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High-steppin' into the past

Utah Arts Council project aims to preserve tradition of old-time dance parties

You are cordially invited to an old-time Utah dance party.

Bring your best dancing shoes. There'll be plenty of music — piano, accordion, a fiddle or two, maybe even a guitar or ukulele or banjo. You can show off your best schottische, do the Trilby, kick up your heels to the Patty Cake Polka, try out a quadrille or a circle two-step; and maybe they'll sneak in a waltz every now and then.

Come early; stay late. All your friends and neighbors will be there. When the kids get tired, you can bed them down in the back room — or out in the buggy. When the piano player wants to dance a round or two, the fiddle players will carry on.

It will be a good toe-tapping, heart-thrilling time.

Ah, says Craig R. Miller, folk art specialist with the Utah Arts Council, if only we still did it like that. Dances such as these, he says, were once the entertainment of choice for thousands of people throughout the state.

We forget that. We forget just how important social dance once was here, what an important part it played in day-to-day life in every community up and down the state, he says.

We remember Saltair, of course, and the fabulous dances that were once held there; but we forget that almost every town had its own miniversion, a local dance hall or social center that was routinely filled with home-grown music and heartfelt dance.

It's hard for those raised on electronic entertainment, push-button music on command and the gyrating movements that pass as contemporary social dance to realize how important these old dances once were, says Miller.

From the earliest days of settlement up until the end of World War II, dance played an integral part of life in every Utah community; it was a part of every memorable occasion. "Every holiday was an excuse to hold a community dance. Young people met and courted at the dances and then held dances to celebrate their weddings. Dances raised money to send young men off on missions for the church and bid farewell to men leaving for military service."

Dance music samples:
Chicago Glide, by Shumway, 394 k

Dixie Schottische, by Gifford, 247 k

Red Wing, by Hooper, 430 k

Varsouvienne Waltz, by Richards, 313 k

Music courtesy of the Utah Arts Council

Those Utahns had "a thirst, a love for music and dance that few people appreciate or even understand today," he says. "It is hard to understate how important it was in their lives."

But if the music and dance heritage of the Mormon West is underappreciated and neglected, it is not dead yet, and Miller is doing what he can to change the former and prevent the latter. Since 1983, he has been traveling up and down the state, talking to old-time musicians, recording their songs, learning their dances.

And now it has all come together in a "dance preservation package" published by the Utah Arts Council that includes a CD or cassette of the songs, a book tracing the history, and a collection of sheet music and dance steps for some of the most popular dances of the times.

"It was a great detective story, driving around to see what I could find," he says. "It was some of the best field work of my life. Some of these musicians have become dear friends by now." In all, he made more than two dozen trips up and down the state, coming away with more than 100 hours of recorded interviews.

What's remarkable, perhaps, is that Miller did not grow up with this heritage, was not raised in this culture. It was after he moved to Utah and began hearing about it through work in folk arts that he became so taken with the whole concept of Mormon social dance. "I wanted to find out if anyone was still playing the music. People were starting to forget, and I didn't want that to happen."

Merle Kartchner Shumway grew up in Snowflake, Ariz., a Mormon colony just over the border where her father was a forest ranger and the town's best fiddle player. One of her earliest memories, she says, is of going to dances in one of the local homes. "They would move all the furniture out, and people would dance through all the rooms."

When she got tired, her mother would put her to sleep in the buggy out under the stars, "and I remember all the people I could see in the shadows, outlaws and such who didn't want to be seen. They had come to listen to the music. Arizona didn't become a state until I was 4, so we still had outlaws around. And they would stand out there and listen. People were so starved for music, they'd come for miles just to listen."

Was she ever afraid? "Oh, no. I was the fiddler's daughter. And no one wanted anything to happen to the fiddler."

When Shumway was 9, the family moved to Flagstaff — "to us that was the big city; it had cement sidewalks" — and that was when she fell in love with the piano.

"When electricity came to Flagstaff, they started showing silent movies. And a lady played the piano. The first time I heard it, I fell in love."

A short time later, the family got a pair of roller skates. "My brother would take one, and I would take the other, and we explored all of Flagstaff. And we discovered a piano store. I was in awe."

She went in and told the clerk she wanted to buy a piano. "I went around and picked out the one I wanted — of course, it was the most expensive — and he took down my address."

Imagine her mother's surprise when there was a knock on the door and the man said the daughter of the house had ordered a piano. "My mother was about to send him on his way, but whatever look I had on my face, it stopped her. They ended up borrowing the money and getting the piano."

Shumway taught herself to play. "I learned to play by ear. If anyone wants to play with me, they have to listen for the chords. That's how I learned to play with my dad."

Soon, she was playing at the local dances with her father. But she also wanted to dance, so they worked out a deal. "I'd play from 9 to 10, and they'd pay me a dollar. Then from 10-12, I could dance."

The Rattlesnake Reel, the Schottische, the Hoedown Medley, the Black Hills Waltz, the Chicago Glide — she still can play them all. They were good dances, she says.

From the very first, music and dance were important to the Mormon pioneers. Countless diaries and journals tell of dancing as they crossed the Plains. And dancing continued to be a popular entertainment after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.

As new converts arrived from Great Britain, Scandinavia and other parts of the world, their traditions and music were folded into existing styles to create a broad and eclectic mix, says Larry Shumway, an associate professor of humanities and musicology at Brigham Young University. (He is also Merle's son, and he grew up playing his Grandfather Kartchner's fiddle.)

The Mormons were not unique in their love of dance, he says. In many ways they were no different from the rest of American society, reflecting the interests and mores of the country as a whole.

What was different here, he says, was the official church sanction of dance. "While some religions took a dim view of dance, the Mormons placed it on a high moral plane. They established standards for behavior and decorum. They opened and closed with prayer."

And as church leaders sent people out to establish settlements in other parts of the region, along with the carpenters and masons and blacksmiths, they always sent musicians.

This official sanction, of course, led to some of the controversies when the "round dance craze" swept the country around the turn of the last century. These new round dances — such as the waltz — were typically done in what is now the standard ballroom position, but it was considered scandalous then for a man to be seen in public with his arm around any woman, his wife included. Most of the other popular dances were circle dances involving frequent partner changes.

At first, round dances were banned, notes Miller. "But fearing young people would leave church dances for the uncontrolled private dance halls, church authorities eventually allowed round dances to slip into the repertoire."

Merle Shumway remembers the first waltz that came to Flagstaff. "For a long time, the waltz was forbidden. Kids would sneak out back and dance the waltz on the cement." But then a man named Pete Marker came to town and taught them all a waltz.

"Eventually waltzes became very popular. But that's all we ever called that one, the Pete Marker Waltz."

The glory years of social dance in Utah were the '20s and '30s, says Miller. And this is when many open-air dance halls were built throughout the state. "Built for the sheer love of dance, these halls reveal the genius and imagination of those who dreamed of an idyllic spot where music, dance and the natural environment could combine to enhance the life of the common person," he says.

Remnants of some of those concrete pads, crumbled by the elements, still remain. One particularly striking location was that of Palisade State Park in Sanpete County, where the dance floor was squeezed between the reservoir and the edge of a cliff that dropped off hundreds of feet to the valley floor.

But whether they danced outdoors or in, says Miller, they frequently danced the night away.

"Oh, yes," remembers Pattie Thacker Richards, who grew up in the Uinta Basin in a town called Mt. Emmons, which is now part of Altamont. Her dad and mother, LeRoy and Weltha, he on the fiddle and she on the piano, played for dances in seven surrounding communities.

"That was the main entertainment; there weren't any theaters," she says.

When she was about 15, Richards became interested in playing the piano herself. "I picked up a bit by staying after school to play. And my Mom showed me how to chord. So, I'd practice with her at the dances, sometimes spelling her when she got tired."

At age 19, she came to Salt Lake City and found a secondhand accordion that she bought for $75. She taught herself to play; it was easier than the piano, she says, because "you didn't have to worry about the bass."

Soon she was playing with her parents, making the dance circuit. "It gave us a fuller sound." A lot of times they played for free, or for whatever the townspeople could give. "Sometimes it was $3 or $5 — later on we got $10."

But that was how they earned money for the windows for their cabin.

Mostly, she says, they played because they loved it. "I don't pretend to be perfect. I still don't read notes." But she believes that music was born and bred in her. She was the only one of the family (she had 10 brothers and sisters) to pick up the music and stay with it.

"I believe I was gifted with this. I was told when I was young that my love of music would be a joy to myself and others, and that it has."

Those old songs are so beautiful, she says. And to grow up with them — "those are ties that never get broken."

"The love these early Utahns had for music and dance is a precious gift they have given us," says Miller.

And that deep love is the reason that the music hasn't entirely faded away, he says. "You still find pockets here and there where they still play it."

Mostly, though, it's at senior citizens centers and old-folk homes.

That's where Richards plays it, on the piano or on her $75 accordion.

And that's where Catherine Garner of Hooper still plays it — every Tuesday night at the Heritage Park Care Center. "I've done it for years. One time I had to go to the hospital, and they brought in another woman who played classical music, and she only lasted one week. It's the old dance tunes that people want."

They used to have dances every Friday night in Hooper, she says. "They were an awfully lot of fun, those old-time dances," she says. "And they weren't hard to do at all."

In 1976, in honor of the country's bicentennial, that old-time tradition was resurrected by a group called the Hooper Hometown Players. Garner played the accordion and her sister, Genevieve, played the ukulele for them. Their first concert was so successful that they began traveling around the state: to Logan, to the State Fair in Salt Lake City, to other towns in the area.

"Mostly we played at ward reunions and community gatherings. The young folks didn't like us; we were too dull for them. The ones that really liked us were the senior citizens."

Songs and dances such as "Red Wing," "Wake Up Jacob," "Comin' Through the Rye," "Have You Seen My New Shoes" — those were the popular ones. Reels, waltzes, two-steps. But "sometimes it wore us out. We had to play the Virginia Reel about 500 times so everyone could get through it. We sure had fun doing it, though.

"We did more than 285 programs." Eventually, however, "everyone got sick or died. And that was the end of the Hometown Players."

But not the end of the music — at least if people like Craig Miller are successful. "It's up to us to preserve and pass it on to the next generation."

The songs in the Arts Council package were transcribed by Larry Shumway, and they sometimes show local variations and influences. "They are not necessarily the way they were published in Paris, France, a hundred years ago, but the way they were played here," says Miller.

Some of them he loves because of the music, some because of the name — "how can you not love one called 'Blow Ever Across the Wild Moor'?" he asks. And some because of the stories — like the man who lived outside of Springdale. It was always said his playing was so sad that it made his dog howl.

Above all, they were songs and dances played and performed by people who had a love of music embedded in their souls, he says. And we should remember them.


E-mail: carma@desnews.com