The Old-time Country Dance
by Iva (Andrus) Dingwall
The old-time country dance, like the one "hoss chaise" is only a memory for the few now left who were privileged to enjoy that wholesome recreation of the past. By the time I had reached the age of ten I had probably attended more country dances than any child of my age (excepting my sister -- two years younger than myself) in the state of Minnesota
My father was an old-time fiddler and a very good one -- so good in fact that he played for all the dances for miles around. Mother loved the dance, so we children were always taken along, being too young to be left at home alone and baby sitters were unheard of.
The dances were held in the farm houses. Lumber or logs were cheap and the kitchens were large, giving ample room, after the table and chairs have been pushed back against the walls, for square dances, money-musk, Virginia Reel, lancers and so on.
How often do I recall my father and mother coming to the school house at three in the afternoon to take me home because he had to play for a dance perhaps ten miles away. We were hurriedly dressed, and if it were winter, on our way by four o'clock because travel was slow with a couple of old "nags" hitched to the farm sleds and we must be there and not later than seven. They like to start the fun early, and dancing usually continued until daybreak. Then we started back home, arriving there sometimes as late as eight in the morning -- about time for father to begin his morning "chores." It must have been very tiresome for them sitting in the cold and driving that distance after being up all night, but for my sister and I it was fun. Straw was placed on the bottom of the sled and blankets spread over it to make a bed, and with the old flat irons heated and placed at our feet, we were "as snug as a bug in a rug" and slept, as one of their old saying went, "just like a log".
We children sat and watch the dancers until our eyes refused to stay open any longer, then we were taken upstairs or we could lie on the bed.
I like to sit close to my father and watch him play. I love the old fiddle and its old tunes, and it was such fun to hear him “spell” the caller once in a while and sing out lustily these words to the tunes of “Cracovienne Quickstep”:
"First lady lead to the right hand gent, swing with the right hand, the right-hand around.
“Back with the left in the left-hand around.”
“Lady in the center and seven hands around.”
“Lady swing out and gent swing in.”
“All join hands and circle again.”
“Find your partners large and small…”
“All promenade to your places all.”
I learned the square dances or quadrilles were made up of three “changes” or figures. The music was either 2/4 or 6/8 time and not too fast. Many different figures were danced -- all seem to depend upon the efficiency of the caller. The following is an example:
“First couple lead to the right, balance and swing four hands round.”
“Same for lead to next couple, balance and swing six hands round.”
“Lead to the next and all around.”
“All chassez across…”
“all balance and swing partners.”
The third change, the “hoedown”, was danced to a lively jig tune, and gave the dancers opportunity to “let loose”. Often there was a sort of contest to see who could swing his partner the longest without becoming dizzy, or perhaps try to swing her off her feet. I recall seeing one very large woman swing her diminutive partner so violently that they both lost their balance and struck the cook stove knocking the legs out from underneath it. Willing hands soon repaired the damage and the little episode only added to the merriment.
This third change also gave the caller opportunity to become versatile. After commanding, “balance” to your partner, he would take them by surprise by calling “swing the girl behind you” or “allemand right” instead of “allemand left”, and then while everyone was confused and trying to find his partner, to call out “all run away” or “run away home” instead of the former dignified way of putting it -- all promenade.
The square dances were interspersed with occasional waltz or schottische or polka, -- and with this they would all sing “heel toe”, and “poke-i-o”
In one locality where my father played lived old “Nat Goodwin” who attended these “shin-digs” (just another name for dance). He always entertained the crowd along about midnight by jigging for perhaps five minutes with a tumbler full of water balanced on the top of his head, showing how “steady” he was on his feet, and “light as a feather”. When I look back and see him as he was, probably between seventy and eighty years of age, I know indeed it was quite a feat to perform, and his friends apparently never tired of seeing him do it.
Of course I learned to know all the dance tunes by name, and that “Charlie Over the Water” was good for this change, and “The Steamboat Quickstep” was good for that. “Durang’s Hornpipe” was tip-top for a hoe-down, as was also “Golden Slippers”, “Irish Washerwoman”, “Devils Dream”, “Money-Musk”, “Old Leather Britches”, “Rip the Stitches”, “Old Zip Coon” (an early name for “Turkey in the Straw”) and “Arkansas Traveler.”
“Life on the Ocean Wave” was played for the following change:
“First four give right hands across, and keep your step in time.”
“Left hand back and don't be slack and balance for in a line.”
“Take your partner by the hand and chassez up and down…”
“…and by the wing, give her a swing, and hurry back to town.”
“Grand right and grand left -- everyone tra-la.”
“When partners met, pick up your feet, and back to places all.”
“The Girl I Left Behind Me”:
“First two couples lead up to the right and do it very nicely.”
“Pass right through and balance too, and swing with the girl behind you.”
“Balance to partners face to face, dos-se-dos and back to place.”
“Allemande left for dancers all, and all promenade around the hall.”
This change for the “Irish Washerwoman”:
“The very first couple swing to the middle. “
“Shake your big feet and keep time with the fiddle.”
“Swing your partner round and round.”
“Back to place that you first found.”
“Balance to corners everyone…”
“…and give them a swing just for fun.“
“Allemande right, till you come to your girl.”
“Balance your nicest, and give her a whirl.”
“Pop Goes the Weasel”, like the “Virginia Reel”, is a contra dance, meaning of the ladies form in line on one side and the gents on the other facing each other. The first couple dances down the line in the middle and returns to place, then down the outside in back to place. The second couple then does the same, and when in back to place they pop under the arch formed by the up-raised arms of the first couple and as they do so, in perfect time to the music, the others sing “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Thus the second couple has become the first couple and so on down the line until the first couple finally occupies the place of the original last couple. The dance is done with great precision and is a lot of fun.
I learned the meaning of all the words in the caller’s vocabulary by seeing and demonstrated. “Ladies choice”, “Salute your Partner”, “Ladies Chain”, “dos-a-dos” (and they always pronounced it and do-see-do), “All chassez”, “Grand right and left”, and “all hands round”, “balance” and “promenade all.”
There was always a lunch at midnight and dried apple pie was usually on the menu.
Sometimes during the evening the hat was passed around and the proceeds went to the “fiddler”. It might be anything from a dollar up to two fifty. Whatever the amount happened to be, it was always alright with father. From these meagre earnings he always kept a “wee nest egg” in the little compartment meant for strings and “ros-um” (rosin) in the old “fiddler box”. My first music lessons were made possible by this little surplus.
From the time my sister was three years old until she was eight, her favorite past-time was to dress up in father's old coat and hat, get his violin case, and with coat and case dragging the floor, play that she was going somewhere to “fiddle” for a dance.Later on when I began to study violin, I spent no time learning to tune. I think I was born with that knowledge. Father would snap the strings for me and say that the men “in the woods” (lumber men) would say when the fiddle was in tune that the strings sang:
The fiddle was (and still is) an important component to many social gatherings, especially those which involve dance. We have no recordings of music before the 20th century, but we can find descriptions, even first-hand descriptions, of what those gatherings were like.
Iva Andrus was born in (what is now) Elk River, Minnesota on March 14, 1877. Her father, Dewitt B. Andrus (*1852 – +1932), was a fiddle player who performed at all the local dances around Elk River through the 1880s. Iva and her family lived on their forty acre farm near Elk River until about 1891 when the family moved to Superior Wisconsin. In 1899 Iva married George Dingwall, they had two boys, and lived in the Superior Wisconsin area. Iva (Andrus) Dingwall remained in the Superior, Wisconsin area until her death on January 1, 1965. During those years she played the fiddle, taught music and wrote. Included below is an article written by Iva Dingwall in 1953 which describes the barn dances of the 1880s as she remembered them.
Nisswastamman - Nisswa, MN
Bluff Country Gathering - Lanesboro, MN
Crude as these words may sound, they fixed those tones in my mind forever.
Minnesota Historical Society Call#: P939 - Dingwall, Iva Andrus
MBOTMA Bluegrass Festival - New Richmond, MN
To hear recordings of Iva playing some of the tunes she wrote about click here
Gatherings like what Iva Dingwall wrote about in 1953 are still to be found today. The photos below show some recent Minnesota country dances.