RMSB title words

Dancing With The
Rich Mountain String Band...

Rich Mountain String Band re-creates a mid-19th-century dance for 21st-century dancers. Our Civil War dances are based on carefully researched period dances and appropriate period tunes and music. The dances are similar to familiar square dances and reels.

We play acoustic instruments, but do use a sound system in most cases, so that all participants can hear the caller and music. Our caller, Phyllis Baxter, teaches each dance and walks the dancers through the figures, so that even novice dancers can participate and enjoy the experience.

Dancing With The Americans...


(From "The Wayfaring Stranger's Notebook" by Burl Ives)

Dance cartoon

Dances were accepted events in every city, ranging all the way from the staid formal balls of the "socialites" to the rowdy waterfront dances of the keel-boat men and tavern brawlers. There is an interesting description of a St. Louis ball given by one of the many traveling Englishmen, Charles Augustus Murray. He was shocked by the violence of many of the Mississippi River towns but equally moved by the primness of St. Louis dancing:

No imagination can conceive the rolling, the swinging, the strange undulations of the rotary pair. They frequently hold each other only by one hand, and the lady places her idle hand on her waist; while the gentleman flourishes his gracefully either above his own or his partner's head, or assigns to it some resting-place no less extraordinary than its movements. In some circles in the South, elbow-waltzing alone is permitted; the lady's waist is forbidden ground, and the gentleman is compelled to hold her by the points of the elbows.

A quite different description is given of a public ball held in a frame building in Chicago, at a time when that city was still considered a trading post. This time an American traveler, a Mr. Charles F. Hoffman, was invited to the dance and ushered into:

" . . . a tolerably sized dancing room, occupying the second story of the house, and having its unfinished walls so ingeniously covered with pine-branches and flags borrowed from the garrison, that, with the white-washed ceiling above, it presented a very complete and quite pretty appearance. It was not so warm, however, that the fires of cheerful hickory, which roared at either end, could have been readily dispensed with. An orchestra of unplaned boards was raised against the wall in the center of the room; the band consisting of a dandy negro with his violin, a fine military-looking bass drummer from the fort, and a volunteer citizen, who alternately played an accompaniment upon the flute and triangle. Blackie, who flourished about with a great many airs and graces, was decidedly the king of the company, and it was amusing, while his head followed the direction of his fiddle-bow with pertinacious fidelity, to see the Captain Manual-like precision with which the soldier dressed to the front on one side, and the nonchalant air of importance which the citizen attempted to preserve on the other.

As for the company, it was such a complete medley of all ranks, ages, professions, trades, and occupations, brought together from all parts of the world, and now for the first time brought together, that it was amazing to witness the decorum with which they commingled on this festive occasion. The managers (among whom were some officers of the garrison) must certainly be au fait at dressing a lobster and mixing regent's punch, in order to have produced a harmonious compound from such a collection of contrarieties.

The gayest figure that was ever called by quadrille playing Benoit never afforded me half the amusement that did these Chicago cotillions. Here you might see a veteran officer in full uniform balancing to a tradesman's daughter still in her short frock and trousers, while there the golden aiguillette of a handsome surgeon flapped in unison with the glass beads upon a scrawny neck of fifty.

In one quarter, the high-placed buttons of a linsey-woolsey coat would be dos-a-dos to the elegantly turned shoulders of a delicate-looking southern girl; and in another, a pair of Cinderella-like slippers would chassez cross with a brace of thick-soled broghans, in making which, one of the lost feet of the Colossus of Rhodes may have served for a last. Those raven locks, dressed a la Madonne, over eyes of jet, and touching a cheek where blood of a deeper hue, mingling with the less glowing current from European veins, tell of a lineage drawn from the original owners of the soil; while these golden tresses, floating away from eyes of heaven's own colour over a neck of alabaster, recall the Gothic ancestry of some of "England's born."

How piquantly do these trim and beaded leggins peep from under that simple dress of black, as its tall, nut-brown wearer moves, as if unconsciously, through the graceful mazes of the dance. How divertingly do those inflated gigots, rising like wind-sails from the little Dutch-built hull, jar against those tall plumes which impend over them like a commodore's pennant on the same vessel. But what boots all these incongruities, when the spirit of festive good humour animates every one present. "It takes all kinds of people to make a world" (as I hear it judiciously observed this side of the mountains) , and why should not all these kinds of people be represented as well in a ball-room as in a legislature?

At all events, if I wished to give an intelligent foreigner a favourable opinion of the manners, and deportment of my countrymen in the aggregate, I should not wish a better opportunity, after explaining to him the materials of which it was composed, and the mode in which they were brought together from every section of the Union, than was afforded by this very ball.

"This is a scene of enchantment to me, sir," observed an officer to me, recently exchanged to this post, and formerly stationed here. "There were but a few traders around the fort when I last visited Chicago, and now I can't contrive
where the devil, all these well-dressed people have come from!"

In many towns of America in the 19th century, there were traveling dancing-masters who taught the quadrille, a dance in quadrangular formation, and square dances, which were dances done in square formation. These dancing-masters, or indeed any who knew the dances, would teach jigs from Ireland, reels from Scotland, quadrilles from France, and hornpipes from England.

The more religious communities, of which there were many, did not allow dancing. As a substitute, games became the social diversion. The games were group movements made to sung words. These sung words became songs and are known as play-party songs. After a time rhythmic popular songs like "Old DanTucker," "Buffalo Gals," "Zip Coon," were borrowed for this purpose. The songs were catchy and provided an easy verse form to which new lines could be made up.

Davy Crockett used to say after a frontier dance, "It would do you good to see our boys and girls dancing. None of your straddling, mincing, sadying; but a regular sifter, cut-the-buckle, chicken-flutter, set-to."

Dr. Sam, my uncle, had a different feeling about dancing, especially of the minuet which he hated, "The men look as if they were hired to do it and were doubtful of being paid."