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Charles Todd at the recording machine

[Detail] Charles Todd at the recording machine

Primary Source Set B: Dancing as a Form of Recreation, 1890s to 1930s

Old Time Dance Calls

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NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of Old Time Dance Calls is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

{begin excerpt}

Form B

Personal History of Informant

Federal Writers' Project

Works Progress Administration


Name of worker - A. C. Sherbert Date 12/27/38

Address - Project Office, 614 SW Eleventh Ave., Portland, Oregon.

Subject - Old Time Dance Calls.

Name and address of informant - George Duffy,
5605 SE 71st Avenue, Portland, Oregon.

Information obtained should supply the following facts:

1. Ancestry

2. Place and date of birth

3. Family

4. Places lived in, with dates

5. Education, with dates

6. Occupations and accomplishments with dates

7. Special skills and interests

8. Community and religious activities

9. Description of informant

10. Other points gained in interview


1. Bernard and Mary Duffy, born in County Louth[,?] Ireland.

2. Peoria, Illinois, January 27, 1875.

3. Three girls and two boys living - oldest son killed in France with A. E. F.

4. Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, California, Washington, Oregon - Dates not remembered. (Boomer printer.)

5. High School in Marysville, Mo., graduated 1890. Attended business college following high school - Northwest Business College of Missouri, Marysville, Mo.

6. Printers editor and publisher. Operated newspaper in Nebraska 1900 to 1906. Superintendent of printing plants in various places at various times. Managed show poster plant in Spokane, Washington at one time.

7. Experienced public speaker, fraternal [organizer?], dance -hall manager. Was state organizer in Colorado for Security Benefit Association.

8. None.

9. Medium height, chunky build, graying dark hair thin at top. Pleasing personality and presence, engaging smile.

10. - - -

Form C

Text of Interview (Unedited)

Federal Writers' Project

Works Progress Administration


Name of worker - A. C. Sherbert Date 12/27/38

Address - Project Office, 614 SW Eleventh Avenue, Portland, Oregon

Subject - Old Time dance Calls

Name and address of informant - George Duffy, 5605 SE 71st Ave[.,?] City.



I have been an enthusiastic follower of the dance , ball-room dancing I mean, since I was a boy of fifteen, and that's a good many years ago. As might be supposed, I have seen a great many changes in dance technique, dance forms, and dance -ball conduct during the past half century.

In early days dancing was not the commercialized proposition that it is today. It was not a business in any sense of the word. Dancing was purely a neighborhood social event with profit no consideration and was indulged in by mostly all classes of people, excepting the followers of one or two religious groups that thought it sinful to dance.

As with all things people enjoy doing, it was discovered that money could be raised by charging admission to the dance . First to benefit were charitable causes, church purposes, (yes, church purposes) and other community needs. From there it was a short step to commercialization and the public dance hall was the result.

... I have decided that folks want to dance for the same reason that folks want to listen to music, read poetry, or witness or engage in other forms of emotional expression. Dancing is rhythmic just like poetry or music and has the further attraction of stimulating physical activity, mingling the sexes, and sociability. Then there is usually excitement and fun at a dance , and this fact, too, makes an evening of dancing more then ordinarily attractive to all persons who are not too definitely anti-social.

... I may be wrong, but I do not believe the dance of today is of any great social importance. Automobiles and moving pictures have supplanted the community dance as a means of bringing young folks together, in my opinion. In other words, I truly think all dancing could today be abolished and the social world would move along quite as well without it. Such may not be said of the old time dance . The dance - especially the country dance - was an almost indispensable institution in those days.

Perhaps I can give you a short description of a typical farm dance of the eighties or nineties[.?]

The dance is to celebrate a barn raising and is to be held at a farm some fifteen or sixteen miles from Sally's home. No distance at all these days in a streamlined coupe, but in those days it was quite a distance.

... Arriving at the dance later than many, they {Sally and her boyfriend} find a long line of horses and buggies tied to fence rails and hitching racks. The shrill tones of a rapidly bowed fiddle and the lusty commands of the "caller" break the soft silence of the surrounding countryside. Thin fingers of mellow lantern-light filter through chinks and knot-holes of the new barn in which the dance is being held. Our farm boy and his Sally enter the barn and are greeted by cheery nods of welcome and recognition all around. A quadrille is in progress. ... The music here consists of the best available neighborhood fiddler assisted by another neighbor who can "chord" on the [melodson?] - without benefit of notes. Correct time is maintained by the thumping of the fiddler's boot on the hard floor, by the gyrations of his shoulders as he scrapes his fiddle, and by the vigorous nodding of his head in proper tempo. The fiddler's boot thumping in augmented in volume by the [concerted?] foot tapping of small boys who sit on the benches that line the dance floor.


The fiddler and dance caller were colorful and picturesque individuals who, if they excelled in their abilities, were not without considerable repute and importance in their respective neighborhoods. A colorful fiddler knew how to draw attention to himself and to liven the proceedings by clowning a bit as he fiddled. Some fiddlers could toss their fiddles into the air or flip them upside down without losing a beat. Others made a specialty of waving their fiddles backward over their heads while playing just to prove their complete mastery of the instrument. The callers more usually were glib fellows of likeable personality and strong of lung.

... Let us watch the dance for a moment. The couples mingle, moving back and forth in response to the directions of the caller. The movements, for the most part, require no gentlemen to come in closer proximity to a lady dancer than to hold her hand momentarily as they bow, turn, and [promenade?]. Should it become necessary in the dance for a man to place his hand at a lady's waist, he would find her so completely [corseted?] with whalebone and [steel?], and so cumbersomely swathed in clothing, that any sensual stimulation resulting from the contact must have been purely psychological.

Quite different today in any modern dance hall. The modern dance requires no concentration as in listening to a caller's commands. The modern dance seems to consist chiefly of walking around to music, and if you choose not to walk you may stand virtually in one spot, shifting the body's weight from one foot to the other in time to music. The modern miss steps out onto the dance floor clad in a few ounces of wispy material under which she wears a thin, elastic garment so constructed as to reveal every curve and contour of her body. Her partner grasps her in as close an embrace as the none-too-vigilant eyes of the dance -hall management will permit. In the average dance -hall, decorum is maintained by supervision rather than by the individual's desire to behave decorously. Young persons attend present-day dances and frequently dance the entire evening with one partner, leaving the dance at its conclusion without having widened the number of their acquaintances by a single person. In the days of the square dance , a newcomer to the community mingled and danced with all, and when the evening's dancing ended he found himself no longer a stranger. That is why I say ball-room dancing today seems to me to be of slight social significance.

... {end excerpt}

Questions for Discussion:

  • Why does George Duffy think people like to dance? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • What difference did George describe between dancing in the 1890s and dancing in the 1930s, when the interview took place? What changes in society might these changes reflect?
  • Why did George think dancing in the 1930s was "of slight social significance"? Does dancing today help a newcomer meet members of the community, as it did in the 1890s? If not, what social event do you think fills such a function today?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.