Old-Time Dancing Traditions in Missouri

Old-Time Dancing Traditions in Missouri
It is nearly impossible to discuss old time fiddling without referring to old time dancing at some point. In Missouri, the development, maintenance, and preservation of traditional fiddling has been dependent upon dancing and vice versa.

Old time fiddlers, dancers, and callers when displaying their talents, will all exhibit the subtleties of style. Since their art is traditional (i.e. learned principally by imitation from sources within their own community) the style will in some way be representative of the region in which they live. In addition, the tunes, dances, and calls will bear the mark of the individual’s personal interpretation and perception of the “right way” to perform. Their actions then are to some extent the sum of both community and individual aesthetic.

One aspect of the fiddling and dancing which reflects local tradition or style is repertoire. For a fiddler, the various tunes which he or she can play comprise that individual’s repertoire. Likewise, for dancers, it is the dances they can execute which make up their repertoire. The community or regional repertoire is represented by those tunes and dances which are common to all or most of the players and dancers in the area.

Missouri fiddlers play many types of tunes. Most kinds of tunes if played at the proper tempo will put sets or couples in motion on the floor at a dance anywhere in the state. Possible exceptions are more modern songs, certain “trick tunes,” and some of the fancier renditions of old fiddle tunes suitable only for play at fiddling contests.

In most instances the tunes types correspond directly to one dance or another. The most common and probably most numerous type of tune is the breakdown (also known as a hoedown, reel, or hornpipe). The breakdown is played for square dancing or for solo jig dancing. Commonly heard examples are “Turkey in the Straw,” “Sally Goodin,” and “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in years past a night of dancing in most regions of the state would have consisted almost entirely of square dances. Couple dancing, if done at all, was merely to allow the fiddler and the dancers a momentary respite from the exertion of the squares. However, at many dances today the reverse is true. Couple dances are the main bill of fare at many gatherings with a square dance done only once or twice in the course of the evening.

To play for such a dance the fiddler needs to know quite a variety of tunes. The waltz is danced frequently. Most any song or tune in 3/4 time will suffice. “Over the Waves” and “Peek-a-boo” are perennial favorites. Also important are the variety of tunes which permit dancing any of a number of permutations of the two-step. Referred to by one veteran dancer as “belly rubbin’ music,” much of the music used for such dances has popular origin (i. e. it was composed or distributed at some time as a commercial enterprise) which has been obscured by a generation or more of oral transmission. “Golden Slippers” and “Down Yonder” are examples. Or the tunes may be of more recent vintage as in the case of “San Antonio Rose” and “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.”

The schottische is called for from time to time at many dances around the state. For this purpose, most fiddlers will play some variation what appears as the “Hi-Lo Schottische” in E. F. Adam’s Old Time Fiddler’s Favorite Barn Dance Tunes (St. Louis, 1928). Playing tunes such as “Jenny Lind Polka” and “Heel and Toe” at many old time dances will elicit sundry versions of a dance which is executed by two or more people standing abreast and involves a variety of stepping forward and back, heel and toe, and side to side. Called generally the “heel and toe,” other specific varieties have been referred to as the “eight-step” and the “Texas ten-step.” Ford cites a specific dance for “heel and toe polka” in his Traditional Music of America (New York, 1940) which seems unrelated. Finally, there are what could be called “specialty tunes.” These are specific melodies which are played with and only for some specific dance. Examples are the “Rye Waltz” and “Put Your Little Foot.”

If a frequency distribution were developed for each type of tune played at several dances around the state, considerable differences would be noted. Allowing for the possible presence of some itinerant fiddler or group of dancers, many of these variations could be viewed as direct evidence of regional styles in dance and fiddle repertoire.

For instance, it would not be at all surprising to find an Ozark square dance where not a single couple dance was done all night. This does not mean that the fiddlers present cannot play waltzes and other couple dance tunes. It means simply that the dancers prefer the squares to all else. Conversely, dancers in north Missouri, such as those attending the weekly gathering in the community hall at Tina, Missouri, may do only one or at most two squares per night. Dances in Missouri’s several German communities may have no squares at all.

Even between communities which do considerable square dancing, the requirements placed on the fiddler as to tempo can be quite different. In Ava, Douglas County, in southwest Missouri, the dancing and consequently, the fiddling, is done at what many would consider “breakneck” speed. At a dance which occurred on an occasional basis in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse outside Clarence, Shelby County, in north central Missouri, the music was lively yet played at a more moderate speed. Dancers in Ava would no doubt feel the fiddling in Clarence is just too slow.

The diversity evident in old time fiddle playing and dancing is a reflection of community and individual aesthetic decisions over the course of several generations. Unfortunately, the influence of media, advertising and the general homogenization and packaging of entertainment for passive consumption threaten this rich cultural legacy. Although no statistics can be cited, the mean age of people in attendance at old time dances must be quite high. In addition, while there are many young people becoming interested in learning to play the fiddle, few of them have ever played at a dance. Most have emphasized in their playing the less traditional, contest fiddling styles, most of which are mostly unsuitable for old time dancing.

While change and evolution is an inherent in any form of traditional cultural expression, direct and intentional action must be taken to temper the influence of fads and transient trends or a generations-old legacy of old time dancing and fiddling will be lost forever. The traditional form of each cannot continue to exist without the other.

—Charlie Walden

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