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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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.

Top Ten Reasons to Contra Dance

  1. It’s good aerobic exercise.
  2. The live music lifts your spirits.
  3. People look you directly in the eye and smile.
  4. You get to wear twirly skirts (yes, men too, if they choose).
  5. You don’t have to come with a partner.
  6. Newcomers are always welcome.
  7. The two parts of each dance align perfectly with the two parts of each tune.
  8. You get to spin around until you’re dizzy, like when you were a kid.
  9. You might meet your future spouse (I did).
  10. Even if you arrive feeling tired and run down at the end of a long week, you feel better after the first dance.

What do you think? What do you enjoy most about contra dancing?