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Helvetia Community Hall : photo by Norb Gusky

Chapter IV.


Helvetia is a tiny village tucked away among the mountains in the remote southwest corner of Randolph County. It was settled by Swiss immigrants in 1869 and by 1874 was home to some ninety Swiss and German families. Quite a few direct descendants of the original settlers still reside in Helvetia and take evident pride in their heritage. The villagers have long relied on music and dancing as focal points of community recreation. From the 1880's until World War II there was a community brass band which played on festive occasions and from time to time gave concerts throughout West Virginia. In the early decades of settlement the band also provided music for dancing. Judging from the hand copied and printed music that has been preserved, the band's repertoire included many of the couple dances which were popular in nineteenth century Europe and America: waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and schottisches.

Square dancing was apparently introduced just before the turn of the century by loggers who came into the area with the rapidly growing timber industry. I learned about the social life in pre-World War I Helvetia from a conversation with Mrs. James McNeal, a remarkable 98-year-old woman whose parents were among the original Swiss settlers. According to Mrs. McNeal the loggers who attended dances in the village mainly wanted to square dance and were not familiar with the couple dances. To ensure equal time an informal rule was established whereby each square dance would be limited to three "changes" or figures and would be followed by three couple dances. Mrs. McNeal recalled that in those days the square dances were performed in four-couple sets so that one "change" would consist of an entire dance with each couple dancing the same figure with each of the others. Three changes might take as long as twenty minutes to dance. The space available for dancing was quite limited allowing three or four squares at most. The caller danced in one set as he called for all of them.

Helvetia residents who grew up in the 1930's and 1940's remember that square dancing was done in small circles often exceeding four couples and that each circle had its own caller dancing in the set. When the community hall was completed in 1939, regular Saturday night dances were held from 7:00 until 12:00 pm. The band typically consisted of fiddle, piano, mandolin, guitar and string bass. Many of the village brass band musicians played stringed instruments at the dances, but some of the musicians and callers came from neighboring communities.

By the 1950's square dances were performed in a single large circle of couples which later subdivided into two-couple sets as at New Creek or Dunmore. The figure repertoire included "right hands over and howdy do," "two gents with the elbow swing," "take a little peek," and "dive for the oyster."

The Helvetia square dance of the late 1970's is unique. It is danced in one large circle of couples without any subdivision into two-couple sets. In addition each dance is a continuous mixer in which original partners dance together for the first few minutes of the dance and never again for the remainder. How the square dance at Helvetia evolved into this form is a matter for speculation, but two characteristics of the local style could be pointed out as contributing factors: the traditional role of the caller and the greatly increased volume of the music through amplification.

There is not now, and never has been any such thing as a hired caller at the Helvetia dances. While the band is formally engaged and paid, it is always taken for granted that a number of community members who can call the figures will attend each dance. There may be as many as half a dozen dancers, usually male, ranging in age from late teens upward, who will call figures in the course of an evening. Those who do call pay the $2.00 admission fee like everyone else. Tradition at Helvetia dictates that callers call from the floor while dancing. The idea of a caller set apart from the dancers at a microphone seems inappropriate to the local callers. The band, however, is clearly set apart, with microphones, amplifiers and a full drum set on the stage, well above the dance floor. There is no relationship whatsoever between the band and the callers. As the band begins to play a square dance tune, the dancers spontaneously form up in one large circle of couples. If the dance floor is especially crowded, two circles of couples will be formed, one at each end of the hall. The dancers automatically circle left until some member of the circle volunteers to call the figures. In the event there are two circles, each circle will have its own caller and will dance at its own pace. The dance continues until the band decides to stop playing, usually after about seven minutes. There is never any formal ending to the square dances and the band inevitably stops playing right in the middle of a figure.

The Sleepy Hollow Ramblers have been the regular band at Helvetia dances for a number of years. The band members all live near Buckhannon in Upshur County, although accordion player Bill Zumbach was born and raised in Helvetia. Zumbach's father and uncles played both brass and stringed instruments and young Bill was taught to play piano accompaniment to his father's fiddle. He later taught himself to play piano accordion by ear. Besides Zumbach's amplified accordion the band includes electric lead guitar, electric bass, acoustic rhythm guitar and drums. For the square dances either the guitarist or the bass player will switch to amplified fiddle. Square dance music comprises a relatively small portion of the band's repertoire which includes waltzes, two-steps, polkas, country-western songs and rock and roll. The program for the Helvetia dances usually consists of three or four round dances to every square dance.

The greatly increased volume of the band in relation to the unchanged role of the caller may, at least in part, account for the considerable diminution of the figure repertoire as well as the unusual form of the Helvetia square dance today. It is often nearly impossible to distinguish the words of the caller above the music. However the dancers are able to rely as much on visual cues from the caller as the actual words of the call. Since there are only four commonly called figures it is relatively easy to determine what has been called without being able to hear very well. Besides watching the caller's gestures, the dancers receive cues by watching other dancers who are closer to the caller. In square sets or the two-couple style of big circle dancing, such visual cues are not as readily available since many dancers have their backs to the caller.

The Helvetia square dance consists of an introduction, four figures, and a break that occurs between each two figures. The break also serves as a mixer since at its conclusion the dancers end with their corners as new partners. The caller may call the figures in whatever order he desires and sometimes one figure may be repeated several times in succession. Here is the general structure:

Break, and so forth, until the music stops.

The Introduction

"Sixteen hands and roll that wheel, the more you dance, the better you feel...now drop your hands and fall in line, ladies in the lead and the gents behind...swing your partner...round that corner as you come down, right and left all the way around...promenade..."

The dancers circle left, back to the right in single file, swing partners, do a left hand turn with corners, grand right and left, then promenade. While many dancers use the arms-around-waists promenade position, some have a variation whereby the man places his right arm around his partner's waist and his left hand on his hip. The woman rests her left hand on her partner's right shoulder and either puts her right hand on her hip or lets her right arm dangle freely. It seems likely that this promenade hold is derived from the Swiss couple dance tradition.

Although the words of the introductory call indicate that the swing with partners is followed by a left hand turn with corners, many of the dancers, particularly the younger ones, actually end the swing with a right hand turn around their partners before the left hand turn. I suspect that this added right hand turn is an attempt by the dancers to reconcile the movements of the introduction with those of the break which begins with a right hand turn around partners followed by a left hand turn around corners.

The introduction is nearly identical to that of the Glenville dances, even in its language. The phrase "sixteen hands" seems to be a holdover from the days when the dances were done in four couple squares.

The Break

"Right hand round your partner, left hand round your corner...bounce around your partner, bounce around your corner...swing your partner...promenade the girl behind you..."

After the right and left hand turns, the dancers dance the figure eight pattern again without giving hands. In this part some callers say "bounce around" while others say "dance around" or "do-si-do." The complete calls for the break are rarely given after the first few figures are danced. Thereafter the caller calls "right hand round your partner" and everyone automatically dances the rest of the break through the swing with partners. The next call is then "promenade the girl behind you" when all take their corners as new partners.

The Figures

FIGURE I. "Brand new boy and a brand new girl, out in the center with a butterfly whirl...right back home..."

The caller begins this figure by leaving his partner and taking a few steps into the center of the circle of promenading couples. As he does so the dancers face the center of the ring and begin to clap in rhythm with the music. The caller points to any couple in the set calling "brand new boy and a brand new girl out in the center with a butterfly whirl." The designated couple steps into the center and performs the butterfly whirl as at Glenville (Figure III) by wheeling around as a couple in promenade position with the man moving forward and the woman backing up, that is, a swing in open position. At the call "right back home" the couple and the caller return to places in the circle and all dance the break. Sometimes the caller will designate several couples at different places in the circle to perform the butterfly whirl simultaneously.

This figure along with the break is so similar to the Glenville version of the butterfly whirl that it is possible to theorize that the Helvetia square dance is basically a big circle adaptation of the four couple square dance with several figures added in for variety.

FIGURE II. "Swing old Adam...swing old Eve...swing old Adam before you leave...right back home..."

As in the previous figure the caller takes a few steps into the center while the dancers stop promenading, face center and clap to the music. As the caller calls "swing old Adam" he points to one of the men and directs that man to go to a second man across the circle. The first man crosses the circle and swings the second man, who steps forward to meet him in the center, with a vigorous right elbow swing. When the caller says "swing old Eve" the first man leaves the second man in the center and swings the second man's partner with a regular ballroom hold swing. At the call "swing old Adam before you leave" the first man returns to the second man in the center and again swings him with a right elbow swing. Both men and the caller return to their partners and all dance the break.

There are several ways the caller may vary this figure. He may send out two or more men simultaneously to swing "Adams" across the set. Or he may send one or more women across the set to "swing old Eve swing old Adam swing old Eve before you leave." Some men in the set may perform this figure with the couple beside them without having been designated by the caller.

FIGURE III. "Ladies to the center of the ring and dance a jig...gents to the center..."

This figure is done by the whole set at once. The dancers stop promenading and face center. All the women dance to the center and back while the men clap in time to the music. Then the men dance to the center and back while the women clap. The rest of the figure is performed automatically without any call. After the men return to place everyone moves slowly towards the center. The men put their arms around the waists of the women on either side of them. Each woman rests her left hand on her partner's right shoulder and her right hand on her corner's left shoulder. The entire circle continues to move toward the center. As the dancers meet in the middle the men suddenly lift the women up and quickly set them down again while everyone gives a shout. The women facilitate the lift by pushing down on the men's shoulders and jumping up. Everyone then backs up to place and dances the break. The term "jig" used in the call means fancy stepping. In this sense relatively few of the dancers at Helvetia really do any "jigging" in this figure.

FIGURE IV. "Ladies to the center back to back, gents dance around the railroad track..."

Once called, this figure is repeated without the break until the music stops. All the women step into the center a few steps and face out while the men promenade in single file around the outside. The men go all the way around, pass their partners and swing the next woman. The figure is repeated over and over with the men swinging a new woman each time. Sometimes roles are reversed: "gents to the center back to back, ladies dance around the railroad track."

The Helvetia square dance consists almost entirely of Figures I., II., and III., with Figure IV. occasionally called toward the end of a dance. A few callers sometimes try to call figures including some of the older two-couple figures, but these are rarely successful since many dancers do not know them. One older caller told me that it does not matter how many figures a caller may know if the dancers are unable to do them. He claimed that the most important function of the caller is to keep the dancers moving and to make certain everyone is having a good time. Frustrated dancers are unhappy and the spirit of the dance takes precedence.

The local dancers are very aware of the positive and negative aspects of their square dance. Older dancers complain that the dance has become oversimplified and that one does not dance with the same partner for a whole dance. They lament the fact that the younger dancers will not learn the older styles. On the other hand square dancing has remained very much alive in the community without having to rely on any single caller. The mixer quality of the dance provides lots of opportunity for all members of the community to dance together. It is an increasingly rare and wonderful sight to see teachers and their students, parents and their children, brothers and sisters all dancing together at the community hall on Saturday night.


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