each other, some going up the hall and some going down the hall. Then they turn and come skipping back along the lines, until they see their partners, and do a two-hand swing, smiling and happy to see each other again. Then the dance starts over with grumping across to the other side.

All the dances were a big success, and the children and their teachers and parents had a great time. Krishna also called one play-party game, Can’t Jump Josie, during which the band did not play; she thought it would be good for the children to have a dance that they could do on their own, with just their voices for music, when they get home with their friends.

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than making music and singing and dancing with children.