Music and dancing entwined our lives

Almost 30 years ago, I was a volunteer in the kudzu-smothered hills of eastern Tennessee. I plunged into the culture of the Southern Highlands and found myself surrounded by families whose ancestors had emigrated to the Appalachian Mountains two centuries ago, bringing their traditional music and dance with them. In college, I had participated in a folk dancing club, but I had never experienced dance as a part of life, as part of a heritage cherished by generations.

Once a month, scores of folks drove out of the hollows of the Great Smokies and congregated at our community center's potluck and dance. Mingling with the mountaineers were back-to-the-landers who had rented small homesteads and college students who joined the pickup band of local musicians. On the dance floor, social differences were abandoned and people of all ages joined hands in the "big set" dances called throughout the night.

The wooden floor vibrated with the rhythm of our pounding feet, and the room blurred like a multicolored pinwheel as we swung our partners. Often we ended the big sets with a grapevine twist, a dance figure that wove the dancers together.

Those memories sang in my mind when I flew back to Michigan, married, and moved to a farming town where I knew no one. My husband, John, and I ascertained that there had to be a way to meet other young couples dwelling in the Allegan Woods.

My homesickness for Appalachia propelled me to drag my husband south for a week of dancing, and after one night he was hooked. We copied down the figures and calls, bought a few records, and returned eager to share this tradition with the folks up north.

John and I offered a class through our local community education system. A dozen people came. Most of us were newcomers to the area, young college graduates looking for inexpensive entertainment and a way to make friends. While dancing to taped music was adequate for classes, several of us mulled over the idea of a live band that would play for monthly dances.

At first, anyone who could play an instrument sat in on those early dances. Hidden behind sheet music, we practiced our fiddles, guitars, tin whistles, and accordions. We jumped into the world of traditional music with reckless abandon. A core group of musicians ultimately evolved into a contra dance band that we called Wild Thyme. It played all over Michigan as contra dancing swept the state.

Eventually the demands of children and careers dissolved Wild Thyme. New contra dance bands played for the monthly dances. Our band's name became a memory of those energetic years after college.

But last fall, one of the band members (nicknamed Mad Robin after the dance tune) nudged and prodded past band members with a proposal to play together again. Why not stage a 20-year reunion, she asked.

Ten years had elapsed since most of the band had played for an event. Other people encouraged the idea, and Mad Robin scheduled practices at which half the time was spent catching up on where our now-grown-up children were going to college. We joked that we should change our band name to Silver Thyme, given all the gray hair we now sported, while trying to remember those tunes we had not played for so many years.

Last March 15, we tuned our instruments, took a deep breath, and lit into a medley of jigs. We looked out at our friends, parents, and children as 100 people swung partners. Others lined the hall, listening. The room throbbed with the beat of the music and the energy of the dancers. An 8-year-old girl in a red kerchief danced with a gray-haired gentleman while groups of teenagers helped one another learn the figures.

While this dancing community's roots may only sink down 20 years, no longer were we isolated residents. The lives of friends that had met on the dance floor had intertwined as we supported each other during times of crisis, and together we had celebrated births and weddings. New faces and younger faces ensured that the tradition would thrive. Joyfully along the contra lines, the dancers held hands, listened to the caller, and stepped to the music that flew from our fingers and joined our hearts.

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