Shirts and Skirts

I grew up square and contra dancing in southern VT. Square dancing is done with four couples, facing each other in a square, while contra dancing has couples facing each other in long lines (reels). John Newton (of The Turkey Mountain Window Smashers and our neighbor) raised a whole family of musicians and dancers on his Windham hill farm. Aside from being a sawyer, my dad’s high school math teacher, and builder, John also played a string bass and called dances. I still have his singing version of  “Forward Six and Back”(a traditional square dance) stuck in my head after all these years. I wonder where my Dad learned to dance? I have a picture of my father, on TV in the 50’s, performing with a Vermont  square dance group called “The Shirts and Skirts”.

This love of dancing must have wore off on my sister and I. We danced together throughout high school, all around dancehalls in Vermont. It seemed like there was a dance every other weekend, though you often had to drive an hour or more to find one. I was milking cows on our dairy farm then, and some nights after a distant dance, it seemed like the alarm clock was ringing a minute after my head hit the pillow.

There is a group of dedicated folks in Vermont that practice the art of “Old Time” square dancing, and the playing of old time music. They have gatherings at different locations, at odd times, to keep this art alive. They meet in houses, with potluck dinners, guitars, fiddles, banjos, string basses, and mandolins. They practice “calling squares”, and dancing. They meet at retreats (Twin Pond Retreat in Brookfield), they have put on dances at the now defunct Lamb Abby in Montpelier, they have partied next to the floating bridge in Brookfield.

The latest hot spot is the Monkey House, located in downtown Winooski; right on the world’s most confusing round-about. . . . or, in this case, oval-about. When I took a cute bureaucrat dancing last weekend, getting there involved GPS, realizing we forgot what town it was in (GPS didn’t solve that for us), a bout of city driving on the Winooski oval, each of us calling our friends in a race to see who would be first to find someone near a computer to look the town up (no, no smart phone), another bout driving the Winooski oval, a decision to walk the oval instead, a stop in a coffeehouse for directions, and the information that we were looking for the building just down the block that had a giant Monkey hanging from it. The monkey part made sense. We were lucky to guess Winooski as the first town to try!

The Monkey House is a small hole in the wall bar, with a lot of wood paneling, a small stage, just enough room for two squares with several metal poles well positioned to bump into. On stage were Pete Sutherland, fiddler extraordinary, and phenomenal guitarist Jim Burns. Oh can they play! Will Mentor was calling out the dances. He does a super job of getting a group of dancers of all different experience levels, working together and succeeding in completing some very complicated and fast moving dances. We all danced for two hours, took a short break, then had jam sessions on stage. Folks, like me, who had brought their instruments had a chance to play with Pete and Bill and each other, while Will, and other guest callers sung out more dances.

For me dancing puts me in another place. I lose track of time and space, yet I am very much keeping track of time and space within the dance square itself. You have a connection with the other couples in the square and with your partner. . . for one thing, if you don’t have your eyes focused on your partner while you swing her around and around, you will be too dizzy to dance the next step! And the music runs through it all, you are part of it. Playing guitar is the same. I close my eyes and listen, trying to blend in and meld with the other instruments. Trying not to mess up. My dancing is much better then my playing. Together, the dancing and the playing, everything seemed in order.


3 responses to “Shirts and Skirts

  1. That’s funny the Newtons sang Alana to sleep last night. Then the tape died… Very sad. I have lots of fond memories of John Newton.

      • “Time for the Whippoorwill to Sing” Anne and Dad gave it to me when Jesse and Ian were little. Great collection of children’s classics.
        I never did go to any of their dances. I sadly missed out on that.
        I enjoyed your post. Sounds like fun it got me looking up Contra dancing around here and up there.

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