Fin’ yer Place and Circle Up!
Little chance of that, jostled as we are between jugs, jars and jeans, platters being passed (this one’s yours — those biscuits were divine! — no, no, not that — yes, here, the blue), rascals (Billy stop that runnin’ or I swear I’ll knock ya here t’Tuesday) only knee high to a grasshopper, and sweat and stink and good cheer.
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Newcomers to Yale graduate (that was a lifetime ago) Bill Fischer’s ’66 contra dance in Bethany, Connecticut will feel they’ve ridden a cyclone in reverse and plopped smack in the middle of a Kansas cornfield, plumb out of place in a sea of gingham and bustling smiles and instruments from hither and yon, who need merely declare their names — hog fiddle, bottle-bell-shawm, and the good ol’ washboard — to claim their righteous place in the barn-turned-dancehall.
The monthly Bethany Music and Dance events (BMAD, pronounced “Be Mad” by those in-the-know) began in 1993, when Yale’s current generation was also knee-high to a grasshopper. This was the year that Fischer, an erstwhile doctor, bought a spot on the Litchfield turnpike, began to let his hair grow out, and started covering the walls with art and memorabilia. Now with tangled blond dreadlocks reaching past his shoulders, he is a man in his element, standing at the center of the swirling room, directing friends and strangers alike in the swinging abandon of a Virginia Reel.
Bow t’yer Partner…
The slightly sagging three-storey barn houses a spidery web of connections from Fischer’s former life as internist, acquaintances from the Yale-New Haven Hospital, as well as newer friends, students from nearby colleges, and a smattering of lucky folks who stumbled across Fischer and his wife, fiddler extraordinaire Mickey Koth, on the Internet.
“The greatest thing,” Fischer beams, “is the diversity among the folks who come out. Especially younger people, in their twenties or teens, who found their own way — not just because someone-o’ruther here is their parent.”
“Someone-o’ruther” might be anyone from an award-winning bluegrass musician to a complete novice. Players gather in small clusters in a series of rooms that read like loving vignettes: the Blue Room with its antique medical anthropology texts and skeleton, the Pink Room with its pincushions and upholstered pillows and the Great Room, with street-theater style puppets and woven May Day ribbons. The barn, first renovated by a different owner in the ’60s, has undergone a series of transformations reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’s “Why I Built the Boogle House” — growing larger and more labyrinthine through the years. The best room, many would agree, is the kitchen, where an impromptu potluck always blossoms forth. Tonight, there’s corn salad, heirloom tomatoes scooped with hollowed-out gourds, bread and cake and every kind of cookie that sounds good with a glass of milk — all stacked next to a tottering pile of flowered-speckled-striped china, each piece as unique (and worn with washing) as the ladies’ billowing skirts. But for all the wear, under the twinkle of Christmas lights (only half burnt-out) both dishes and dresses look fantastic, whirling in time.
Bow t’yer Neighbor…
Bill Fischer is a collector. Knickknacks and trinkets settle every surface. Faded snippets of American imagination dangle from horseshoe nails and spill out of jam jars, leaving barely enough space for a field mouse to squeeze through. The eclectic decor seems a mere extension of the crowd that gathers for BMAD, for the Solstice and for the Equinox.
It’s hard to move across the dance floor, jam-packed with delegates from every age, spanning the better part of a century. We squeeze together, tighter than pickles in a crock. The pickle next to me has a Stetson hat and a gap between each tooth, and is keeping time with his Justins on the down of two and four. It’s a wonder that, under the stomping of so many feet — booted, be-sneakered, bare — the streamers and art and newspaper clippings don’t all topple off the walls and bury everyone in a big dusty heap. My own feet, tentative and rubbing just a bit in suede anklets that I borrowed for the occasion, are starting to find the beat.
Bill slows down the night with a waltz. Many of the older couples partner up, frames formal, backs straight, to dip around the room in a big circle. At the same time, younger couples wrap their arms around each other’s necks, simply swaying. Still others dance in unisex clusters (that is, the girls. Boys wander off to drink lemonade out of re-purposed yogurt cups). Anything, it seems, goes.
While the Allemande, Promenade, and Dos-a-Dos clearly flaunt their origins in European High Society, the majority of dancing done in the nation’s barns and granges kicks up a much more uniquely American dust. Contra dancing, for New Englanders who turn a cold shoulder to the French and their quadrilles, has its roots in a mish-mash of European traditions toted across the frontier by settlers immigrating to the New World. The form really developed, however, in the weather-worn ridges of the Appalachian mountains, where it settled in pockets, warmed people through dreary winters, and finally spilled out into the rest of the country, blossoming in a way that crops just didn’t, from the dark hollows full of frankly trying soil.
Even after the time when revelry was anchored in elbow-grease (think: barns being raised and quilts being bee’d), the dance remained a social institution. The first such events to chassé off the prairie were ushered by that most American of historical grand-pappies, Henry Ford. Not merely the progenitor of the assembly line and whirling cog, Ford must have loved to see the mesh of gears in everything he did. As jazz slinked across American dance halls, bawdy and disorganized and irreverently youthful, Ford longed for the reels and peelings-off he had seen as a youngster. Memories of bodies moving in unison must have filtered through visits to the factory floor, because in the early twenties, he commissioned Benjamin B. Lovett, a dance teacher from New Hampshire, to help him relearn the steps of his past. When Ford and his wife published their 1928 treatise “Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned Dancing is being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford,” square dancing worked its way into physical education curriculums all over New England — not to be dropped, to the horror of third-grade boys everywhere, for generations.
Clap your hands and Swing Around!
After the dance, Fischer and I are chatting, nestled in the weedy grass that’s tufting out and crinkling in the heat of a bonfire. Everywhere around the circle, damp silhouettes are beginning to steam dry. From the popularity of Bill’s monthly extravaganzas, it seems that square dancing, along with quilt shows and jam-making and visiting the county fair, are rising from the vast misty bog of American imagination and getting a new, bright coat of paint.
Fischer discovered contra dancing in 1980 when he ambled into a dance at New Haven’s Eli Whitney Museum, and found he didn’t want to leave. He quickly worked his way into the Connecticut contra scene, learning how to “call” the dances himself. While he sees dance-calling as more passion than career, he has hundreds of dances under his belt, and books enough events to make contra dance calling his primary source of income. Though this love of contra happened later in life, he broke in his dance shoes far earlier.
“I was born dancing,” proclaims Fischer. “I came out of the womb with those little white gloves and a vest.” I ask him about the resurgence of swing dancing amongst America’s youth, as jitterbuggers and lindyhoppers begin to chip through the heavy throbbing oonst-oonst-oonst of America’s hot-spots.
“I think it’s great. People see me swing dancing and ask me how I got so good. For me, it’s not a new thing. That’s what I grew up on!”
A spiky-haired youth, who looks to be an oonst-oonster himself, turns his back to the fire and joins the conversation. “Swing? Awesome! That’s, like, the Cherry-Poppin’ Daddies and stuff? The Red Hot Skillet-Lickers?”
Perhaps it’s just because he’s visualizing the implications of these names, but Bill looks perplexed. “I don’t know those bands. I just dance to whatever’s playing.”
Stomp yer Boots and Find yer way Home!
In “Goin’ to the Dawgs?” folklorist John M. Coggeshall situates the resurgence of rustic heritage as part of a malicious trend. He describes “rustication” as an artificial attempt to reclaim our country roots and thus, reaffirm our “traditional, conservative attitudes toward family, community, and nation.” This move to idealize traditional white, rural, middle class values, he argues, unites everything from country music to Kentucky Fried Chicken in an exclusionary, racist, and xenophobic agenda.
And yet, gathered around the flickering fire, it’s hard to accept such a dark reading: A cluster of Yale students is commenting on an art piece given to Bill, in exchange for medical advice, by a homeless friend. Joining in is a long-haired boy who says he came with a buddy he found on CouchSurfing.org; he’s been traveling around the country (People still do that? Who knew!) hopping trains. Bill is talking in the same breath about a friend who’s just won a MacArthur, and the group of patients he treats pro-bono. I examine the boots around the circle. There’s Frye’s, at $200 a pop, from downtown; some duck boots covered in mud; some black lace-ups whose scuffs clearly give them away as Pleather; and a friendly-looking brown pair with duct-tape on the heal. Exclusionary? Not in the least. I look at my own suede anklets: after a night of dancing, they’ve molded to my feet a bit. I look over at Bill’s feet. They’re bare and more than a little dirty, but they seem to suit him just fine.