Places around the country where you can stomp and do-si-do to your heart’s content
By Suzanne McMinn
When my dad was growing up in Stringtown, a small rural community in West Virginia, entertainment included things like molasses-making fires in the fall (where sugar cane juices were boiled down to concentrate into syrup), trips to town to the “newfangled” movie theater, skipping rocks in the river, and barn dances. The dance events up the road and around the bend in a big red barn on Saturday nights meant fighting with his brothers for the best clothes, and the chance of holding hands with a pretty girl. There was a risqué edge to the activity despite its wholesome atmosphere. The lights, the music, the dancing, the laughter and the flirting eyes lent a special excitement that was enhanced by the starlit darkness just outside.
My father never went to another barn dance after leaving that small community for World War II, but it was his stories of all those sweet and simple times that inspired me to move back to the country, to a farm with my own big red barn. And I’m not alone.
Whether it’s an actual return to rural living or a return to its values, interest today in old-fashioned ideas and activities seems higher than ever—and barn dances are alive and kicking.
Nobody knows when the first barn dance was held in America, but it was probably around the time the first barn was built. Barns are naturals for events that require space, and over the centuries they’ve been used for everything from housing animals to hosting religious revivals, political debates and, yes, dances.
In the days when work meant real sweat, and travel was on foot or horseback, time and money for entertainment was limited. Like kids making playhouses out of cardboard boxes, people made their own fun. A barn dance meant a chance to put on your best clothes, steal a kiss and walk home under the light of the moon. Women brought gossip and pie, while the men brought their instruments, and maybe a jug of white lightning to share behind the barn. Babies and small children slept in the corners.
Such gatherings made for cherished, informal social interaction in the most remote rural communities. In more populated areas, barn dances were often more organized, with fiddlers and callers to “call” the dances and instruct the audience. Entrepreneurial farmers would charge a small entrance fee.
Barn dances grew so popular by the 1920s that, with the development of radio, the National Barn Dance program launched, airing country music in the evening hours on Saturday nights. This program was the precursor to the Grand Ole Opry, the long-running live radio program showcasing American country music, as well as to everything else we enjoy today in the country music genre.
These days, barn dances can be found on the schedules of state and county fairs and festivals all over the country, such as the West Virginia State Folk Festival. (Many areas also have barn dance associations that host barn dances with live music and old-time callers—a notable one is the Central Iowa Barn Dance Association.) There are even businesses built around barn dancing, like NYC Barn Dance, that offer both dance events and instruction for dancers. On a smaller, local level, more and more farms are opening up again on Saturday nights—putting away the milk pails, clearing out the saddles, and shoring up the family coffers with some pie and music to stomp to in the barn.
Whether you live in the country or the city, you can still put on your best clothes, steal a kiss if you’re lucky, and walk home (or at least to your car) under the moon after a nostalgic night of dance. Get your boots on and do-si-do!
Suzanne McMinn lives with her three children on a farm in West Virginia, where she writes the blog Chickens in the Road, about finding “the true meaning of home—and life—beyond the noise of suburban sprawl and suburban convenience.”