Spreading the Joy of Dance in Rural Montana By Mark Matthews

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For about eight years, I have been visiting small school districts across Montana with a dance program sponsored by Humanities Montana. During my presentations I have introduced the rudiments of square and contra dancing to more than ten thousand students from kindergarten to college level. Some schools have invited me back year after year—in both the fall and spring. For my presentations, I typically take over the music, band, or physical education class for the entire day.

I open each session with a review of how Native American, European and African movements mixed together to evolve into the unique American dance culture. Then, we start to dance.

For more than a half-dozen years, I have been visiting rural schools like the one in Shelby, which sits on the northern plains about 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front. I can recall the queer looks on the elementary children’s faces during my inaugural visit while I explained what we would be doing. This past fall I got to work with some of those same kids who are now in high school. We even performed the heel-and-toe polka that they had learned as youngsters. It was so bemusing to hear eighty teenagers shouting, “heel-and-toe, heel-and-toe, slide, slide, slide—the other way back,” as they performed the steps to a looped version of “Saint Anne’s Reel” performed by Kitchen Junket. The forty-five-minute frolic that day in the band room was filled with as much joy, enthusiasm and energy as one would find at any contra dance in New England.

My goal is simply to get children moving to music so that they can experience ecstasy and joy. With younger dancers, chaos often reigns—but I stop the music only if lives or limbs are endangered. One dance I teach in contra lines involves a number of hand turns and a do-ci-do before resuming contra lines to go forward and back. As the children begin the allemandes, the gyrating couples inevitably drift and spread all over the classroom, obliterating any sense of symmetry. And just when I think things are going to completely break down I call out “long lines,” and miraculously, bodies scramble this way and that to form two straight lines that even Henry Ford would have found acceptable. And did I mention the laughter and smiles?

It is the first week of May in the year 2020. All the presentations that I had lined up this spring have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Not being able to go to dances myself is bad enough, but being deprived of the chance to spread the joy of dancing among school children feels even more spiritually deflating. Hopefully, by the time next fall rolls around life on this planet will have pieced itself back together and I’ll once again be able to witness the joy and exuberance of young people interacting with each other through the dance.

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