NEFFA Essay: The Bahn Dance

Dudley Laufman – August 1998

If a modern urban contra dance were held in a barn, would it be called a barn dance? I doubt it.

If a modern western square dance were venued in a barn, would it be called a barn dance. Probably not.

What about an old time eastern square dance? Possible.

Or a rock & roll party? No way.

The Concord Scottish Dancers sometimes dance in Dr. Black’s barn, but I never heard them call it barn dancing. Heaven forbid!

Most people think a barn dance is where folks come dressed like cowboys and there are bales of hay etc. The program consists of various and sundry reels, two steps, circle dances. If a caller is present, some square dances might be done. If it is in Maine, most likely a Lady of the Lake is attempted. John Reay says in his Barn Dance Book, “…it means an evening of older social dances…”. Even if the dance is held in a gym, some folks will call it a barn dance, and decorate with cornstalks, bales of hay, and pass out cowboy hats and red neckerchiefs at the door. But these trappings are not really necessary. It is the dances that are done that make it a barn dance, say as opposed to a contra dance or whatever.

We used to go to a dance at Folkways Studio held on summer nights at Bell’s Studio in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was in a barn with a spring floor. (This was without a doubt THE best dance I have ever been to. Ralph Page and Gene Gowing were the callers. The music was by Page’s Orchestra: Dick Richardson, Russ Allen, fiddles; John Twombley, piano; Junior Richardson, bass; and Bob McQuillen, accordion. The music, calling, dances, dancers, spring floor, old wood, created a very rich tapestry.) The program was mostly square dances, many of them singing calls, but with several contras: Hull’s Victory, Durang’s Hornpipe, Money Musk, Lady of the Lake, and some couple dances. We never said we were going to a contra dance. Or to a barn dance. Many said they were going to the square dance. Some would say they were going out to dance at the barn.

In Scotland they had the Kirn. “They took place in the barn…and began with a supper of curds and cream, after which there was dancing, the floor was treated with French chalk or candle scrapings, seating provided by planks supported on chairs, decorations of evergreens and cornsheafs. After supper dancing began with a Circassian Circle. Music was by a fiddler who sat at one end of the room.”* In the 1600’s on the frontier of New England’s wilderness barns were not a priority at first. What livestock they had, goats, sheep, poultry, were kept in their homes, which were cabins. When they did get around to building barns, they might have had a dance the day it was built, but after that the structure was for housing cattle, horses, pigs, hay, grain, and wagons. Dancing was done in the home. (At Mistwold Farm when I was a kid, we had three barns to choose from, but we never danced in them. Cows, tractors, hay, sawdust, etc. took up the space. We always danced in the kitchen, and we never called our dances barn dances, even though they were the dances usually associated with a barn dance.)

Some barns have been built especially for dancing. More often old barns were remodeled, some even winterized. They were named after their owner … e.g. Fortune’s Barn, Bedell’s Barn, or after some landmark like the Painted Barn. Many of these still exist today, but not many are used for dancing.

Folks from the flatlands buy a country place for a summer home or even year round, and, after cleaning out the old barnWouldn’t it be quaint to have a barn dance and we get the gig. Many times they try it in November and the frost is heavy, maybe even snow. No heat in the barn except maybe a gas blower. Too many Currier & Ives prints for an influence. In spite of all that, we always have a good time.

We have found for many of the dances we play for, public or private, that Barn Dance is a good name for what we do. Many times we do not have any duple progressive contras, or any square dances on the program. Saying it is a contra dance or a square dance is not honest advertising for an evening of various and sundry set reels, Portland Fancy, Paul Jones, waltzes and polkas. Barn dance covers the bases pretty well, no matter where the dance is held. Except in a kitchen.

Person called the other day said they wanted to have a contra dance outdoors or under a tent if it rains. Do you want a real contra dance or a generic contra or square dance? What’s the difference? A real contra dance is for folks who take it seriously and do just contra dances, some of them difficult. A generic contra or square dance has Virginia reels. That’s what we want, Virginia reels like when I was a kid. We had a woman here last year, she must have been a real contra dance caller, spent all her time teaching us stuff, when we just wanted to clap our hands and stamp our feet and holler and have a good time. Tried her again this year cause we didn’t know anyone else, she said she couldn’t do it, recommended you, can you do it. No, says I, already booked, can you change the date? No, says she, can you name some other callers? Not really, says I, although there are a few coming along who are catching on. Wish you could change the date, we would love to do it; book us now for next year, etc…etc.

Happened to be talking with their caller from last year, asked her if she used Virginia reel type dances. Sometimes, but most of them are boring and not challenging. I like to do challenging things,** and besides, if I can get one, only one, person excited enough to come to a real contra dance, then the contra gods will have been served.

What about the barn dance gods?

Well anyway, if you can deal with the barn dance, the old time square dance, here is a sure-fire formula of what to do for a program.

If the person hiring you says, Oh we went to a contra dance in East Concord and really had such fun and we want to have a private party in our barn with you to teach us; there will be kids and people who have never danced before and we will have wine and a keg, a real party and you can teach us to contra dance. Right off you will know the drill. Either tell them no you will not teach them to contra dance like they danced in East Concord, but you will get them to dance some reels, etc. Either that or say, yup, you bet, we’ll be there and show you. And just go and do the Virginia Reel, etc. What with the beer etc. they will not know the difference.

When you have gigs like this do not think of the dancers as beginners. They are not beginning anything. The dances you do are not in preparation for anything else up or down the ladder of dance. These dances are an entity unto themselves. They have their own life.

So what you want to do are the various and sundry Virginia Reels, Brandy, Portland Fancy, Paul Jones, Big Circles and La Bastringue, Grand March and circle.*** Don’t waste time trying to teach everyone how to swing. Just let them have a go at elbow hooks and all that. Don’t teach anything. Just do it. When you have done the above dances, don’t be afraid to do them again. Kids are always asking can we do that again? You bet.

* from Traditional Dancing In Scotland by JF and TM Flett
** Someone once said to me when we had the Canterbury Orchestra playing, too bad to waste such great music on these simple dances. Nonsense. The music is never wasted, even if it is only a couple of fiddles and tapping feet.

*** These dances can be found in the Community Dance Manuals, Whole Set Catalog, Brandy, Dudley’s Book of Calls, The Canterbury Set, etc.

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