Ozark County’s Jane and Andy Elder keep traditional square dancing alive
Editor’s note: This story, originally published in Kaitlyn McConnell’s Ozarks Alive! blog, is reprinted with permission. To read more of McConnell’s posts about the people and places of the Ozarks, visit www.ozarksalive.com.
Few hands, feet and hearts nowadays know the longtime partner of old-time fiddle music — the square dance — but it didn’t used to be that way.
For generations, square dancing was as deep in the Ozarks as the springs and secrets hidden in its hills. It wasn’t the type of dance seen in recent years, fanciful with coordinated costumes or choreography. Instead, the steps were seen on Saturday evenings ... in a neighbor’s home, living room emptied of furniture, with a fiddler who could pound out a beat, steady and fast.
Those music parties have passed into the night, silent save for memories. Modern convenience has offered other options to distract and take people’s time.
“What the roads, the cars, the televisions, the radios accomplished was to give people other things to do on a Saturday night than invite a fiddler over to the house to lead a dance,” observed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1999.
And as the echo of the pounding of feet fades into the past, so have many of the people who recall its heyday firsthand.
But two adopted Ozarkers have helped keep the tradition alive.
Gainesville residents Andy and Jane Elder have no generational connection to the Ozarks and haven’t lived hereabouts all that long by some local standards (only 45 years, after all). They have, however, become two torchbearers who have helped keep traditional square dancing alive for a little bit longer.
“We’re kind of the ‘last-man standing’ syndrome. A lot of the good old callers are gone,” says Andy, speaking of individuals who lead dancers in what to do.
“In fact, I can’t think of one.”
Years ago, the Elders took time to talk about the tradition with old-timers. They helped to not only preserve the fact that the dances happened by collecting notes and information — but also how to do them, knowledge they have shared with others throughout the region.
“We are ghosts,” says Jane, speaking of the future of square dancing. “We don’t have that (tradition) anymore, and there is no way we can revive it.”
But that doesn’t mean they won’t try to preserve and share for as long as they can.
“Even if we’re going to be ghosts, you know, it’s going to be worthwhile to pass it on,” she said.
The Elders didn’t come to the Ozarks planning to become experts on local square dancing traditions.
The young couple met in college in Wisconsin, married, and relocated to the Ozarks in 1975 in search of a different life. They both liked serene surroundings, but it was especially a priority after Andy served a year in the Army in Vietnam.
“When I got back, I was looking for a quiet, peaceful place,” he says.
They purchased a piece of property in Oregon County known affectionately as the Irish Wilderness. There, they planned to make their home — both literally and figuratively — and lived in a tent until it could be built.
“We both felt at that time in our life we needed some simplicity.”
That period of life was a unique peek at a rural Ozarks not seen today; one, even in the 1970s, that existed without much interference from modern so-called convenience or technology.
“At the time, there were no phones down there at all,” says Jane, noting that the nearest one was 17 miles away, and, Andy adds, “a lot of the time it was broken.”
But that didn’t mean that community didn’t exist; it just looked different. Instead of checking on friends via Facebook, neighbors simply showed up. The couple tells of the time, similar to old-fashioned barn raisings, when neighbors came and helped finish their home’s roof.
Time in the Wilderness taught the Elders that they wanted to make the Ozarks their permanent home — but it did not teach them about square dancing. That didn’t come until the Elders moved around 100 miles west to Gainesville in 1977.
It was there, at Hootin an Hollarin — the town’s longtime fall festival — where the Elders’ love of square dancing began. One of the festival’s features is a dance, and as they watched, the couple wished they could do that, too.
“Just sitting in the bleachers year after year and watching them dance, I was thinking, ‘I’d love to do that, I’d love to do that,’” says Jane.
Back then, the people dancing were perhaps those who had grown up going to dances in people’s homes. The folks who had remembered folks who “called,” or led people in dances that were in Taney or Ozark County style. Of days when there wasn’t electricity in the homes where dances were held — and perhaps of a few parties that ended in mishap, as they were known to do when a jug of whiskey got involved. Folks whose feet simply went fast and faster to the beat of the local fiddler.
Eventually, one time, Jane jumped in.
“I was scared stiff. I can remember getting down off the bleachers. Then the music started, and 30 seconds later, I didn’t care. “We’re not dancing for show. We’re not performers.”
Andy also began learning from some of the old-time callers, who tell dancers what steps — also known as a set — to take.
“It was a little hard to break in if you didn’t have a set,” says Andy. “Because they were used to dancing together, and they knew what they were doing.
“That’s why I learned to call — so I could get my own set.”
One way of calling a square dance, Andy learned, is a tune as much as the music: “Patter” style, where directions are nearly given in code.
“It goes with the music,” says Andy. “That ‘patter’ should go on the whole time.”
An example (not necessarily an Ozarks one, though) comes from the Square Dance History Project:
“Old cow kicked and the yearling bawled,
Swing that opposite across the hall.
“Corn in the crib and wheat in the sack,
Meet your partner and turn right back.
“Up the elm and down the pine,
You swing yours and I’ll swing mine.”
Andy’s lessons also reinforced that you had to holler, and you had to be ready to go fast.
“This area from Ava to Gainesville and into Arkansas, they dance fast — 140 beats a minute, steady as a rock,” he says.
He also looks through pages of paper, their lines filled with names of people who helped him learn: Verda Faye Hambelton of Gainesville, Edna Mae Davis from Ava and Cecil Lamb of South Fork are just three of 16 names he’s written down.
“I kind of like to emulate his style, because he liked to push the set and keep it moving,” says Andy of Cecil. “He was pretty old then, up in his upper 70s or early 80s. In the ’30s, he actually called sets on the radio, and people would take their furniture, set it in the yard and tune up Cecil on the radio, and dance in their homes. He was a really great caller.”
At one time, Andy says he knew around 30 sets.
“Every one of my sets came from an old-time native,” says Andy, noting that one came from a book — but that one was from Taney County. “But every other one comes straight from somebody’s mouth.”
In addition to consulting with many old-time callers, Andy and Jane attended many, many dances where they learned by practice. He looks through the pages of a notebook, warped with age, he has used to remember things he’d seen and learned.
“Mostly the way I got it, I’d go to the dance, bring my little notebook and go through a set and then sit there and write it out,” he says. “Someone would call a new set, I’d try to get in it, and then write it down.”
Anywhere they could find, they danced. They danced at the airport in Mountain Grove, and at the lodge halls. There were community buildings, including the Taney County center in Kissee Mills, which was built just for dancing.
“We used to pack that place, oh my gosh,” says Jane. “It was amazing. And we had people from all over who came and danced.”
They were filled with people who came from the hills, who didn’t see dancing as a novelty, but simply as part of life.
“Most of them had grown up doing it,” says Jane. “We were the novices.”
On paper, the physicality required for square dancing should’ve kept dancers of advanced ages away. Moving constantly to the music takes a great deal of strength and stamina, after all.
“But it was just like the years went woosh,” says Jane of muscle memory from youth that figuratively brought people back to life.
But the battle with time can’t be won, and those dances gradually disappeared.
“Now, there’s no place. Back in the ’80s, we’d dance once, twice a week.”
Of course, despite its dips and turns, square dancing has never completely left. Newspapers make it seem there have been surges of fascination at various times, but more “new and improved” than the traditional style.
Interest in country music popularized “show” square dancers, such as on the Ozark Jubilee. In the 1960s, the Springfield newspaper talked of the “newfangled” square dancing, popular with clubs across the region, but that didn’t even require a fiddler.
“The old time fiddlers that sawed away on all the ancient tunes until daylight broke on the far hills have been replaced by the juke box and the record player,” printed the Sunday News and Leader in 1963.
In the 1990s, more name recognition came to Ozarks square dancing through fiddler Bob Holt of Douglas County, who received national attention for his musical abilities.
But more than 20 years later, it seems even those waves of resurgence have passed. There are a handful of nearby square dances, such as at The Rock House in Reeds Spring, in the community of Squires, and across the state line in Fayetteville. Similar forms of dancing — contra and clogging — are still common, but they aren’t quite the same as the traditional square dancing found in homes long ago.
Music parties still exist, but few see square dancing other than an occasional jig dancer. (Which, by the way, is another longtime form of Ozarks dancing.)
“There really aren’t any people my age who dance around here anymore,” says Andy, who is in his 70s. “They just aren’t here.”
In fact, in a search for “square dancing” in the Springfield newspaper, the majority of recent hits find the term in obituaries.
What about lessons? Will those save the art?
The Elders have given those at various times, but it’s difficult for those efforts to have sticking power. In a world where every second is filled, other factors compete and complicate.
Square dancing was at its peak when few forms of entertainment existed. Today’s families have many options on how to spend their time, and square dancing is not a top — or easily accessible option — for most.
“The people who are interested are too far-flung,” says Jane.
For people wishing to get a peek of the past, the Elders suggest that they attend either Hootin an Hollarin in Gainesville in September or the West Plains Old Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival in June. Both events feature a square dance in the evening, which gives a taste of the way things used to be.
Of course, even those events aren’t the same as years ago: More time is about instruction — since people only do it once a year or so — and with a lack of callers, other adaptations have to be made. But to Jane, such things aren’t deal-breaking.
“I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” she says. “The thing that makes me feel good is, regardless of what we had before, at Hootin an Hollarin we have young people that Andy taught, and I taught, and other people taught, and they are out there. That may be the only time of the year that they (dance). But they are carrying on that tradition. And if they want to dance 40 couples to a set, that’s fine with me because they are out there, they’re listening to the music, they’re remembering a person who taught them how to do it.
“And they’re teaching their children.”