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Vol 1, April 2016

Square Dance in the 1950s Rural West: An Oral History

by Tina R. Fields, Ph.D.

Tina Fields calls contra and barn dances, sings ballads and rounds of the grim, bawdy, or sacred varieties, leads ceremonial wilderness trips, and chairs the Ecopsychology M.A. program at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She loves listening to stories for both fun and data. At the time of this publication, her dad Hank, who is featured in the article, is 99 years old. A book containing a longer version of this article and many of the actual square dance calls collected and used by Hank Fields in the 1950s is in progress. It will soon be available on Tina’s blog at http://indigenize.wordpress.com.

Introduction

Square dancing hit its heyday in the far west during the 1950s, and many elder members of my family were heavily involved in it. Hank Fields, my dad, was a popular square dance caller long before I was born. I follow lightly in his footsteps as a contra dance caller today; thus my interest in what the dance scene had been like for him. What are the similarities and differences with dance today? And what got so many people so passionately interested in square dancing back then?

At a Fields/Glascock “inlaws & outlaws” family reunion held on my cousin’s ranch in rural Idaho during the summer of 2003, I spoke with a number of older folks who had been active in the square dance scene back in the 1950s, asking about their experiences.

One of the most entertaining raconteurs was Rosamond Burgess, who has since passed on. Following are some of the vivid dance memories she generously shared. This paper will then offer stories from Hank Fields, and conclude with some observations about the square dance.

Rosamund Burgess: Dancing in Idaho

rosamund burgessRosamund Burgess“We lived in Garden Valley, Idaho, where we square danced many years ago. In wintertime, our sawmill business was shut down, so there was an empty house across the river for those of us who stayed on. It was there for people who wanted to use it. And we’d square dance. Sometimes we even took our stuff over there for breakfast; we’d have breakfast before square dancing.

“There were at least five couples of us adults. We had one square of adults, and another square of kids. And two of the men were callers. They took turns. We had no music, but they took turns doing the calling. We’d spend all winter long up there, doing that. And then when we got together [for bigger dances] at the community center with those who were left in Garden Valley, we’d dance all night long.”

No Hall? No Problem: Dancing in the Streets
“Sometimes we’d dance all night long,” Rosamund laughed. “And I mean ALL night long. We’d always carry a little bit of extra food in the car, which you did in Garden Valley anyway, because you never knew when the roads were gonna be closed and you couldn’t navigate from one place to the other. 

“We’d carry a bucket full of sawdust saturated with oil. If the roads were snowed in, we’d stop right in the middle of the road, get your bucket full of sawdust and oil out, get ‘em primed – and then set it on fire, just like a bonfire. Any car that came along would stop and gather around, and get out their chairs and their stools, and whatever – a block of wood – lot of cars would use their blocks of wood too, to burn ‘em. Sometimes we’d square dance right in the middle of the road.” 

I was not sure I had heard her correctly. “These people would brew coffee and have a big party, right in the middle of the road?” I asked. She enthusiastically confirmed, “Right! On Sunday, or any morning you was making deliveries when it was cold.” 

“If it was 4 or 5 in the morning,” I asked, “how’d you have enough light to find your corners for the allemandes?” Referring to the old song Buffalo Gals, she laughed merrily. “You know, you ‘danced by the light of the moon’? That’s what we did: we danced by the light of the fire, and the light of the moon. And if we happened to be close enough to a house, why they would turn the lights on for us – if they HAD lights. But a lot of places didn’t have their own power system. Sometimes, if one bucket-of-sawdust bonfire went out, you could go on to the other one. But if not, the person in the car that was coming behind you always had one. So we’d just let one go, and if it burned out, you could use somebody else’s.” 

I thought about the craziness of holding a dance right in the middle of the highway at night. Wasn’t this taking an awful chance with your life? It turns out that no, there was no danger of getting run over, because any car that came along would see the fire and stop. Then those folks would join in the dancing too!

Community Life
Rosamund’s mention of the cold seemed to imply that this spontaneous firelight-dancing was a seasonal event. So I asked, “This only happened in the wintertime, because in the summertime you were too busy working?”

“Right, in the logging business. Loggers and sawmill. It was a small sawmill there, where my husband worked. There was two schoolhouses, three classes to each room. Went clear up to the sixth grade!” She laughed. “There was two teachers. Each teacher had three grades that they taught.”

This was the early 1950s. “That’s not that long ago,” I observed, thinking of how poignantly different her traveling and dancing experiences were from those of modern square dancers today. To me, her story sounds like a scene out of a frontier movie.

“No, that’s not that long ago. It’s a difference of living in the mountains and living in the city. Or living in a community. We lived in a community, a very close-knit community. It was very interesting. Um... we had no telephones. But you always knew what your neighbor was doing, because we had a communication system.”

Roads Snowed In? – Dance!
More than once in the wintertime, the rural area they lived in got entirely cut off: no access by roads; no phone service even for those who had phones. Rosamund described one time this happened on a night they wanted to put on a dance. People were sitting around worrying about being stuck there away from home due to the inclement weather, so the church opened up for people to sleep over. The whole town wound up taking their breakfasts over there, and dancing together in the church for three days straight.

“In our town, the little village of Notus, there was a grocery store and a church and a community center. That was what the town consisted of. They’d usually open up the church to let all these people, the square dance caller and so on, so forth, come and stay all night if they wanted to stay all night. It was open anyway, but that night they used it for people who wanted to dance. We roped off a corner – now this was an invisible rope, just an area where you could put your kids down to sleep.” I asked to clarify, “Pile the coats up or something like that as a bed for them?” “Uh-huh,” she confirmed. “Uh-huh. You’d put your kids down to sleep, you know. 

“But when the hill slid in that year – it took a car with it, by the way, which isn’t a nice story, but it did do that – we were slid in and we stayed in there for four days. It was a Saturday, and by Saturday night, the hill had slid in and we couldn’t get out, unless you walked over the top of the hill.” (Note: this “hill” is actually a mountain.) “So we just said ‘what the heck’, and just danced all night.” She chuckled over this memory. “Heh, heh! We’d go over in the corner and rest for awhile, then get up and dance some more.

“The store opened up, and the people that owned the store were there, and we could get stuff out of the store all of the time.

“Everybody really shared. We’d go home get some stuff and bring it back for those who were there that didn’t have a home to go to; didn’t have a place to go to. Cook food there, and square dance some more!

“Morning, noon, and night. We’d dance before breakfast, and after breakfast, and...anytime, all night long. Had enough callers to do it. It was a lot of fun.”

Why Only the Men Were Callers
“Were only men callers?” I asked, thinking about the details of Rosamund’s stories. She replied, “Yes. We didn’t have women callers at all.”

I wondered, “Were women callers frowned upon, or was it just kinda how it was?”

“Well,” she said, “that’s just kinda how it was. But anyway, the women had a rather full skirt!” She laughed heartily. Confused, I chuckled back, “Well, you can still call in a skirt!” She responded, “Oh, I’m sure my niece could have called as well as her husband. But a woman’s voice doesn’t carry as well as a man’s, usually.”

“Oh right,” I realized. “You didn’t have PA systems or anything, I guess.”

“No! No PA system. You just had to have a loud voice.” 

Rich times in Idaho. It was not dissimilar 400 miles southwest in Alturas, California, where her cousin Hank Fields was furthering the dance.

Hank Fields: Modoc County, California

hank fieldsHank Fields heading out on Sharon Enderlin’s horses, December 2000 (age 83). Photo by Tina Fields.Hank’s cousins brought him and his wife Tilla (Jacobs) Fields into square dancing in 1949, at dances held weekly in the old Scout Hall of their small rural ranching town of Alturas, in Modoc County, California. Hank quickly became enchanted with the dance, and began to also call and teach. Before he did that, it was rare for the community to have live callers; they danced to records that included both music and calling. Hank wound up calling square dances for 15 years, from 1950 to 1965, until the family moved to Nevada.

Square Dance Takes Off
What originally inspired so many people to want to participate in square dance at that time?
One answer is that, in the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood began to make a lot of western films and TV programs, many of which featured old time dancing, including square dancing. Naturally, since the big stars were doing it, interest in these dances took off. The following are a few examples:

  • 1939 Gone With the Wind (Clark Gable; includes a very fast Virginia Reel)
  • 1939 Destry Rides Again (Jimmy Stewart & Marlene Dietrich)
  • 1939 Drums Along the Mohawk (Henry Fonda)
  • 1940 The Westerner (Walter Brennan & Gary Cooper)
  • 1942 Star Spangled Rhythm (Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, & Fred MacMurray)
  • 1945 Sheriff of Cimarron (cowboy hero Sunset Carson dances)
  • 1946 Duel in the Sun (Lloyd Shaw hashes “Birdie in the Cage”)
  • 1946 My Pal Trigger (Roy Rogers; has square dancing on horses!)
  • 1949 Square Dance Jubilee
  • 1950 Summer Stock (Gene Kelly & Judy Garland)
  • 1950 Square Dance Katy
  • 1950 Copper Canyon (Ray Milland; Les Gotcher calls!)
  • 1950 Hillbilly Hare (Animated cartoon. Bugs Bunny calls!)
  • 1955 Oklahoma
  • 1956 Giant (Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, & James Dean)
  • 1956 The Searchers (John Wayne)
  • 1958 Indiscreet (Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman)

The compiler of this list, John Brant (n.d.), speculates that the postwar ideal of staying home to raise a family led many to seek “wholesome pursuits.” This desire, combined with fascination about the Old West fueled by these movies (and likely a yearning to wear their great cowboy costumes), made a nation ripe for square dance.[1]

Ironically, in rural Modoc County, California, this Hollywood ideal had a basis in actual everyday life for many of its ranching people. They must have felt very proud.

Square Dancing in Modoc
In the following excerpts from the local newspaper, Modoc County & Surprise Valley Record: The Best Paper in the Best Town in Northern California, you can see area residents’ growing interest in square dancing within a very short time span.

February 8, 1951: “Square Dance at Local High School.” “Something new in the way of entertainment has been started at the high school for adults. A class in square dance has been organized, and the first meeting of the group was held Monday in the social hall. Anyone interested in this old-time recreation is urged to attend the next class.”

January 13, 1955 – front page: “Alturas Trio Provide Calls for Square Dance. “The Alturas Allemanders entertained a large crowd of about 60 square dancers and children last Saturday night at their monthly Open Square Dance. Couples drove as far as Bieber and Lakeview to dance to calls by Hank Fields, Mickey Baldwin and Van Johnson. Van Johnson has called professionally for about four years and he and Mrs. Johnson instructed Square and Round Dancing in Wyoming and Montana. Hank and Mickey are rapidly growing closer to the professional class, having been asked to call dances at many Northern California and Oregon towns. The Allemanders have recently designated one night per month (the Tuesday following the second Saturday of every month) to Round Dancing instructions as given by Fay Stahl-Schmidt.”

To give you the context of the place and time, here are other articles from that paper in 1950: 

  • “Telephone dial system to be put in.” (8/31/50) “‘Number Please’ to be replaced by a humming sound, the dial system’s way of saying ‘Number please, you may now dial the number you want.’” 
  • “Fee Charged at Six Forest Campgrounds.” (5/11/50, Sports section) “They are going to begin charging a 50 cent fee for up to 6 folks camping–as an experiment. . . .”
  • “Flying News.” (1950) This regular front page column documented everyone who landed or flew out of the airport this week.
  • “California Ready for (Atomic) Bomb Attack.” (8/17/50)

fay donFay and Don Stahl-Schmidt cutting up at a dance in Alturas, California..A typical dance evening in Modoc went like this: two square dances, then one round dance, then repeat. (A “round dance” is danced with everyone in a single circle formation instead of multiple squares. They are often mixers.) In addition, the first square would be a regular patter square and the second a singing square. (A “singing square” is an easier square dance that is sung-called to a popular tune, and dancers can sing along with the chorus while they dance.) This made for some interesting, yet comfortably predictable, variety.

Unlike nowadays, most evenings were not called entirely by one person. Men would call the squares and a woman would usually call the round dances.

For a special dance, sometimes there’d be only one caller for the whole night–if he had been “hired” (in other words, a pro). This happened maybe one time a month. For the regular open dances, Hank taught two other guys beside himself to call: Ron Telford and Mickey Baldwin. All three would call at these dances, taking turns. That meant that every week, Hank would usually call only one to two dances in an evening. 

modoc maniacsThe “Modoc Maniacs” (Mickey Baldwin, Hank Fields, and Ronnie Telford, all of Alturas), featured callers at the Tenth Annual Silver State Jubilee Festival in Reno, Nevada. Clipping from the Modoc County Record (1957).The Reno, Nevada dancers jokingly named the trio the “Modoc Maniacs.”

Here’s the program for the Allemanders’ first Jamboree, as mailed out to clubs by the Alturas Merchants’ Association and printed on the front page of the local newspaper:

“Square Dancers to Romp Here in Jamboree with Callers, Dancers from Three States: Oregon, California, and Nevada

August 18-19, 1956 -- First Jamboree, Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 1 pm

  • Doug Fosbury – Callers choice.
    Round Dance – Blue Pacific
  • Inez Baker – Truck Stop Grill; 12th Street Rag.
    Round Dance - Canadian Barn Dance.
  • Bill Mayhew – Callers choice; Pianola Hoedown.
    Round Dance – South.
  • Ronnie Telford – Hey Ma!; Swing All Eight.
    Round Dance - Black & White Rag.
  • George Churchill – Santa Fe Stinker; Forward 6.
    Round Dance – Tennessee Wig Walk.
  • Bob Waller – Tweedle-e-dee; When Your Baby Swings With You
  • Mick Baldwin – 3 Ladies Chain; Callers choice.
    Round Dance - Calico Melody
  • Art Schuck – We’ll Dance Till Sunday Morn; Saturday Night.
    Round Dance – Memories are Made of This.
  • Howard Yeager – Little Red Hen; Cotton Picker.
    Round Dance - Penny Waltz.
  • Hank Fields – Hash ‘n’ Breaks; Callers choice.

Three Trophies will be awarded:

  • Visiting club with largest representation
  • Club from farthest away
  • Oldest square dancing couple

Dances include Santa Fe Stinker, Hey Ma! and the round dance Blue Pacific.”

Besides their weekly dances, the Allemanders enjoyed putting on special events like that Jamboree, a Hobo Party (24 squares of people dressed like hobos), monthly summer dances outside in the park (10 squares), and New Year’s Eve dances, with a very nice potluck dinner afterwards.

the western statesYou must remember that this is a very small town we’re talking about here; one sited in the middle of a high altitude desert region, which means neither quick nor easy to get to from other places. That many people attending means that square dancing was a popular activity in those days.

The Music and Calls
It was a rare occasion when they had a live band to dance to. Instead, Hank had a collection of records in two metal boxes that he carried to dances, along with his record player, speakers, and calling mic. Some records had the tune on one side, and the tune with calling on the other so folks could still dance even if no local live caller was available. He taught himself to call by listening to these recordings of professionals calling. He’d then write out the dances by hand, and practice calling them while taking long walks until he knew them by heart.

Besides square dance records, Hank had a collection of round dance recordings too. But sadly, many of these are now lost. “I loaned my records to a guy here [in Alturas] once who wanted to learn calling,” he explained. “A second book of calls was in the box there too. And the damned knothead left ‘em in the back of his car. It got hot, and warped every one of them.”

les gotcherLes GotcherI asked Hank if he had ever become a professional caller. “No. A pro came around a few times–Les Gotcher [pronounced “GOAT-chure”]. He was really good at that hash, boy–that’s where they keep changing the calls; you don’t know what’s coming next. He was my favorite caller. The pros would make tours, cover so much ground, then go back home. Les came out with a new square dance magazine, Sets In Order. Came out every month. It was little, and sometimes had new calls in there. One time, Les came around for no fee, except everyone had to subscribe to his magazine.”

Inspired by Gotcher, Hank came to specialize in “hash” calling.

“The first time I did it,” he said, “I worked it all out in my head and made the dance up. Then I memorized it, and then sprang it on them at a dance.

“Real hash is all made up on the spot, all improvised. It’s tough because you have to remember who began where and with whom, and somehow get everyone back home – and with their partner. But when you can pull it off, there’s nothing more fun. The dancers just love it because they never know what’s coming next…One guy said to me after, “You have fits like that often?”

At this memory, Hank laughed. Then he went on: “I don’t mean to brag or anything, but several guys commented that I was the best damned caller we’d ever had. It all comes down to enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, and being relaxed. You got to have enthusiasm in your voice. If you’re having fun, the dancers feel that and they will too.”

nye 1953New Year’s Eve 1953, potluck dinner held after the dance in Alturas, CA. Photo by Fay Stahl-Schmidt. In the photo, as Fay Stahl recalls, L to R: Mickey Baldwin’s oldest daughter Jackie, Iris Turner’s daughter, young Mickey Baldwin Jr., Mickey Baldwin, Hank Fields, Tilla Fields, [somebody] Brister, Mrs. Brister, son of Brister, Shorty [somebody], husband of Shorty, Don Stahlschmidt, Faye Stahlschmidt, two unknown gents & mystery woman on end. Coming around to the right side, the bald man is Toots Thomas, the woman with glasses is Iris Turner, & the elderly woman in front is Neva Mapes, county clerk.He and Ron Telford began inventing spontaneous hash together. “Sometimes, me and Ron would switch off. Whatever we’d put into the dance, that would change it. That was later on, when Ron got to be a pretty good caller.”

Whatever snarly knots the one created, the other had to improvisationally untangle on the fly. Tag-team hash: what a measure of calling skill!

Improvisational variation by the caller is part of what makes square dance fun. It needn’t be complicated. The point is to break up the monotony of repeated calls with a little spicy variety.

At times, this sort of improv can get downright goofy, prompting uproarious laughter. I remember one in particular from Hank’s calling: “Walk right up and bend the line, then swing around with ole Frankenstein.” Such calling also carries the nice side effect of inspiring dancers to listen closely to the caller at all times.

It’s interesting to note that calls in those days were oriented toward the men alone:

Walk all around your right hand lady,
See-saw your pretty little taw...

Contemporary callers and dancers may find such this sexist, along with some of the language intended to be cute, such as referring to the woman as “your little red hen.” Similarly, the call to promenade “Indian-style,” meaning single file, could be seen as racist. It’s heartening to reflect on how the overall level of awareness about such issues has grown since the 1950s.

Teaching the Basics of Square Dance
In the fall and winter, when there wasn’t much else going on in ranching country like Modoc County, Hank also taught a square dance class for interested newcomers every Tuesday evening for months on end. He did this for no charge; just for love of the dance and as local interest grew, a desire to bring more people in on it. That’s when he also taught others to call. In 1953, they averaged attendance of around 100 every week.

The elementary school donated their All-Purpose Room for free. Keeping money out of the equation surely contributed to this dance’s wild popularity in the community.

Hank’s first classes were only eight weeks long, but as the dancers began wanting to travel and dance with other clubs, they needed more skills, so some of his classes began to run much longer–8 to 9 months. “You could figure on it lasting all winter,” he said. “You start from scratch, where people didn’t know anything about it, and bring ‘em on up. If they come every week, by the time we’d get through, then they’d be pretty good dancers.

“They got three levels of square dance lessons now – Basic, Advanced, and sort of a show type dance, where you really gotta know what you’re doing. When I was first calling, there was just the one.”

hank fields dance notebookThe inside cover of one of Hank Fields’ dance notebooks.Along with his record collection, Hank carried around a number of dance calling books consisting of loose-leaf paper in small drugstore binders. They included not only the calls themselves written out by hand or manual typewriter, but also some of his calling calendars, evening programs, lesson notes, observations about particular moves, and so on. Some of these went missing over the years, but we still have five of them to work with. 

Paper-clipped to the back of his calling book #1 was a handwritten list of 45 moves to teach. Modern Western Square Dancers (MWSD) will find this interesting to contrast with today’s lessons of 69 standard moves.

 Square Red Hot
Heads one-three Change girls
Sides two-four Pass chain
Honor (bow) your partner Star Promenade
Allemande left Wheel around
Right and left grand Wagon wheel
Promenade (Indian style) Throw in the Clutch
Swing Daisy Chain
Right and left thru Box the Gnat
Pass thru Box the Flea
Four in line  
Forward eight Star Twirl
Around one Stock the wheel
Split the sides Bend the Ends
“U” turn Wheel to a Line
Do-Sa-Do Bumperoo
Star Right and left Double Star Twirl
  Eight Chain thru
Half-sashay Grand Chain eight
Re-sashay Crosstrail right
Ladies Chain Cut-across
Centers Arch Crosstrail
Twice around Chain thru
  Dixie Grand eight


allemandersOver the Years
Over the years, Hank taught hundreds of people to square dance. At a potluck celebration in 1953, the club of 105, including a graduating class of 70 new “bona-fide square dancers” surprised him with the gift of a gold wristwatch engraved with the words, “Thanks, Hank!” It is still one of his most prized possessions.

In this photo (Modoc County Record 1953), you can see the people gleefully pointing to it on his wrist (second row back, middle-right, the guy with the mussed hair and big grin). The cowboy-booted fellow in the front row is Ron Telford, Hank’s protégé and later his calling buddy. Hank’s wife, Tilla, my mom, is the pretty woman in the front row middle with crossed arms, in a flowered dress and glasses. I don’t know who that woman is on his lap.

The End of an Era
Hank Fields quit calling dances around 1964. He had been traveling a lot to call square dances. He called not only in Alturas but also other remote places regularly – and remember, this was just a hobby. 

“Something had to give,” Hank said. “Once a month, I’d quit working at 5 and drive clear over to Burns or Bend (Oregon), or Reno (NV), that’s 200 miles! – call a dance, then turn around and come right home.” The dance began earlyish and went till 10 or 10:30 pm or so. With breaking down equipment, talking afterward, and driving, that meant arriving home around 3 or 3:30 a.m., then getting up again around 7 to go to work at 8.

“Somewhere in my stuff I’ve got books with dates. I kept track of all my dances I called–kept a little log. One year, I averaged a dance every other night. That’s too damned many! No kidding, that was the busiest year I’ve ever had. It got terrible, sometimes seven dances in one week. I once called eight whole dances, by myself, in one week. Two on Sunday. And that included traveling all over the place, too. Calling that much, you gotta be careful you don’t strain your voice. I had a friend in Klamath who strained his voice, and he was never the same after that.”

There was another factor, too: these dances were hard on his wife. In square dance those days, you stuck with one partner of the opposite gender for the entire evening. Hank’s being the caller meant that he didn’t dance, so Tilla became a wallflower. She would travel all that way with him and only get to do a few mercy dances when other men’s wives voluntarily sat one out for her. Or she would stay home, alone.

The last straw came one day when Hank couldn’t get back home in time after a flying job. “I was supposed to come back to Alturas that night to call, but then [my client] had to stay over in Los Angeles. So I had to call Ron Telford and get him to take my place. This happened again–twice–and that wasn’t good. Imposing on Ron like that. So I gave up the calling.

“In retrospect, I really should have only given up the outside calling, and only called around here. . . .But I just got too damn busy. I was flying; I had that chainsaw shop where I was working on small engines, repairing and selling; flying cross-country runs for some real estate guys, plus teaching flying; I was married, had a wife and a little girl to take care of; I was running that tow truck in the wintertime, taking calls at four in the morning to go up the mountain to get some guy unstuck from the pass; and on top of all that I was calling dances all over the damned country–it just got to be too much, that’s all there was to it, and something had to give.”

Concluding Observations

The Future of the Dance: A Call for Simplicity
Our family moved to Reno, Nevada in 1965. Hank did not call squares again, but in the mid-1970s when I was 13, he signed us up for a basic level MWSD class with the Wagon Wheelers club so I could learn and then our family could go to dances together. But after the class ended, he had little heart to continue.

Why not? Because the dance form had changed. 

“The calls is getting so complicated that it’s not as much fun,” he sadly explained several times over the years. “They put in too many moves, and they’re called too fast. You have to think too much.” He ruefully shook his head. “Like that last dance we went to; that one girl had a hell of a time because she kept missing the moves. That’s all right, but to me, it took a lot of the fun out of it. Best is to find slack somewhere where you [dancers] could express your feelings. In these modern styles, you’re kept too busy listening to what’s going on.” [2]

He also dislikes that there’s little emphasis anymore on calling on the beat. He misses the rhythmic enthusiasm in callers’ voices, and the coherence this engenders.

Talking with Hank makes me think of the differences between square dance and contra dance. Club squares require weeks or months of training, whereas a sufficient number of the basic contra moves can be learned in one 45-minute lesson. Contras are much simpler, with the sequence of each dance repeating so that after a few times through, the caller need not call at all anymore. The dancers can then begin to move independently; part of one big geometric flow led by the music.

My research shows that part of the appeal of community dances like contra lies in its ability to create a state of collective ecstatic trance.[3] Each dancer becomes one molecule in the whirling body of something greater, and at times, a sense of communitas[4] arises: differences like age or status disappear and for that time of simply moving together in sync as a group, life feels meaningful and full of joy. In more complicated contras when we have to “think too much,” as Hank said, I’ve noticed that this does not happen. It’s still fun, but it’s a very different experience.[5] It sounds as if in the old days, square dances were, in this sense, more like contemporary contras. They also enjoyed the widespread popularity that contra does now. Is there perhaps a correlation?

Hank reflected on how he would participate if he were a caller today.

“In hindsight, I wish I’d just have given up calling ‘out’ and called around home. Then I’d have stuck with it. And I’d have called the easier calls. Not to say they [the more complicated dances] aren’t good; there are some good maneuvers in there. But you had to listen so close that it took the fun out of it. . . . Didn’t take all the fun out, but took a lot of it out. If I were running a class now, I’d just teach the basic moves. I think more people enjoyed that than they did the later stuff. What the new caller in Alturas is teaching now, it’s more than the basic stuff, but not too damn far away from it. That’s good.”

Seasonal Rhythms: A Reflection
In the stories of these elders, I’m struck by how seasonal the dance was in rural western areas during the 1950s. Both in Alturas, California and in Garden Valley, Idaho, square dance was a pursuit for winter, when there was less work on the land (sawmill, ranching, farming, logging, hunting and the like) to do. The community would then come together to weather the hardships of travel in snow, cold, hunger, and loneliness, by dancing. No money was involved. Little to no technology was needed or even considered–even in the absence of live music (treasured but rarely available or even sought after for these square dances), the caller used a portable record player with a small plug-in speaker—when they had electricity available. But they had no full sound systems in the halls like we regularly do today, and in some cases, they didn’t even have lights. Of course, for the bigger dances, they did have those things.

The point is, square dance for them was part of a larger urge to create a deep sense of community. And the particular rhythm that both Hank Fields and Rosamund Burgess speak of echoes a rhythm of many pre-industrial peoples worldwide. It’s an ancient human pattern, based on the realities of living in synchronization with the natural world: in winter when it’s cold, you slow down, come together, take care of one another, share what you have, make your own entertainment, and thereby find simple yet abiding joy.


Works Cited

Burgess, Rosamund. Personal Interview, Council, ID. 3 July 2003.

Brant, John. “The Hollywood Connection: Movies helped to fuel Square Dancing's rise in popularity.” Vic and Debbie Ceder's Square Dance Resource Net, n.d. Web. 4 May 2011.

Burgess, Nadine. “Rosamund Burgess in later years”. 2002. Photograph. .53.com

Fields, Henry C. (“Hank”). “Square dance calling notebooks” [unpublished personal collection, handwritten: five binders plus several loose folders]. Alturas, CA. 1949-65.

---. Personal interviews. Alturas, CA, Council, ID, and Boulder, CO. 1998-2015.

Fields, Tina. “Contradance: Weaving Community Through Geometric-Pattern Trance Induction” Conference Presentation. Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness.
Asilomar Center, CA. April 2006.

---. “Hank Fields heading out on Sharon Enderlin’s horses, age 83.” December 2000. Photograph.

---. “Trance Induction through Contra Dance: Weaving Communitas” Conference Presentation. American Anthropological Association. Sheraton Hotel, New Orleans, LA. Nov 2010.

Modoc County Record [Alturas, CA]. “The Modoc Maniacs (Mickey Baldwin, Hank Fields, and Ronnie Telford, all of Alturas), featured callers at the Tenth Annual Silver State Jubilee Festival in Reno, Nevada” n.d. 1957. Photograph.

---. “Allemandars Gather.” n.d. 1953. Photograph.

Modoc Times-Call [Alturas, CA]. “Square Dancers to Romp Here in Jamboree with Callers, Dancers from Three States: Oregon, California, and Nevada.” 12 August 1956:1. Print.

---. “Dance Squares Total 24 at Hobo Fete,” p.10. February 28, 1960. Print.

---. “Monthly Square Dance Party in the Park Saturday.” July 7, 1960. Print.

Stahl-Schmidt, Fay. “Fay and Don Stahl-Schmidt cutting up at a dance in Alturas, CA.” Photograph.

---. “New Year’s Eve 1953, potluck dinner held after the dance in Alturas, CA.” Photograph.

Turner, Edith. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. Print.

[Unknown]. “Les Gotcher.” Photograph. n.d., n.p. Vic and Debbie Ceder's Square Dance Resource Net. Web. 4 May 2015.

1.
Brant, John. “The Hollywood Connection: Movies helped to fuel Square Dancing's rise in popularity.”  Vic and Debbie Ceder's Square Dance Resource Net, n.d. Web. 4 May 2011. 
2.
Fields, H., 2002. 
3.
Fields, Tina. “Contradance: Weaving Community Through Geometric-Pattern Trance Induction” Conference Presentation. Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. Asilomar Center, CA. April 2006. 
4.
Turner, Edith. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. 
5.
Fields, Tina. “Trance Induction through Contra Dance: Weaving Communitas” Conference Presentation. American Anthropological Association. Sheraton Hotel, New Orleans, LA. Nov 2010.