Tri-Counties Genealogy &
History by Joyce M. Tice
Historic Theaters & Other
Entertainment of the Tri-Counties
Postcards & Photos &
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
Community Square Dances
by Melva HESS Calaman
1945 Advertising Card from Joan NASH O'Dell Souvenir Scrapbook
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Intro by Joyce M. Tice:
Among the cultural elements that change
over time are the ways in which we entertain ourselves. Before we had television
and DVD movies, and our computers, and the mall, people had other ways
of having fun. Melva Calaman, a long time guest and contributor to this
site, grew up locally, and she has a good musical background. I asked her
to tell us about the musical entertaiment of her growing up years and she
sent us the following article. I would also like to hear from others of
you who remember entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century.
Did you go to a barn dance? Where? Tell us about the band/orchestra. Does
anyone remember Woody Woodhull?
Tell us your story. It does not have to be fancy. Don't be shy. Just send
it to me in an email. We want to hear from you. Things are different now
- tell us about the differences.
I remember that in the sixties, although we had a TV, we did not usually
watch it on Suday afternoons. My father and I used to play monopoly some
winter days with games lasting sometimes all the afternoon from Sunday
dinner to suppertime. What did you do?
Subject: Square Dances
Melva HESS Calaman of Sabinsville
Swing Your Partner and Promenade! And so might have begun an evening
of square dancing in the Tri-County area (and beyond), ever since the first
pioneer settlers arrived to clear the forests away and create farmsteads
for themselves and their families. Those early settlers must have relished
the idea of a neighborhood dance as much or more than those of us who came
after. They had harsh and unrelenting tasks to face, but these hardy folks,
largely of New England descent from forebears who had seen their share
of hardships from 1620 on, seemed undaunted by the challenges and just
"went ahead and did it." Intermittent relaxation from their arduous labors
must have been a welcome change indeed. That they did have a lighter side
to their somewhat reserved (albeit caring and neighborly) natures is evident
in that singing schools were popular early on, and it appears that as soon
as any type of musical instrument became available in a neighborhood, dancing
became the next thought in their heads (for who can think of music without
including song and dance?).
Square dancing (dancing in sets of four couples to form a square) had
been around for a long time; even in stern New England where such "frivolity"
was frowned upon by churches, there was dancing going on all through the
colonial period. I suspect that the Scotch and Irish settlers who were
interspersed with the New Englanders here contributed their love of freedom
of expression to the joy of the square dance. They certainly influenced
the character and flavor of these gatherings with the lively Irish jigs
and reels that were a part of the musical repertoire.
I cannot imagine a square dance without a violin, a "fiddler" and the
"caller", who called out the instructions for each dance, some of which
were sung to the tunes being played. I believe they have all gone together
since Renaissance days in Europe, when "folk" dancing apparently
got its start. A violin used in this capacity was called a "fiddle"; thus
the "fiddler" term for the player. Other instruments, as they were available,
were often added as an accompaniment. In the mid to late 1800's, the reed
organ, with a keyboard and cabinet somewhat smaller than an upright piano,
became popular as an instrument for home living rooms (my mother's parents
had one in the 1880's when she was a child), and it quickly became useful
as an accompaniment to the fiddle at dances. Learning to "play chords"
in at least two or three different keys became a goal for organ players
so that they could "play" for square dancing. Most of the tunes (and,
indeed, many of the popular songs of the 1930's and 40's) used at the dances
conformed to a chord pattern of I,V,I,IV,V,I as in the key of C-- C,G,C,F,G,C
(major chords), so that, once learned, the accompanist was equipped to
become one of the musicians. There was another prerequisite; the player
had to be long legged enough to reach the pedals at the base of the organ
that forced air from the bellows through the reed for each key, so that
the sound could be produced ! A potential drawback, too, was that while
one was "playing chords" one could not be dancing !
My involvement with square dancing began at about age 8 or 9 --a bit
earlier than most of the neighbors' children. Mainly because I had three
older brothers who wouldn't miss a Saturday night square dance if they
could possibly help it, and because it was my Uncle Chub Short who was
the fiddler of choice in our neighborhood, I was sometimes allowed to go
with them. The dances were held, with few exceptions, in the living rooms
of neighboring farmers, where, if there were rugs, they would be rolled
up, and the furniture (except for the organ and later, the piano) pushed
back into the corners or set in other rooms, giving space, usually, for
two sets or squares of four couples each, with additional space provided
in an adjoining room or porch if needed. It was interesting that these
dances almost always started out with a little "introduction", such as
the injunction at the beginning of this article. I'm not sure about the
purpose of this procedure, but it always seemed to have an air of formality
about it that belied the increasing aura of enjoyment and abandonment that
prevailed as the dancing went on. I do know that from the moment my brothers
started teaching me how to square dance, I was captivated by the music,
the steps, the rhythm, the fun of it all.
There was quite an array of tunes used by the fiddler at the dances.
Some of them were (and if any of the more mature, meaning old and wrinkled,
like me, people recall some of the ones I've missed, I'll be happy to add
them): Sailors Hornpipe, Pop Goes the Weasel, The Arkansas Traveller, Darling
Nellie Gray, The Devil's Dream, Turkey in the Straw, Irish Washerwoman.
Some were associated with particular dances, while some dances could be
done with various tunes.
I don't remember the name of this dance but will try to describe it
as an example--it had its own melody that was reminiscent of The Bear Went
Over the Mountain (which was another dance tune !) , but was a little different.
It went like this:
The first (opposite) two ladies cross over
And by the gentlemen stand;
The second (opposite) two ladies cross over
And all join hands.
Salute the opposite lady
And then your partner, all
Then take your left hand lady
And promenade the hall !
(And promenade the hall !
And promenade the Hall !
Then take your left hand lady
And promenade the hall ! )
The last four lines were sung during the promenade. The whole thing
was repeated three times so that the original partners were back together
at the end.
Square dance parties were also used to commemorate special events, such
as a new house or a new barn in the community, and local organizations,
such as the Grange, would host square dances, sometimes as fund raising
events. My grandmother's ninetieth birthday party, held in 1934 at the
Sabinsville Grange Hall, ended up with a square dance (please don't ask,
because I don't remember whether Grandma danced, but I know I did ). Most
of the barn raisings in our area had taken place before the time that I
started dancing, although I did hear stories about them. There was one
barn dance in the 1930's, however, that I attended as a teenager, along
with just about everybody else from in and around our township-- a huge
crowd. The barn on the Ackley farm near Sabinsville had burned; this was
the replacement. It was located near what is now Beechwood Lake. There
was room for five or six sets on the new barn floor; my brothers
and a bunch of boy cousins along with classmates and myself danced
the night away.
Also in the 1930's, our house had burned and my father built another.
Before we moved in (no furniture to move ! ) we had a dance. There was
dancing going on in what would become our living room, parlor and a downstairs
bedroom. A few months later, there was a dance up the road in the house
that we had vacated. My friend Arleta Dunham had come to attend and spend
the night at our house. We spent the night dancing and upon walking down
the road toward home, saw the sun coming up. We tumbled into bed and slept
Although sometimes at dances there was talk of hard cider and corn liquor
(this was during Prohibition) out back, I don't recall instances of rowdyness
or bad manners from any of the boys I danced with. Maybe with all those
brothers and cousins around, nobody dared to try anything untoward ! Probably,
too, nobody wanted to spoil the good times we were all having.
Neighborhood dances continued into the early forties, until the social
changes brought about by the coming of radio, phonographs, movies, automobiles
and other modern conveniences put isolated rural communities like ours
more in touch with the outside world. Occasionally we see a notice in a
local newspaper that a square dance is being held and we feel a surge of
gratitude that this pastime has not been forgotten in spite of
current life styles.
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
Published On Tri-Counties Site On 23 FEB 2004
By Joyce M. Tice
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