One Sunday night about six months ago, I was calling at a community dance an hour from home. Good band of talented young musicians and a friendly crowd. We had some hard-core contra dancers—one of whom left early on, perhaps because the first few dances weren't challenging enough for his taste—and some absolute beginners, with a nice mix of ages. One young girl, maybe 4 or 5, apparently comes often; she was dancing with her dad and she had clearly absorbed the most important things to know: keep smiling, look at the people around you, keep moving, and hold out your hands. Later in the evening, second dance after the break, we were down to short sets, 7 or 8 couples in each. I looked at one line, saw a bunch of adults, and announced Money Musk, a tune the band had been itching to play and a dance that I knew would be familiar to many of those present at that time. No sooner had I had announced the dance than I noticed a different young girl lined up in another set.
No problems... the dancers around her, with huge smiles on their faces and gentle handholds, helped her up and down the line, one of the nicest moments I can recall at a dance in a long time. She sat on a pew afterwards on the side of the hall—we were dancing in an old church—and then curled up and slept there for the rest of the evening.
That next week, thanks to Terri Gross on NPR, I learned that Hazel Dickens had died. She was a bluegrass musician, singer, songwriter and activist, born in coal-mining West Virginia; I encountered her first on the "Hazel and Alice" album she recorded with Alice Gerrard in 1973. I spent a few hours that night reading her obituary and tributes, watching videos on YouTube and Folkstream, and remembering those years. Woke up the next morning with Hazel still on my mind and put on the LP; my wife, unaccustomed to the high lonesome country sound at 8 in the morning, asked what was going on and I tried to explain.
Those two events have been rattling around in my brain, and I've been thinking about the scene, such as it was, when I discovered traditional dance in the early 1970s, the same time when I heard Hazel and Alice. At that time, we'd see many of the same people in different settings. The people who were at a dance were the same folks you'd see at a folk music concert or festival, or at a food co-op distribution meeting, or at a community sing, or at a potluck supper at someone's house. One night, we'd be sitting around together talking and singing, another night a few people would be on stage and others would be in the audience listing to a performance, and another night different ones would be on stage playing while friends and neighbors bounced around on the dance floor. As the evening wore on, the dark corners back of the stage would have kids curled up on sleeping bags while their parents danced.
We don't see as much of that anymore. Perhaps we're victims of our own success. Now we have more specialized gatherings... Irish sessions separate from old-time string band jams, contras separate from squares from English country dance, not to mention the proliferation of even more specialized groups doing tango or swing, and even there you can choose between East Coast Swing and West Coast. All this, and I don't live in an urban setting. (Back then, the first Pat Shaw dances I learned—Walpole Cottage and Levi Jackson Rag—were at contra dances. A friend who started dancing in New York City in the 1970s says it was several years before she figured out that some of the dances on the programs were contras and some were ECD; that's how integrated the two forms were.) This Sunday night experience made me remember how uncommon now it is to see kids that young brought not to a specialized "family dance" but to a regular dance.
I get the sense that the pendulum may be swinging back again. After a period of some pretty steady contra-only for hard-core dancers, I'm learning of more family-friendly events starting up. The new square dance scene that Bill Martin and others created in Portland is spreading to other venues; Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, DC are all places where I've heard about similar events, which place a premium on community fun.