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Community Square Dances by Melva HESS Calaman

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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 all day.

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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