The Wild West of Yester-Year

Barn Dances
By Rachel Kovaciny

I’ve loved the idea of barn dances for as long as I can remember. This is entirely the fault of the movies I watched when I was growing up. The miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982) features a Civil War-era barn dance. Soldiers and local girls dance the night away, sharing spiked punch, stolen kisses, and many a lively polka and Virginia Reel. Then there’s The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), where a young Russ Tamblyn entertains the folks in attendance with a display of acrobatics that no one could ever forget. And don’t get me started on the scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), where a barn-raising gets turned into a barn dance! And then into a brawl! Boy howdy, what a good time that was. It seemed to me, when I was a kid, that if there was a barn available anywhere nearby, settlers would find an excuse to dance in it, even if they hadn’t finished building it yet! Were barn dances really as popular as the movies led me to believe, or did Hollywood just turn them into a standard set piece that would let them show off a lot of nice costumes while moving a romantic subplot along?

Hollywood wasn’t exaggerating the popularity of barn dances in the Old West. They were popular all across the country in the late 1800s, though they didn’t actually originate here. Barn dances appear to have begun in Scotland, Ireland, and England in the early 1800s (think Jane Austen’s era). The upper classes were exceedingly fond of holding fancy balls in their homes and public balls in special venues in their local city or town. They would all dance things like the Quadrille or Cotillion, which we now call English Country Dancing. These dances had specific steps each couple would perform, often breaking off into sets of two couples for different parts of the dance.

The common folk (peasants, day laborers, servants, and so on) wanted to dance like that too, but weren’t allowed to attend the balls, so they held dances of their own, often in an empty granary or a new barn where stalls for animals had not been built yet. They would imitate the fancy patterns of the fancy dances they couldn’t attend and, because not everyone knew the steps, they would employ someone to shout out directions for what steps to do next. Many of those lower-class Irish, Scottish, and English people immigrated to the United States, where they pushed west to the frontier in search of a place where they could own farms instead of working for someone else. They took their dancing customs with them. As they raised new barns on their new farms, they would use those spaces to gather and celebrate various occasions. Someone got married? Let’s have a dance! We all had a great harvest? Let’s dance to celebrate! We had a terrible harvest? Let’s have a dance to cheer each other up! Someone needs a new barn? Let’s help build it and then have a dance!

Because many barns are long and narrow, they were perfectly suited to the English Country Dancing.  In that style of dancing, couples face each other in a long line, men on one side and women on the other. Then they dance with, around, and between each other. These immigrants taught their new neighbors how to do these dances, keeping the idea of a person who would announce, or “call” the steps just before you did them. Without the formal dances of the British Empire to watch and copy anymore, these dancers evolved their own steps and patterns, like the Virginia Reel. They added other dances from other European countries, like the Schottische, all of which eventually combined to create what we call Square Dancing today. Sometimes, of course, a barn dance did not involve that very specific style of dancing. Sometimes it was just people doing the polka or the waltz or a jig or whatever they felt like. The point of a barn dance was to get together with friends and enjoy yourself for an evening. Maybe you’d meet someone new or do a little flirting with someone you had your eye on lately. A barn dance was a community event, much as all those movies I grew up watching showed it to be.

I have only attended one barn dance so far. My husband’s cousin got married on their family’s farm a few years back and held their reception in the (cleaned and scrubbed and polished) barn, followed by a dance. My children were quite small and exhausted from playing with their own cousins, so we only stayed long enough to watch the first couple of dances. Still, it was thrilling to me, all the same. After spending all those years watching barn dances in the movies, I finally got to attend one! Maybe it wasn’t a dream come true, exactly, but it was an unspoken wish that got fulfilled, that’s for sure.