Dare to be Square

I’m looking forward to the next square dance at the Hallsville community center on Saturday night. John White, one of my favorite old-time fiddlers, has held these dances the second Saturday of every month for years. The schedule always follows the same format:  old-time open jam at 4:00, carry-in dinner at 6:00, and dance at 7:00.  Everyone is welcome to this family event; there is no smoking and no alcohol. Some people come mostly to play music, including several children that John has been teaching to play fiddle. Others come mostly to dance. Some neither dance nor play music but enjoy socializing. You can expect to find people of all ages at the dance, from babies to great grandparents and everyone in between.

John’s wife, a retired school teacher, always decorates the hall with seasonal items. Last month Betty brought blue tablecloths for all the tables, some with snowflake designs. The table by the door had a two-foot lighted snowman and a painted basket for donations that said “let it snow.” There were two other stuffed snowmen in wool hats and scarves on the food table and bowls of peppermints on each of the tables lining one side of the hall, where people sat to eat their potluck dinner. This time for the carry-in dinner, several people brought soups (potato soup, chicken cacciatore, chicken noodle soup, chili) and salads. There was also a delicious cherry pie and an applie pie. Betty remarked that “you just never know what people will bring,” saying “that’s what make it so fun.” This month I am sure Betty will have the place decked out with pink and red and white Valentines.

We arrived after most people had sat down to eat and some were going through the line for second helpings. A couple of the musicians were still sitting close together in folding chairs at the end of the hall farthest from the kitchen, facing each other, playing tunes while everyone else ate. The hall was packed, even though some of the regulars weren’t there, including several of the home-school families who usually come. There were some newcomers and some people we hadn’t seen for a while, including our friend Musial, whose wife had died suddenly of an aneurism shortly after Christmas. He told me he had decided to come because he knew it would feel good to be with friends, even though he didn’t feel like playing his keyboard.

It seemed at first that there weren’t as many children as usual, and it took a little while after dinner to get the Virginia Reel started, but we still ended up with two lines. During dinner, one of the little girls came up to Jim and asked if they could clog, so before lining people up for the Virginia Reel, he got his clogging students up to practice the routine they learned last year. After the Virginia Reel, Jim asked people to find a partner and form a circle, and he taught them some Appalachian square dance figures (i.e., right hands across, birdie in the cage, duck for the oyster), which was great fun. Then we formed a couple of squares, with Jim calling one and Laura calling the other. At one point in the evening we had three squares going at the same time (two in the main hall and one back by the kitchen); Willie called the third one.

Lately quite a few people in their twenties and thirties have gotten interested in old-time music and square dancing, and they have been telling their friends about it. Last month nearly thirty young people showed up, some of whom had never square danced before. They remind me of the dancers we met in Portland at Dare to Be Square. It’s very interesting to see all these kids showing up with their tattoos and piercings at Hallsville for old-time square dancing—yet another place in our lives where the far left meets the far right and finds they enjoy each other’s company. (Of course, we don’t ever talk about politics or religion at these dances, but it seems to me that if we could all find more such chances to share some common interests, the country would be a whole lot better off.)

By 9:30 there were still lots of people dancing, so Jim did another big Appalachian square and taught some new figures (i.e., basket swing, lady round the gent, four-leaf clover). The young people loved the basket swing, and when four of them met up together, they would really start the basket whirling. After the Appalachian square, Jim joined the circle and led everyone in a spiral as we “wound the ball.” Howard Marshall was lead fiddler most of the evening, and Richard Shewmaker (a young fiddler who has lately been winning quite a few contests) also played a long while. John didn’t play as much as usual, but he called at least one square. At one point, all the “regular” callers (Dave, Jim, and Laura) ended up in the same square together and some of the new dancers formed a second square and were standing around wondering what to do next. John noticed they needed a caller, so he got up and led them through “Right Hand High.”

After the dance ended and we had put away the tables and chairs and most people had left, Jim and John swept and mopped the hall, while Betty carried her decorations out to the car.

Memories of Christmas Country Dance School

Tonight we are bracing ourselves for another winter storm, which, according to the National Weather Service, could bring 1/4 inch of ice and 12 to 18 inches of snow. But I am thinking back to last December, when we attended Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. It’s strange looking back on events, even from a short while ago, how things shift focus over time. When I think back on Christmas School now, what’s left from a week filled with activity from 7:00 each morning until nearly midnight each night are the broad brush strokes as we criss-crossed the campus between the tavern and alumni center and gymnasium and music hall, trudging in snow early in the week, hurrying  in wind and rain a few days later; some days all bundled up in layers against the cold, other days with bare legs and skirts swirling, carrying our shoe bags and crafts back and forth.

photo of small decorative basket

Small decorative basket, with honeysuckle ribs and contorted filbert handle.

We took four classes every day, beginning at 9:00 a.m. I took basket weaving first thing and then Appalachian square dance, while Jim took English country dance and intermediate clogging. We had our choice of about eight different classes every session, including rapper swords, storytelling, shape-note singing, Irish ballads,  and all kinds of dancing. After the last morning class, everyone gathered for morningsong, which included time for announcements. The announcement on Tuesday that brought cheers was, “It is Tuesday morning, and we are not at work.” After morningsong, we headed down the hill and across the street to the cafeteria, then back up the hill to Seabury for afternoon classes. I often skipped the first afternoon class, so I could catch a quick nap, and then joined Jim for Irish set dancing mid-afternoon. After that, we might attend a concert or family dance before dinner, then back up the hill to Seabury for the evening dance from 7:30 to 10:30, after which we all gathered in the parlor for songs and stories.

photo of small decorative basketI can no longer remember the specifics of each day, but I am left with many images as from a dream—my fingers weaving wet pieces of reed through honeysuckle ribs, while the clogging class danced to the fiddle of Al White in the racketball court next door; the feeling of connection that comes from dancing the same dances that people from that region have danced for hundreds of years; the anticipation of a new day as we greeted each other at morning song; the smiling faces I would meet along the contra lines or while walking back and forth across campus; the joyful exhuberance of dancing each evening with three hundred people from all over the world; the warm glow from the candles burning each night at parlor; the sense of peace and happiness that comes from sitting in a room filled with people who are singing together and telling stories night after night, while snow falls outside.

Contra dancing – a swirl of awesomeness

We have been enjoying good crowds at our regular contra dances lately, with quite a few newcomers, including some younger people, which is always nice. I’m not sure how people hear about the dances, although word of mouth is the most likely way. Some say that friends tried for years to convince them to come to a contra dance, but they were always too busy. Then one day they heard an announcement on the radio or read an article in the paper on a night they didn’t have anything else planned, so they finally decided to give it a try. One of our regular dancers has lately been bringing friends from her church. Occasionally, we get college students who grew up in other places where they had contra dancing. Sometimes we get parents in town visiting their college-age students. Sometimes people find us on the Web and stop to dance with us on their way somewhere else.

The dance enthusiasts among us have a hard time understanding how anyone could not enjoy dancing, but the general public is wary at best. They don’t know much, if anything, about contra dancing, although they probably know something about square dancing, and they may express some interest in traditional dancing, even if they don’t think it is for them. Many people seem nervous about dancing in general; they will claim to have “two left feet” or say they “don’t know how to dance” or make some comment that suggests that they believe we will expect them to come in matching Western-style square-dance outfits. Some may have seen clogging exhibitions at heritage festivals and worry that they will have to know some sort of fancy dance steps. Or they may say they can’t come because they don’t have a partner or claim that they personally are interested but their spouse is not. Some will comment that they “used to enjoy square dancing” back in seventh-grade gym class but haven’t tried it since. Or they might ask if contra dancing, which is done in lines, is anything like country line dancing.

If they can be talked into coming at all, they may find that the dancing is more vigorous than they expected or that they get dizzy or that they are uncomfortable being in such close contact with strangers who tend to look them straight in the eye while swinging. I am sure the young people who happen to come to our dances all have the same reaction I had when I took square-dance lessons in high school: What is it with all these old people? Of course, when we’re dancing, we don’t feel old at all; we feel like we did in our twenties when we went to our first contra dance way back during the “folk revival,” when the halls were filled with young people like ourselves, caught up in a swirl of awesomeness as the tune and the dance and the community of dancers all came together perfectly, with a balance and swing.

High Tea & Whiskey

We just returned from an English/American dance weekend in St. Louis, happy but tired after 13+ hours of dancing. The weekend was sponsored by Childgrove Country Dancers, and it certainly lived up to the promise of  “Contra the way English dancers like it, with spit and polish and interesting music, and English the way Contra dancers like it—full of energy and joyous spontaneity.” I have been a contra dancer for almost thirty years and a square dancer for longer than that, but I must say that this was the first time I actually enjoyed English Country Dance. I have been to ECD workshops and dances before, but I have not had fun at those—partly because I didn’t know what I was doing, so I felt silly and awkward, and partly because the group didn’t know what they were doing, so the events plodded along, with more teaching than dancing, and little joy or spontaneity. I also had trouble getting into the “high tea” spirit of English country, being more of a “whiskey” kind of person myself by nature. But this past weekend, there were enough people who actually enjoy English Country Dance and are strong enough dancers to guide beginners like me through the figures with a fair amount of grace. For the first time, figures such as “turn single” made a little more sense, and I could begin to imagine how they might flow into the next figure in a meaningful way. In addition, the caller, Joanna Reiner, efficiently taught each dance, called just enough to get us started, and then stopped calling so we could enjoy the gorgeous music. On Saturday night, when many of the dancers arrived in period costume for the “ball,” I felt as though I had stepped into an eighteenth-century novel, and I found myself wondering whether we wouldn’t be better people if we paid more attention to our appearance and to ballroom manners in all our daily interactions.

The dance weekend was held at the wonderful Monday Club in Webster Groves. The Club began informally as a reading circle founded by five women who got together on Mondays, when their housekeepers had the day off. Over the years other women joined, and in 1887, the Monday Club was formally organized. Ten years later it became a charter member of the Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs. The clubhouse, on the corner of Maple and Cedar Avenues, was dedicated in 1911. A two-story wing was added to the original building in 1929, with a kitchen, dining room, and board room, which made it possible for the members to hold luncheons, exhibits, and teas. At one time, the Monday Club served as a library, and club members assisted the paid librarian two days a week; these days, according to its brochure, the club provides a variety of community outreach programs, educational programs, and senior citizen activities, and it hosts concerts, dinner theatre, fashion shows, public art exhibits, and weekly educational lectures.

We are very fortunate to be able to participate in traditional dances in this elegant historical building. The dances are held in the original auditorium, where there is a small stage, hardwood floor, and built-in bookshelves with glass doors, from the earlier days when the building served as a library. The walls are painted a delicate peach, with white-painted woodwork. Windows line the side walls and look out over stately houses and yards in the well-established neighborhood. Elegant statues and vases are placed throughout the building, and artwork hangs on the walls in the dining room, where the registration table was set up for the dance weekend and where we had our after-dance parties. The women’s restroom has a floral hand-painted sign on the door that says “powder room.” The men’s restroom was apparently added later and is located in the basement. For the weekend, the organizers had strung fairy lights from the rafters in the auditorium and hung British flags and early American flags around the hall.

The weekend started out with a contra dance on Friday night, called by my husband Jim Thaxter, with an after-party that went until 1:00 a.m. We took the group up on their offer of “home hospitality,” and stayed with a wonderful woman named Robin and her family, who graciously opened their home to us for the weekend. Music was provided at all the dances and workshops throughout the weekend by Martha Edwards and Pamela Carson Stoll playing fiddle, with Kendall Rogers on keyboard and percussion. After the Friday contra dance and the after-party and a short night’s sleep, our host fed us breakfast on Saturday morning, and then we headed back to the Monday Club for a morning workshop led by the English dance caller, Joanna Reimer and another workshop in the afternoon. Joanna’s teaching was superb, and I especially liked the way she handled the perennial problem of dancers wanting to socialize while the caller is teaching a new dance. She began by reminding us that she was not the only one responsible for how well the dance went, that each dancer also played an important role, as did the musicians, of course. Then she taught a dance and walked us through the moves a couple of times. After that, before the music began, she instructed the dancers to “remind each other how the dance goes.” I had never seen a caller do that before, but it was a wonderful way to focus the dancers’ attention before the two-beat introduction that signifies that the dance is beginning. We had a four-hour break during the early evening, to give the dancers plenty of time to nap, have dinner, and dress for the ball. By 8:00, the dancers had arrived back at the Monday Club, many of them dressed in Regency attire or other periods of their choosing. In consideration of the small size of the hall, they thankfully did not wear hoop skirts or carry swords. Midway through the evening, at the break, a team of Morris dancers came jingling in and executed a lively choreographed figure in the center of the hall.

Sunday afternoon we had the pleasure of dancing outside near the fountains at the Grand Basin, at the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, on a clear blue fall day, while the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. Various callers took turns leading the dances, and Kendall played his accordion along with CDs by Stringdancer, until he became concerned about the amount of dust blowing into the keys. While we danced contras and a couple squares and waltzes, people in paddle boats cruised around the basin. When it was time to leave, we dangled our feet in the cool water before we headed out. Then Sunday evening, we returned to the Monday Club, where we were joined by the regular contra dance crowd for a lively dance, ending the weekend on a high note indeed.

School Dance

I love the way some children will dress up for a school dance, as though they were going to a ball or a costume party.  Little boys may wear their Sunday best, little girls may wear sparkly red shoes with their favorite pink sweatpants or shiny silver dresses, either gender may wear their Halloween costumes. Last night after work, my husband Jim called another school dance, this one at West Boulevard elementary school. You never know what to expect from these dances, but they are always entertaining.

The first time I went to a school dance with Jim was for a “Fall Festival,” where what seemed like 200 children, many of whom were dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls, were running around the gymnasium while parents sat in folding chairs around the edge and  teachers tried to impose some order. There were long tables of snacks set up at the back of the gym opposite the stage, so throughout the evening, the children would break formation and run back to grab a cookie, or they would announce (just as the dance was starting) that they needed to go to the bathroom and leave their partner standing there. From the looks of things, it appeared that more than a few parents had dropped their children off at the school and then gone elsewhere.

At one point during the evening, Jim was patiently lining children up again and teaching the next dance, although it was hard to tell if anyone was listening, because of all the extra noise and activity in the gym. After a few minutes, he turned to the band and announced that the dancers were ready to go. The look on their faces was priceless, as they mirrored what I had been thinking: “You have got to be kidding!” But Jim repeated that they were ready for some music, and sure enough, once the music started, the children reformed their lines and started moving in time to the music, skipping and bouncing and clapping to the beat, and having a very good time of it.

We have attended many children’s and family dances since then, including the “Snow Ball” at the public library, a dance for the Girl Scouts during summer camp, another camp dance for special needs children, graduation dances for home schools, wedding dances, birthday dances, church dances, and lots of dances for elementary schools. Over the years, Jim has developed quite a large repertoire of dances and has also learned to trust that the children are paying more attention than we might think. Still, every dance presents its own challenges.

At the “Snow Ball” last winter, for example, the average age of the children was about three years, and all were in costume: lots of fairy princesses, a few super heroes, and one fire fighter. Jim immediately threw out all of his dances that depended on knowing your right from your left or separating from your partner. He has also had to adjust his definition of “couple” over the years, to allow for “couples” consisting of a father holding the two-year old and a mother carrying the baby in a sling while holding the four-year-old by the hand. Since that first “Fall Festival,” now when Jim makes arrangements for school dances, he  always requests that the organizers encourage parents to dance with their children and save the snacks for later.

It takes a special band to play for these dances, and Nine Mile is one of our favorites (our friends John White on fiddle, David Cavins on guitar, Amber Gaddy on accordian, and Jim Ruth on banjo). Jim often starts by calling a big circle dance to teach the basic moves (do-si-do, right-hand turn, left-hand turn, forward and back, and so on), but when we arrived at the school last night, we found out that the dance had been advertised as a “line dance.” Not knowing exactly what the children or teachers expected but knowing we weren’t going to be doing the “boot scoot” anytime during the evening, Jim decided to save the circle dance for later and start with a longways set. However, it seemed to take longer than usual to line everyone up, at least in part because the gymnasium (which was carpeted) had prominent lines marked out for various sports, and the children kept lining up on those; this made for some very nice straight lines but put the children too far from their partners for dancing. The children caught on quickly, however, and formed two sets of double lines, with each dancer standing across from a partner.

With each new dance, Jim first taught the moves without music, then walked the dancers through a time or two, and then asked the band to start playing. At first the children were tentative, but after they realized that they could do everything he was asking of them and that it was all just for fun, they began to enjoy themselves. The longways sets were all variations of a few basic moves—do-si-do your partner, top couple dance down the middle and come back up, top dancers separate and lead your lines to the bottom, form an arch, lines come up through the arch and back to the top, then start over—new top couple do-si-do your partner, dance down to the bottom, and so on. Toward the end of the evening, Jim called a circle dance and then led them in a figure called “wind the ball” that always makes dancers laugh, as he dropped hands with his neighbor, warned everyone else “don’t let go, whatever you do,” and then led the long line into an inward spiral and then back out. It can be dizzying when you pass the other dancers on your way back out of the spiral.

After the dance ended and the band was putting away their instruments, I walked around the gym and tried to remember what my own school gymnasium looked like, but all I could remember was a fallout shelter sign in the stairwell and Lassie one time visiting our school.

The walls at West Boulevard are  made of large concrete blocks, with the top half painted sky blue and the bottom half painted tan. One wall is filled with windows that opened out to a rainy sky. The stage is obviously used for storage as well as for assemblies. In addition to the state and national flags, a podium, microphones, and sound system, there were racks of chairs, a towering pile of mats, ladders, dust mops, folding tables, cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid containers, plastic garbage cans filled with soccer balls, a notebook of physical activities, and another notebook labeled “Walking School Bus.”

The walls were filled with signs and posters: letters of the alphabet with words about sports or exercise (A for archery, B for basketball, C for catcher, D for dance);  the school pledge (“I am safe, I try hard, I achieve, I am respectful, I am responsible—I am a STARR”); a chart with stickers next to  children’s names; a poster shaped like a big yellow star with children’s names written in various colors of magic marker; a poster of the Food Pyramid; a white board with a reminder to “wash, wash, wash your hands.”

There were also many, many instructions about the proper way to line up, complete with rules about “lining up on your P.E. Number” and photos of good lines, which showed children and teachers facing forward, keeping their hands to themselves and their feet still, standing quietly ready to leave the gym, and it suddenly made perfect sense why they had at first had trouble with Jim’s instructions to “line up for a dance.” The lines for dancing were totally different from the lines they had been practicing at school. When I saw the “P.E. Numbers” marked with masking tape on one of the lines near the exit, I was even more impressed at the children’s flexibility in learning something so far removed from their experiences and the skillful way they navigated between all these conflicting rules imposed by parents, teachers, and guests.

Someday in the future, when these children grow up, I hope they will look back on this evening, when old and young, black and brown and white,  came together on a rainy Friday night, and had fun listening to traditional American fiddle tunes and dancing the way people have been dancing for hundreds of years. Perhaps at some point, some of them will pick up an instrument or seek out an old-time square dance or contra dance, ensuring that the traditions don’t die out.

Big Muddy Folk Festival

Every spring for the past nineteen years, usually on the first weekend of April, people from all around gather in Boonville, Missouri, for the Big Muddy Folk Festival, organized by Dave Para and Cathy Barton. The format generally consists of a full evening of concerts on Friday and Saturday evening, a dance following the concerts on Friday, workshops during the day on Saturday, and barbeque throughout the weekend.

The performances are held in the historic Thespian Hall, beginning around 7:00 p.m. and ending around 11:30 p.m. Between acts, Masters of Ceremony Dave Para and Meredith Ludwig entertain the audience, make announcements, and thank volunteers and sponsors, while the stage hands set up microphones and monitors for the next set. This is the only concert series I know of with an intermission long enough that people have time to wander across the street to Turner Hall to partake of barbeque or purchase CDs and books, or handmade dulcimers, rag rugs, wooden toys, or silver jewelry. This year you could also purchase raffle tickets for a colorful afghan (which were not, as Dave Para explained, “despite what you may have read in previous communications,” one dollar per ticket or four tickets for five dollars, but were actually six tickets for five dollars.

I missed the early years of the festival, but in the past twelve years, I have had the privilege of hearing many fine performers play a wide variety of roots music: old-time string music; Appalachian ballads; Missouri fiddle tunes; Irish fiddle tunes; Cajun; Texas swing; ragtime; minstrel tunes; blues; German polkas; klezmer music; straight-up folk songs both traditional and contemporary; gospel; some Carter family songs; and what you would probably have to call variety acts (one year an eighty-year-old woman played the fiddle while holding it on top of her head; another time a man from the conservation department made bird calls). These kinds of acts have become less common at the festival over the years, but Dave will still occasionally do an ironic performance in which he plays a serious and  wide-ranging tune such as Autumn Leaves, while an equally accomplished and funny musician will accompany him on piano, with exaggerated arpeggios and dramatic pauses between phrases. The audience always gets a kick out of this.

Often there is dancing as well as music. For the past few years,  Cathy and Dave have invited a small group from the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers to come on stage and dance an old-time square at the beginning of their set; this year they also invited us to come back on stage at the end of their set to dance a waltz and do a little clogging. The audience seems to enjoy watching us dance, even if they don’t join us later at the open dance at Turner Hall after the concert.

Many of the tunes and songs have a river theme, as you might have guessed from the name of the festival. In addition to growing up along the Missouri River, Cathy and Dave spent seventeen summers on the Mississippi River, playing music on the Delta Queen riverboat. Consequently, many of the songs and tunes they have collected and written over the years are about life on the river. Frogs and turtles and water birds often appear in the designs for the backdrop at Thespian Hall and for festival t-shirts. Behind the small stage at Turner Hall where the musicians play for the Friday night dance is a painting of a riverscape.

Another equally strong theme of the festival is loss: loss of a way of living, loss of place, and loss of friends and family who have passed on, including Cathy and Dave’s dear friend Bob Dyer, who was a big part of this festival from the beginning and who also wrote and performed many songs and stories about the river.  Often I find myself weeping during the performances, when I think about all who have gone ahead or hear about people or places I wish I had known: an old woman named Hazel whose belongings are up for auction, a fiddler who lost his fingers in a logging accident, or the residents of a town named Ellenton, SC, which was taken over by the government for the purpose of producing materials for the H-bomb. This year both themes were particularly strong, because the Delta Queen riverboat has recently been put in dry dock due to financial problems, and Cathy and Dave and many others are mourning the loss of a grand tradition. The large ceramic frog that serves as the festival mascot these days crouched stage left throughout the festival, sporting Bob Dyer’s straw hat.

The spirit and basic format of the festival has not changed much over the years, as far as I can tell, although the schedule has been tightened up a bit and the performances don’t tend to run over as often as they used to. Also, I think there may be fewer acts each night and fewer surprise appearances by performers not listed on the program, so each individual or group gets to perform longer. In recent years, there have been four or five performers scheduled each evening. I believe there may have been more workshops this year, but unfortunately I was not able to attend during the day on Saturday. By the time we arrived for barbeque before the evening performance, a group of musicians was jamming on the front porch of Turner Hall, making me wonder what a good time I had missed.

(Photos  and video from the Big Muddy Folk Festival website.)

First Dance

I wish I could regain the excitement of the first time I ever took part in a community dance. Although I still enjoy dancing, it’s not quite the same as that first mountain square dance I attended at Natural Bridge State Park when I was fourteen. I had taken square dance lessons that year at a club called the Wheelers and Dealers, in Lexington, Kentucky, which I thought was fun, even though most of the dancers were old (about the age I am now, as a matter of fact), and they wore matching outfits that seemed sort of ridiculous to me—cowboy shirts with snaps and bolo ties for the men, big puffy crinolines and pantaloons for the women.

I don’t remember whose idea it was for me to take square dance lessons, but I remember going with my friend Marjorie and an older couple she knew, probably from church. My partner for the lessons was a sixteen-year-old boy from school named Tommy. I was not allowed to go on car dates at the time, but I was allowed to ride to Lexington with Tommy to square dance lessons. I don’t remember much about the lessons themselves, although the whole series lasted about sixteen weeks, and we probably attended a regular club dance or two after we graduated. What I do remember is the first mountain square dance I attended after we finished the series of lessons.

The mountain square dancing was completely different from the club dancing. I don’t know if this was a regular weekly dance or some kind of folk festival we attended, but we danced outside under the stars at Natural Bridge State Park, and the first thing I noticed was that instead of forming squares of eight dancers each, we formed a big circle to start. The next thing I noticed was that most of the dancers were young. Some of the boys were wearing overalls and work boots. The girls were wearing simple cotton dresses.

The figures were simple—no need for lessons—and the fiddle music was very fast.  Although I had never danced this kind of formation before, it felt like home. I had no trouble with many of the moves, which were similar to moves in the Western squares, but I did learn that there were lots of ways to do a “do-si-do.” There were other calls I had never heard before, such as “chase that rabbit, chase that squirrel, chase that pretty girl round the world” and figures such as “birdie in the cage,” but the other dancers took us by the hand and led us exuberantly through the dance.

Many of the dancers did a jig step as they went through the figures, while others loped along at a pretty good clip. I did not know at the time that we were doing “Kentucky running sets.” I still don’t know whether the term refers to the fast running step the dancers take as they go through the figures or to the way the dancers “run” the figures one after the other before moving on to another couple.

Each figure is done with two couples together. For example, my partner and I would take hands with another couple, and the caller might tell us to “circle to the left, then back to the right” or “star right, star left” or  he might say, “you swing mine and I’ll swing yours; give me back mine I’ll give you back yours.” If he called “birdie in the cage,” one of the women would jump into the middle of the circle, while her partner and the other couple would keep holding hands while circling around her. Then when the caller said, “birdie hop out and crow jump in,” her partner would take her place, and she would rejoin the circle around him.

At the end of each figure, partners would take hands and move along to the next couple, the couples on the outside of the circle moving in one direction, the couples on the inside of the circle moving in the opposite direction. Then the caller would start another figure, such as “dig for the oyster, dive for the clam” or “round one couple take a little peak” or “wave the ocean, wave the sea, wave that pretty girl back to me.” By the end of the evening, we had danced with all the other couples.

The whole evening was magical, and the music and dancing continued until long after dark, while campfires throughout the park glowed in the distance. When we finally stopped dancing, the breeze felt cool on our skin, and the dreamlike memory of the whirling circle made it seem as though I had stepped into a fairy circle in the middle of the woods on a summer night. Although it took me many years to find a community where I could dance regularly and a partner who enjoyed it as much as I did, after that first mountain square dance, I was hooked.

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.”