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.


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.