Ralph Gorton Sweet Jr., my grandfather, passed away on Thursday, June 20th. He was 90 years old.
He accomplished much during his life. Father to four. Mechanical engineer. High school physics teacher for almost 30 years. He was a soldier, joining the Connecticut Army National Guard before Korea to "protect Boston from North Korean Bombers." But what he will most be remembered for is his role as the contra dance calling king of New England. As everyone knows, before there was rap there was square dance.
Here he is dropping fresh beats at age 71:
He loved dance calling so much that in 1959 he bought a gun powder mill barn built in the 1860s, moved his family of five into the apartment above it, and spent the next decade renovating it to create a dance space. Although there were no horses or cows, I can say that my dad literally grew up in a barn. Today my aunt runs it as a business for not just dance but family gatherings and weddings:
If I have a regret to pass on it is that I didn’t know him - part of the cost of growing up in the Army is that you don’t grow up around your people and walk the streets that your parents did. As a young adult I committed the sin of busy and ran around doing my own thing. This is a mistake I will not repeat with my son, who knows who his grandparents are and how much they love him.
My dad's tribute to his father will stick with me. He remembered how much he loved to dance. He learned how to drum on a snare that my grandfather made with his own two hands - like he did fifes and flutes and dozens of instruments in his workshop. He remembered when he was four or five years old waiting, impatiently, at the stoop of their home for his dad to get home, and running into his arms the second he exited the car because he wanted to start his reading lesson. He credited his father for his head start at reading and his work ethic, at fourteen having the choice of digging holes for blueberry trees around the barn or working at Ed Jarmusch's tobacco farm (he chose tobacco, which paid $1.25 per hour). That head start, he said, propelled him into a good school and a good life, well-lived, that being all he could ask of his dad.
RIP Grandpa Ralph.
Bob Brundage – Well, here we are in the second half of the day. I’m in November the 20th, 1996. This is Bob Brundage again and this afternoon we’re down in Hazardville, Connecticut talking with the proud owner of the Powder Mill Barn, Ralph Sweet. Ralph is one of the old timers from a away back and we’ve known each other from way, way, way back before the Connecticut Caller’s Association even got started probably …..
Ralph Sweet – Oh yeah.
BB – …. so Ralph, we’re interested in your life story. I know you have not gone the way of many square dance callers today. You’re not into club dancing anymore. You gave it a try for a little while ….
RS – Only twenty five years.
BB – ….and these are some of the things we’d like to learn about and what direction your life has taken since then. So, let’s go back to the beginning. Where were you born and brought up ?
RS – Oh, I guess mostly I was brought up in Uncasville, Connecticut which is half way between Norwich and New London.
BB – How did you get interested in square dancing? You told me about it but ….
RS – Well, I guess the first thing which had an effect on me much later was …. my mother had laying around the house this American Country Dance Society by Elizabeth Berchinal which is also full of contra dances . I had never heard of contra dancing although my grandmother and my aunts and maybe my father had picked up a little bit but, by that time it was completely dead in Connecticut and I’d just follow these little diagrams and I’d get these little pictures and I thought it would be fun. I wonder if anybody is still doing contra dancing. Well, I couldn’t find anybody except some old timers and they had done it but nobody still doing it. Then, about the time I was a Junior in high school they started a teen-age club which had all kinds of arts and crafts, a little of orchestra and dance lessons and square dance lessons – to keep us off the streets, I guess. I thought that was a lot of fun. Then, a couple of years later I went to the University of Connecticut and, a 4-H club there, led by Warren Schmidt had square dance lessons after the 4-H meeting. So, I joined the 4-H club so I could take the square dance lessons. Then I started going to all the local, traditional square dances where they were doing all sing calls – all – all the way, and it turned out to be pretty much true all over Connecticut, up through central Massachusetts and even up into Vermont. It was all singing squares except, later I discovered that they were dong a few contras up in Brattleboro and a few other places.
BB – Right.
RS – There was one – which you might call a ’prompt’ caller or maybe a ’patter’ caller still calling out in Exeter, Rhode Island that I discovered and I got this habit of taking a notebook with me and writing down, not only the names of the dances, but usually I wrote down the directions for all the dances they called. And then, if I kept going to one dance like Hadlyme, Connecticut with Harold Gates, I finally got all the words to all the calls that he ever called, and I’d go home and type them all up. And I still have that collection and it’s really a nice collection to have of all those different callers. So, finally, I was out at Ekonk, Connecticut, which is probably kind of tough to find on the map, but they have a nice Grange Hall out there and there was a caller, Al Lindell who – I was out there just to dance to him with a friend – and, my friend Charlie sneaked up and told the caller that I was learning to call. So, he pressured me into getting up and calling. So, I called three of Harold Gates’ dances which were sort of a half singing /half prompt style, although, as I said, every other caller was doing straight singing calls. I guess I made out all right , although it was three dances that that crowd had never done in their life before and, people in those days in the traditional square dance world did not like to do walk-through’s. Their attitude was – we came here to dance, not to learn. Just call it, we’ll dance it. Laughs. And it was always like that. Nobody ever gave walk-through’s or taught anything. You were just on your own.
RS – So then – meanwhile, once a year there was this huge square dance festival at the University of Connecticut on the football field which was marked off in twelve foot squares and they got all the prominent callers from Connecticut and, one year, Al Brundage was there with his Hartford Square Dance Club, Greater Hartford Square Dance Club with Al’s dancers and they did such a spectacular exhibit of – I guess the dance that impressed me the most was ‘The Triple Duck’ which, of course is kind of a takeoff on ‘Forward Six and Back – Right Hand High and the Left Hand Low’ and I thought that they were just so spectacular that, somehow, I had to learn Modern Western Style square dancing, although, I was sort of busy calling the traditional dances and enjoyed that a lot. So, when I got into the army, I joined the National Guard to escape being drafted during the Korean War and that cleared and we got activated. Then, I got sent to all kinds of places and had all kinds of opportunities to learn about Kentucky Running Sets, which, I was in Georgia, but I went to several of those dances. I got sent to Master Gunners School at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas where you could square dance three nights a week on various parts of the base, which was huge. And, at the regular square dances in town and, at the so-called Square Dance Ranch, and I got to dance to Herb Greggerson and Harold Newsome and Louie Ratliff and I just had a ball. I had to buy my first car to get to these dances – they were lenient – they were pretty free with their passes. In fact, at Fort Bliss, there weren’t any passes. You wanted to go out you just signed in your name and took off and nobody ever questioned it. So, one time, I went square dancing thirteen nights in a row. I was trying to set a record. I couldn’t go for fourteen because another Sunday rolled around and there wasn’t a dance.
Meanwhile, Harold Newsome was teaching a class out at his barn, Square Dance Ranch, and I took it with an older lady. In fact, I think I took two, Beginner and the Advanced Class, and I wrote down everything he taught in the order in which he taught it and, even his jokes and everything, and I typed it all up, of course. Later on, we got transferred back to the Boston area and I got to dance to Charlie Baldwin once a week in Boston at the Y W – now that was at the YMCA – and Ralph Page once a week at the YWCA – and Ted Sannella who, of course had learned from Ralph Page – he was every Friday night and I got come home on weekends and go to the traditional square dances. We were supposed to be defending the Boston area against the North Korean bombers but, of course they never came. So, we could go out every night there too. Laughs – and I spent my nights just learning all about square dancing and contra dancing in the Boston area and I took up every kind of dancing that was related to square and contra dancing, like English Country dancing, Scottish Country dancing, Irish Ceili dancing and stuck with these for quite a while. I still, once in a while, do a little English Country dancing.
So, then. I was back at the University of Connecticut to finish my last two years and Al Brundage was running a beginner class at the Hartford YMCA, as he did every fall and every spring too. I signed up for that class and I went once a week to a folk dance club down in Waterford, Connecticut. Decided to take up square dancing a little more seriously so, they signed up the gym at Mitchell College and I took lessons on Tuesday night and then I taught the same lesson on the next night, Wednesday, down at Mitchell College. And again, I wrote down everything that Al Brundage taught, the order in which he taught it, how he taught it, his little jokes. I could crack the same jokes because I couldn’t remember them that long but, I wrote them down. I thought that was a wonderful way to get a good start in teaching a class. How could I go wrong teaching a class the same way Al did? And we didn’t go wrong and it turned into a successful square dance club. It went for quite a while and other clubs branched out from it, as a matter of fact. It created other callers. Ted Perkins, a few others. I don’t know how they’re doing now. But then, am I running out of steam.
BB – No. No. You’re doing great.
RS – That was a community square dance club and I used to -well, I finally got a job as a Test Engineer at Hamilton Standard in the aircraft industry – and commuted all the way down to New London and it was quite a haul in those days. We hadn’t built the super highways that they have now. A big haul then. It was at least sixty miles and I finally gave up the square dance club. It was just too much to go down to Schutzen Park in the middle of the week. But meanwhile, we started a square dance club in Enfield, Connecticut called the Enfield Square Dance Club and the Sixteen Acres Club hired me in Springfield and the Farmington Valley Club hired me in Simsbury to be their club caller and teacher of the classes and, about the time I was getting going there was the time when square dancing in the Springfield, Massachusetts area was so successful that, at one time there were fifty-five different square dance clubs all on the Springfield Area Calendar. You could square dance every night of the week. Usually there was maybe only one dance on a Sunday or a Monday and two or three on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Fridays and Saturdays there were at least fifteen dances each that you could go to. I guess the Wilbraham Club belonged to Bob Brundage. Didn’t it for a while but then you moved out of the area. Didn’t Willie Jenkins take over?
BB 0h Yes.
RS – In fact, didn’t he take over several of your clubs? Earl Johnston was just converting from calling traditional dances with Ernie Rock, ’The Band That Swings The Squares’ out in Wildwood Park in Dayville where the place was just packed with teenagers doing traditional square dancing. People are made today to find a teenager start square dancing was a hard thing to do but that place was mobbed. But Earl wanted to dance with the western style square dancing and, at about the time that I got going in this area, well, I guess I got started first really. So, I finally got hired by the Glastonbury Square Dance Club and was teaching there so, I was busy five or six nights a week calling and teaching classes and working all day as an Engineer. Finally, I decided after visiting Square Acres, that Charlie (actually Howard, Ed.) Hogue and Chet Smith had the Bay Path Barn and. Al, I don’t know if Al Brundage was still running the Stepney Barn or not, but he had been at that before and I thought, gee, an ideal thing would be to have a square dance barn of my own and not have to travel all over like these successful callers seemed to have to do. So, I bought this pretty rundown barn that basically of sound construction – it was built about 1845 by the Hazard Powder Company for their horses. It was a horse barn about 44 by 84 feet and we spent about a year ripping out the horse stalls and converting the upstairs so we could live in it and converting the downstairs into a dance hall with a nice maple floor and, after seven years in engineering I gave up the engineering job to make a living calling square dances in my own barn. I thought that would be just the ideal situation and I would be in heaven.
Well, I found out that when you’re doing it for a living it’s nowhere near as much fun as when you’re doing it as a hobby – laughs – and, it’s a lot of hard work. I just couldn’t seem to get enough customers to really make enough of a living for a wife and four kids at the time. I eventually got bored. But, at the barn – well, I had quit my engineering job in ’61 and moved into the barn upstairs which we created a nice apartment up there and I tried calling for a living for two years. I had classes, dance classes – two of the western style clubs, the Powder Mill Puffers and the Powder Keg Squares and I tried to do the old time square dancing which I tried to replicate like old time square dancing which came out in 1956 and I did get Corky Caulkins to call here twice a month here while I was busy calling Modern Western style for the Farmington Valley Square Dance Club on the same night. I would usually get here about the time that Corky was playing the last waltz because the dance in Simsbury was over at 11:00, of course and he went until 12:00. And I taught for the Glastonbury Square Dance Club for three or four of years where Jack O’Leary is now the caller, I believe.
I finally decided I wasn’t actually making a living. I was great to try but I had kids to bring up and get to college so, I went into school teaching because that would take a little less of my time and I would have the summers off to work at the Barn and do calling jobs. With my engineering job I had to occasionally have to travel and I was darned if I wanted to give up a square dance class just to travel on business you know, so, I ended up teaching science, general science, math and physics in East Granby, Connecticut and, later on in East Hartford. I taught for twenty-nine years and, meanwhile I was active in the Fife and Drum Corps thing, too. So, I wrote a fife instruction book, “The Fifer’s Delight’ which is still selling by the way. I keep getting it printed every two years or so. I did a lot of work with the Connecticut Square Dance Callers and Teachers Association which, I believe was really started by Al Brundage again. Sure, I remember the very first meeting he had at the Hartford YW – YMCA it was. Yep, and I was active in that for quite a few years. Then I became active in the Springfield, Massachusetts Callers Association which was started by Earl Johnston. Had a meeting right in my barn and it was started for the main purpose of a big fight between up-hand, hand position and the forearm grip
BB – Right
RS- Awgh. What a controversy, I’ll tell you. We were all doing the up-hand position, and we were perfectly happy with it but, our dancers from this area would go to the National Convention and they would come back and they went to attempt to do what the Romans do there and do what we did here. They virtually tried to convert everybody to forearm grip. I wouldn’t say there were actual fist fights ever broke out over it but there was plenty of hard feelings. As an aside, I think it’s pretty …..pretty clear cut that that forearm grip is mainly what led to the war against short-sleeved shirts at western style square dances because men with hairy, sweaty arms putting their arms up against women’s arms, and it’s a pretty yucky feeling. We never had that problem with the up-hand, hand grip and we never had anybody say, “You have to wear a long-sleeved shirt.” Nobody ever thought of it. (Sounds of paper rattling)
So, I’m not sure the forearm grip was that great an idea and us people who were in the contra dance business are still doing the up-hand, you might call it, the arm wrestling grip although you’re not supposed to really do it that crudely.
BB – Right
RS – Anyway, time went by and meanwhile, I kept thinking about the contra dancing I had done in the Boston area and we had made a couple trips up to Brattleboro where Elmer Clark was calling and he would do four contra dances a night interspersed with sets of squares – three squares each – and ballroom dancing in between and it was pretty much what was being done in southern New Hampshire and Vermont whereas, in Connecticut it was all square dance singing squares or three squares to a tip – always three squares to a tip – ballroom dancing in between – waltzes, polkas, fox trots and schottisches and stuff like that were long dead. Nobody ever did them. I only got to see one group do contra dancing once in Connecticut and that was some old timers who went to Harold Gates’ dance in Hadlyme and he used to call the contras, of course. Coughs. This one …. one set of about six couples would come a half hour before the dance started and they would do a couple of contra dances before the real people traditional square dancing of course, before the square dancers got there but you could not pay those singing square dance dancers to do contra dances. They thought they were the most boring thing they had ever heard of. They’re old fashioned and who wants to do them and let’s wipe ‘em out.
So, a couple of times when I got all enthused about the contra dancing in the Boston area and I had a calling job down in New London at some church social I remember. I tried to teach them Lady Walpole’s Reel and they hated every minute of it and it was like they had a mental block against learning it and I soon gave up on that. But I always wanted to get contra dancing going so finally, about the time of the Bicentennial – well, let’s say the appearance of the Bicentennial in 1973, 4 and 5 I was with the Nathan Hale Fife and Drum Corps and, it was not only a Fife and Drum Corps but they had Articifers which made …. made things like ?? and leather work and all kinds of Colonial type stuff – and cooking and they would set up a camp and it would be like a Revolutionary War camp. One of our dancers …. one of our …. the lady who sewed the uniforms for us, Kate Van Winkle Keller, who is now …. well, she became Librarian of the Country Dance Society. She’s very active in resurrecting old dances and music now still. She thought, let’s …. I know what these people …. let’s show people what Colonial life was like. How about having a dance troop as part of the Nathan Hale thing. So, we formed the Village Assembly. It was taken from an old cartoon, actually, published in the sixteen hundreds. It showed a lot of humorously misshaped people at a village …. country village dance in England. It was published in England. So, we named our group the Village Assembly and practiced for a couple of years and we put on all kinds of exhibitions in costume of Colonial type dancing and, Kate Teller and I cooperated on writing the book Twenty-Four American Country Dances of the Revolutionary Era or something like that. It was published by the Country Dance Society and there was an LP record that came out with it which is still in print in tape form and the book is still in print and it’s still selling.
But anyway, we did the dances that we had gotten from research in all kinds of libraries all over New England. Actual manuscripts, published books and stuff that showed what people were dancing during that Colonial period and I since have myself a big interest and research in contra dancing, Meanwhile, I guess it was at the end of about twenty-five years of calling and teaching Modern Western style square dance classes. I finally ran into some people in Woodstock, Connecticut that were doing English Country dancing and a little bit of contra dancing on their own in people’s homes and stuff and I thought, maybe I should try to have some contra dancing here at the barn. So, I started having twice-a-month contra dances at the barn and they turned out to be quite successful with maybe, eighty to one hundred people twice a month. They just kept picking up more and more people and they were more and more successful. That’s about as successful as they got. We started dances in Hartford with Frank VanCleef who taught English Country twice a month and then me twice a month and other callers. Always live music, of course for contra dancing and we might do a couple or three squares per night but it was mainly a contra dance evening. So, it ended up with me doing contra dances at various churches in the Hartford area for about fifteen years twice a month and Jim Gregory did the other twice a month and he also taught English Country dancing and he’s still going strong, of course. He does mostly senior citizen work and has an exhibition dance group called Reel Nutmeg ?? and NOMAD was with Chip Hendrickson, of course.
So, about this time Dudley Laufman – he was after Ralph Page – he was probably responsible for more growth of contra dance world than anybody in the country. He was from Canterbury, New Hampshire. He had a monthly dance up in South Amherst and I really wanted to get going in the contra dance field so I would go up there once a month and write down everything he did and how he did it and he was also active in New Haven – first, twice a year then once a month and now we have contra dance groups in New Haven and Hartford – Hartford Country Dance , one in Mystic which is the Stonington and there are several other groups too down in the southeastern part of Connecticut that are going strong. I’m still doing my once-a-month up in South Amherst on the fourth Saturday. The contra dance thing has just mushroomed and boomed, you wouldn’t believe, all started with Ralph Page’s dances at the YW in Boston, Massachusetts – sort of carried on by him and Ted Sannella mainly. Where shall we go from here?
BB – Well, let’s see. How about the New England Folk Festival? Are you associated with that at all?
RS – Well, I’m a member of it and I exhibit my flutes there and I call there most every year. Sometimes I get too lazy to send my name in as a caller – laughs. – but I’m there selling my flutes and dancing up a storm I’ll tell you.
BB – Well, tell us a little about the flutes now. Go ahead.
RS – Well, that’s connected with the contra dancing and the Fife and Drum. One of the first thing I started going to as soon as I got my driver’s license was a Fife and Drum Corps – the Chester, Connecticut Fife and Drum Corps and I played the fife and then I drummed for a while . I did that and then I decided I’d do whatever they needed the most of and later I got a job, a job teaching fife at the Nathan Hale Fifes and Drum and all my kids played with them. One of my kids played with the Chester Fife and Drum Corps. We were very active and we would go off on weekends to these Colonial Reenactment Revolutionary War Battles and camp overnight and things. I think it was really good for the kids. They all played the fife and, as I say, one of them played the drums. Then, one of them I was getting into his teen years, Walter and he became a crackerjack fifer. About the time we started the Village Assembly all the contra dancing was being done with live music and we wanted to do that with live music, too. So, I had played the piano, though I had taught myself to play the chords on the accordion and he learned all the contra dance tunes on the fife in about five minutes. I also learned to call and play the accordion at the same time which I thought would be easy because I could call and play the piano at the same time but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be but I got so I could do it – laughs – and then we got a couple of more musicians – a fiddler and I taught another teen age kid to play the piano and we had the Fifer’s Delight Band which had the same name as my fife instruction book which is still in print as I said, I guess. We went all over with the Fifer’s Delight Band and we made a hell of a splash at the New England Folk Festival probably back around ‘73, ‘74 something like that. The big hit of the band of course was my son Walter on the fife. What he had done, all the fife’s in the drum corps are in B Flat – once in a blue moon some of them are in C – but we needed a fife to play in B, G and A like all the fiddle tunes that all the musicians played at the contra dances because they were going to be working with fiddlers. So, I made this fife in the key of D, which is, you could say, it’s like a piccolo – it’s the same pitch as a piccolo, except it has a more strong, low register, I made a couple just to see if I could and if we could use them in the band and Walter got to playing it and he joined all the jam sessions up at NEFFA and people kept running up and saying, “What is that instrument your son is playing? How can I get one of those?” Well, I thought I would buy a lathe and start making them out of wood. A lathe and then a drill press and then more and more machinery and, all of a sudden I was making those fifes and they were selling like hot cakes. Then I tried my hand at other instruments like the Flageolets, which are a wooden whistle and Tabor Pipes and full sized flutes and, since 1974 when this started it has sort of grown into a full-time business with a full-time helper and a part-time helper and I’m still having trouble keeping up with the orders and it just sort of grew all by itself. I began to think that was more fun than school teaching – laughs – like hassles of your kids.
So, when I retired from school teaching in ‘92 I just kept making fifes full time and now I’m out there all day every day and enjoying every minute of it .
BB – Well, that’s great. And the barn – you use the barn once in a while ….
RS – Well, Yes. The square dance clubs finally moved elsewhere and I never became as successful as a modern western style square dance caller as I had hoped and, I think part of the reason is, like a lot of the traditional square dance callers, I was handicapped by being too interested in traditional dancing. I always thought that when you crank up the music to a certain song, like Because, Just Because that it was OK to have the dancer know how that dance went and the same with the contra dance.” Now, we’re going to do Lady Walpole’s Reel or Hull’s Victory” and it’s OK for the dancers to know what’s in that dance. And the constant challenge, challenge of never knowing what is supposed to come next is not the way to go because too many of the western style dancers , it seems it’s like it’s the only pleasure they get out of the dancing is the challenge and, if they aren’t challenged and have their set stopped several times per night they go home saying, “We didn’t have a good time“, and that’s all they go for, whereas the traditional dancers, they enjoy knowing how the dance goes. In fact, I’ll tell you – I remember – one night up at the contra dance that David Kaynor was calling – he called a good dance and he called it a couple of times, and they only call them about three times through you know, and the people have the dance down and dance the rest of the ten minutes or so with out any calls and I like that because you’re listening to the music, you can carry on a conversation with your partner, you can talk to all the different ladies you dance with up and down the line. You can dance in an excellent fashion and carry on a conversation. You can’t do that with square dancing. You can’t hear the music because the caller’s voice drowns it out. But anyway, David was calling away and all of a sudden he called something that was completely wrong and the dancers knew it. Well, usually when a caller calls something wrong at a contra dance the dancers just keep doing it correctly and what the dance … they know what’s correct and it isn’t that the caller’s a God who determines what’s correct , they know how the dance goes because they were just taught it five minutes before. But anyway, David called something that was impossible to do and the dancers knew it and they knew it wasn’t the right call but, everybody in the hall – I don’t know how they managed to do it – they just stopped dead and yelled in one breath, “Noooooo, David!”
Tape stops abruptly – End of Side A
BB – OK. Well, we just barely got in the end of that story but that’s a good one. Everybody knew it. One hundred fifty people all with one voice. OK, continue on, Ralph.
RS – So, nowadays I go dancing, contra dancing, just as often as possible like, almost every Saturday night except, occasionally I get a guest calling job – calling a contra dance, of course and I have a few jobs where I call for the Girl Scouts and their daddies and those go extremely well. When you say Girl Scouts don’t think of teen age girls. You have to think of ages four years old up to fourth grade because the older ones cannot be pressured into going dancing with their fathers. The little ones think it’s just the biggest deal in their whole lives and they have a ball and they, since their fathers are with them, they shut up and listen and it’s a lot of fun. But I go contra dancing mostly up at the Grange in Greenfield (Ed. Note www.guidingstargrange.org ) which has David Kaynor twice a month and ?? once a month and Cammy Kaynor and guest callers once a month and it’s oh, a hundred to one hundred fifty people there every time and I go once a month to Wild Asparagus which is the most popular contra dance band in the country today. They are really just wonderful. Their caller is George Marshall. On the first Saturday they’re liable to have two hundred people – once in a while they’ll have two fifty – but the hall only hold two hundred so it’s pretty cramped. I had a few ways to make the other people have room for me and I enjoy the music even if it is too crowded.
And then, as I say, I get a guest gig once in a while and I’ve been on the staff of, oh, Buffalo Camp American. It’s an American and English – English and American Dance Weekend in ’92 I believe it was and I’ve been on the Adirondack Weekend – they call it the Dance Flurry – which is the rival of NEFFA in popularity although it’s not so crowded but there are still eight different things going on at the same time. One of the most successful little festivals in the whole world. It’s always around Valentine’s Day. I am also a little bit interested in the Quebecois Traditional Square Dance weekend …. Well, last March, my daughter Polly and I – she’s sixteen now – we went up to Dance Neige which is ‘Dance in Snow’. And it was a full weekend of French/Canadian Traditional dancing. Of course, everybody talks French all the time and I had hoped to pick up some French but I guess it will take another couple of years. I’m working on that but, they’re very nice to us, in talking to us and, the last Saturday night we went up Montreal and danced at another French/Canadian square dance and it’s very much like the old, traditional square dances they used to have in the states here but, many of … the figures are almost always the same. There are …. they don’t do any singing squares but, they have all ages there – a lot of married couples – the contra dance scene is mostly single people. If they’re married they still mix in. That’s another big difference that I like about the contra dance scene. The mixing is so different.
Modern western style square dancing all through the years and still today, a husband and wife go together and they rarely break up and dance with anybody else. Once during the evening – it’s a big deal and I thought perhaps the singles clubs would be different so I visited the Lone Star Club a couple of times during a brief period when I was single for a few years and I found that those clubs are just as bad as those with the married couples and that boyfriend and girlfriend – usually previously married but now single, they’ll stick together like glue all evening and, if you don’t take a partner with you good luck on getting anybody to dance with you, even if you’re a guy and there’s extra women. So, at the contra dances, everybody dances with everybody else whether they’re married or not. You may dance with as many different women in evening as there are different times that you square up – eleven or twelve different women in an evening. And even the married people, most of them break up – there may be at the Greenfield dance two couples who stick together all evening. They’re kind of conspicuous by the fact that they do that but nobody holds it against them. You get to talk to different people all up and down the line while you’re dancing and decide who you want to dance with next and, if you don’t ask them the first time on the way down you ask them the next time on the way up. I’m sixty-seven years old and the average person there is quite a bit younger I would say. There’s not many college kids or high school kids at the Wild Asparagus dance which is the most exciting dance of the month. It’s really steady. There are a few who come but mostly, I would say it’s 30’s to 50’s. And there’s a few older roosters, like me – four or five you know – and the young girls don’t mind dancing with the old guys as long as we don’t ask the same girl again three or four times like you’re chasing her or something. But, they’re perfectly happy because they know that they’re not going to get stuck with you and that they’ll get to dance with other guys up and down the line and they won’t have to sit out. So, everybody just gets along. In fact, there’s a joke there that they say that if you dance more than once with the same woman during the same evening people think there’s something going on. Laughs. More than three times and you’re practically engaged. It’s so different from any of the modern square dances. There’s just no comparison. I like the fact that the caller gives you a quick walk-through, calls two or three times and then he shuts up and the dancers just carry it from there and they do this all evening and think nothing of it. The beginners catch on to this in a couple of weeks. Well, they don’t catch on to it the first night, of course but in two or three weeks they’ve got that down and they’ve got the …. and I like the dancing with the phrasing of the music all the way. Those people stay in perfect synchronization with the music even if the dance goes on ten or fifteen minutes. No problem. The beginners begin to catch on to this too in pretty short order without really being lectured about it. And I like the fact that they have live music and they have guest musicians and different bands and play different tunes and it’s really a wonderful thing. I don’t miss the western style at all.
BB – Well, Ralph getting back to the more arterial parts of this wonderful activity …. I know you been into the western style of square dancing, if you call it that and then gone back into the traditional, do you think there is any hope for the western square dancers. Do you think we’re going to have to go back and start over again kind of a thing or how do you feel about this.
RS – Well, I think that the western square dance thing is, it has turned out to be almost all senior citizens….. almost and that there are no young people coming in or coming up. And, I think to keep doing all these challenging things that the western dancers do, as people die off, move to Florida or whatever they do is you need a base of young people who already know how to do simple square dancing and have fun and think it’s the most fun thing in their lives and don’t have to take a whole bunch of lessons and, when they want something more challenging they can eventually move up, if they want something more challenging and move into it so you have like a steady source of supply but, to attract people from the general public who know nothing and then tell them they have to take 30 lessons and then they have to go to workshops all summer and then they’re going to run into a little trouble when they start dancing the following fall, it’s just asking too much. People are not going to buy into that. You have to …. like the attitude of what we used to call modern – the modern square dance association – a kind of a guide a few years back. And the present day, what they call the grass roots contra dance movement – we don’t call ourselves that – but American Dance Circle calls us that. Our philosophy is that the dancing should be easy enough that new people can come in and have fun the first night. I don’t mean they’ll be great dancers the first night but, if you have, let’s say, even 75%, that’s what we want, of experienced dancers that they can take these beginners and, with a little instruction from the caller, they can get through the first night and go home and saying they had fun and they want to come back the next night. And yet, they haven’t really taken a lesson. They’ve joined with the enthusiasm which just permeates the whole air. Everybody is joking around. They’re very nice to the beginners and these people are just sucked right into the contra dance movement. Stan Burdick said, when he visited the Adirondack weekend, “So, this is where all the young people are going these days” and we were doing contra dances all weekend and it’s not that ….that contra dancing is better than square dancing, it’s the attitude toward beginners and recruiting new people. That’s what it is. Also the fact that the experienced dancers, if they have to lay off for a while because of illness, if somebody changed jobs, have a kid, have to drop out of dancing, they can come back ten years later, they can walk into that hall and just dance up a storm. They don’t have to take a refresher course or be yelled at by other people and the attitude of the contra dancers is so different from the western square dance movement. If you goof up a call or something, everybody glares at you whereas; with the contra dance movement they’re more helpful. It doesn’t matter that much. They’ll do it right the next time. It’s just a …. changes. It’s a much friendlier and happier atmosphere. It really does.
BB – Right. Well, that’s great. Well Ralph, I want to thank you for taking the time to put this little interview on tape. I’ll take it back and put it in the archives at the Lloyd Shaw Foundation.
RS – All right.
BB – I appreciate your hospitality for this afternoon and I’ll be on our way heading out western Massachusetts way and we’ll be seeing you around here and there.
RS – Yeah.
BB – Thank you Ralph.
Tape clicks off – End of Side 2 – End of Interview with Ralph Sweet