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The Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships 1981-1990:
Barn Dancesby Jim Hoy
One of the most common forms of community entertainment in the Great Plains of times past was the barn dance. I seem daily to remember being at these old-fashioned dances, but probably I just remember hearing about them. We did hold a few dances in barns when I was a youth, but most of our dancing was done in someone's garage and we used phonograph records (rock-and-rolling to Carl Perkins and Little Richard) instead of a band. Real barn dances--with live fiddle music and someone calling squares -- ended with the generation before mine.
I learned a lot about barn dancing a short time back while visiting with one of my neighbors south of Emporia. Harry Potter was born in Chase County, Kansas, in 1900, moving one county over in 1940. When he was in his late teens he and his brothers formed a band--Bill on violin, Jack on guitar, and Harry on either of those two instruments. None of the brothers could read music and none did any singing. Instead they picked up their music by ear, learning much of it from their father and his family, the rest from going to dances where other bands were playing.
Much of the dancing back then was square dancing. Sometimes Jack Potter would quit playing to call a square, although more often a caller would be in attendance and would do the honors. There was no electronic amplification for either instruments or voices. Other popular dances were the waltz, the schottische, and the two-step.
Not all community dances back then were held in barns, I learned. In fact, Potter distinguished among several varieties of dances: barn, platform, house, quarter and invitation. Barn dances were most often held in spring and fall and were usually open to the entire community, although men had to pay a quarter to get in (thus the term “quarter dance”; women had free admission). House dances were held in the winter, the furniture in one room being moved out to make way for the band and dancers. Often house dances were also “invitation” dances because of the limited space. Even here, however, men had to shell out their quarters to get in; the band, after all, had to be paid. Platform dances were almost invariably open to the public and were held in the open air of summer.
Dances usually began around 8 or 9 in the evening and would break about midnight for a “lunch,” sometimes sold by the entrepreneur who was sponsoring the dance. At that time the dancers would often pass the hat to entice the band to keep playing. Potter told me that he usually got about three or four dollars for a night's playing that literally paralleled the roosting of the chickens: “When I was playing for house dances, I would get home when the chickens were getting off their roosts. My father would say, ‘Where have you been all this time?’ and I'd say, 'Well, I'm just getting home; they finally quit dancing.’”
Not everyone in a community danced, and those who didn't sometimes made moral judgments on those who did. Potter said that when he and his wife Cleo first moved to Emporia they went to a function at the rural school their daughter attended. There they met a man who said to them: "I guess I been the heathen around here." How so, asked Potter. "Well, I play for dances." “So do I,” Harry told him, "but I don't claim to be a heathen."
Potter played his last dance sometime during World War II, but he still had fond memories of those times. He certainly gave me an excellent perspective on barn dances from the point of view of the musician. Now I'd like to talk to some of the dancers and get their perspective.
© 1986. Reprinted by permission from Plains Folk II: The Romance of the Landscape by Jim Hoy and Tom Isern.