COLUMBIA — The old-time fiddle music starts up, and the onlookers begin tapping their feet. A few couples hit the dance floor immediately, and the rest of the crowd won’t be onlookers for long if the caller has anything to say about it.
The Wednesday night Barn Dance started off slow so people could hear the steps before they jumped right into things, but most of the dancers at the Boone County Fair had done this before.
Before caller Jim Thaxter started teaching the dances, he told the onlookers to find a partner, and quick. Those who wanted to square dance wouldn’t wait around for the bashful ones to get the nerve — they pulled them onto the dance floor.
The mood was contagious, and several more pairs soon joined the ranks. Whether it be a father and daughter duo, two little girls or married couples, everyone was smiling and laughing as they helped the few newcomers to square dance remember the steps.
It didn’t matter that sometimes you got turned around during a promenade, or that you might accidentally swap partners too soon. That’s the point, Gary Cunningham said — wholesome family fun.
“We try to come to all these events,” Cunningham said. Most county fairs have barn dances, and there are several held in nearby cities like Ashland and Centralia.
He and his 7 year old daughter, Marta, danced together. Her older sister, Olivia, snagged a boy from the back of the room to partner up with. That’s the way it works, Cunningham said, usually it’s the boys who need to be asked to dance.
Cunningham’s daughters also play the fiddle, and he said that’s another reason why they like the environment. Olivia has been playing violin — "same instrument, different name" — since she was 3 years old.
“She started on classical violin—the fiddle’s for fun,” Cunningham said.
She might play with the band sometimes, but this barn dance was not one of those times. She had played earlier in the day with the daily jam session, and most of those musicians had stuck around to make up the band for the dance.
A few fiddles, some banjos, an upright bass, several mandolins and a guitar started the square dance off. The players might sit out a song or two and more might come join, similar to the dancers. It’s a fluid, relaxed atmosphere.
That’s the difference between old-time fiddle music and bluegrass, John White, one of the fiddlers, said. Bluegrass is for singing, but fiddle music is for dancing.
“If you’re not dancing when we’re playing, we feel like we’re doing something wrong.”
Supervising editor is Celia Darrough.