Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Wolf Den: Old-time Dance 101

From contributing editor Clay Riness

I had this idea during the night. I was thinking about all the great many fiddle tunes I have learned in my life and remembering so many wonderful dances I was privileged to play for with bands like the Dry Bone Road Gang, The Coon Busters, The Original Chinquapin Hunters, and as a guest with The Mastadons, to name a few.

I am an old-time fiddler, not a bluegrass fiddler. The difference, you ask? Bluegrass is a younger genre, and much more improvisational by nature, and more a performance music. Old-time is older, comes from all manner of ethnic cultures, but is often most acquainted with the eastern mountain regions of the US and has it's roots in the Scotch Irish tradition.

Old-time tunes are more structured and repetitive, like the dances they accompany. A "square tune" is one considered 32 bars long, and many of the dances are divisible by 32 bars, so that when the you've finally danced with the last of the opposite sex on the dance floor and have returned to your original partner, you go through all the steps once more and the dance ends right along with the tune.

A "square" consists of four couples, facing each other like the corners of a square. It is not clogging, which is a step dance rather than a set (sets of couples) dance, and is also the grandfather of tap. Contra dance is a form of old-time set dance, sometimes utilizing line dances, reels like the Virgina Reel and circle dances.

Old-time dances area always fed by a live caller and fueled by live music. There is something of an atrocity called international style square dance, in which older people, like those who live in The Villages, dress in costumes and dance, or rather walk, to a caller who calls out random steps, sometimes singing them. These so-called square dances, although certainly a social event, but then, so is BINGO, are never danced to live music. They use...gulp...records. It's kind of like putting peanut butter on salmon. It's edible, but many think it's just wrong.

My guitar partner and I offered to play free of charge for the local square dance club some years ago. They had us in and we played tunes for them as they walked around, but in the end, they said thanks, but they liked their records.

Here's a good example of an old-time dance:

Here's its geriatric counter part:

Not exactly music in the Scotch Irish roots tradition.

Now, please don't think I am trying to be disrespectful toward Twirlers, Whirlers and international clubs around the world. I am simply an old-time fiddler who is used to the Holy Trinity...dancers, caller, live music. I know that international dancers are having good, clean fun...just like old-time dancers. It's just different. Way different.

Finally, here's an example of some of the best old-time dance fiddling you will hear...Bruce Molskey playing a tune called Old Sledge:

That ain't no bluegrass. That ain't no country and western. Baby, that's music from the mountains. Don't it make you want to dance?

For more of what's on my mind, please visit my blog the

1 comment:

  1. Too funny about being put out by the geriatric crowd... though I don't think I'll run to tell Rose River we have to cover that version of Mexico next time at the Freight House HA..

    Hey bring your fiddle to Holmen for a benefit we're playing in March, and we'll find something to jam on.