Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Pigeon Wing Club

Several earlier entries have referred to groups holding dances. These articles have all been taken before the rise of the rise of swing dancing, and the "partner" dances that developed in the early-mid twentieth century. This article comes from the last quarter of the 19th century, when the old New England contra dances had been replaced by new styles. The Pigeon Wing name of the club refers to the Buck and Wing dances, predecessors of later tap dances. Unfortunately, my knowledge of American folk and popular dance history is limited to what I can find on the internet, and verbal descriptions of dances are of little help in understanding them.

The article posted below gives a nostalgic look back at traditional New England dance from a modern (1884), post-Civil War observer. Times had changed, but a Jamaica Plain dance club had decided to take the trouble to learn Grandpa's dances. Sound familiar? It's not so long ago that a swing dance craze was sweeping college campuses - what ever happened to that? Remarkably, Contra dancing has returned to Jamaica Plain in recent years.

Now that I think of it, I learned some kind of square dances in the basement of the Agassiz school as a child. I wonder if that was contra dancing we were doing - sounds similar.

Evening Bulletin March 24 1884

Old-fashioned Dancing in Boston.

The Pigeon Wing Club held its final assembly Wednesday evening on Chestnut avenue, Jamaica Plain. All winter its members have been indefatigably practicing the old-fashioned contra dances; they have placed the "new-fangled" steps, as our grandfathers would say, in a secondary position in the consideration, have scorned the Newport and the latest freaks of the waltz, have regarded with slight attention the schottische and the galop and have expressed a disdainful contempt of the light and frivolous german. But the effects of the partiality for reels and jigs and cotillions was seen Wednesday night in the perfection attained in the execution of most difficult maneuvers. The order of dances, fancifully illustrated with quaint dancing figures in old-time costume, contained the Chorus, Jig, Rory O'More, Money Musk, Virginia Red, College Hornpipe, and one or two modern dances, interspersed with jigs for variety. To modern eyes the sight of the dancers was most novel. Young and old took part, the latter entering into the spirit of the occasion with all possible zest and interest. What animation, vigor, enjoyment! It seems a pity that the old, gay dances should now be forgotten, for if revived they would give spice to the almost cloying sweetness of the waltz. "Chorus Jig" is announced and the music led by John Behr, the popular and skillful manager, strikes up an excruciatingly lively tune. Two long lines are formed down the parlors, ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. The first complete salute. Attention!. The music gives the rapid time. "First couple down the outside and back. Down the center and back. Cast off. Turn contra corners. Balance and cross over." Terpsichore! What is all that? The contra corners seem complicated, but perceive. While the first lady turns the second gentleman the first gentleman is turning the third lady and vice versa. It must be danced to be understood; and then while the first couple is performing its evolutions, the second couple begins and does likewise, and the third couple, till all are dancing. The music tells you how with its absurd jigging. Everyone is entertained, old and young, till all pause breathless. Here is another dance, Rory O'More, with these changes: The two lines are formed. First couple cross over; down the outside below two and come up the center. Cross to place and, having cast off by going round the next lady or gentleman, balance first by giving right hand to partner and then left. Now is the chance for the pigeon-wing, most wonderful and difficult of balances. Turn contra corners. Balance again to place and begin again. The violin of Mr Behr is becoming uproarious:

Young Rory O'More courted Kathleen Bawn.
He was proud as a hawk and she as soft as the dawn.

The whole line of dancers is bowing and skipping and laughing and joking. The violin goes on unceasingly. "Be aisy," cried Kathleen. Some one cuts a pigeon-wing, and there is great applause. A very funny dance is "Pop goes the weasel." First couple go down outside, then down the centre: then join hands with the next lady letting her pass under the joined hands at the "Pop!" of the weasel; join hands to the next, and so continuously, one couple after the other, till the weasels are popping all down the line. Everyone is amused and joins in the chorus with enthusiasm. "Pop goes the weasel!"

But Money Musk, with its graceful curtsying forward, and pretty turns and merry runs, is the most popular of all contra dances. IN the quick vibrations of the peculiar music one sees in a memory picture the great barn frolic of the country. The barn floor is swept and polished, the grain and hay are bursting the bins and filling the loft, the musicians are scraping and twanging, the homely country folk in best attire are gathering in two long lines. Money Musk! There is a world of gaiety in the words. First couple give right hand and cross over. The lady swings in the center of the third gentleman and the lady, the first gentleman takes the same position between the second lady and gentleman, and the six forward and back. Then the first couple swing in the same way between the sides, the lady between the second and third gentlemen, and the gentleman between the opposite ladies. Forward and back, right and left. It is tedious to tell, but merry to dance. The picture of the old barn fades away, and we see instead of homely country surroundings the parlors of a suburb mansion, the embroidered satins, silks and laces, and the dress suits, and all the fashionable appointments of the Pigeon Wing Club, and instead of the fiddle the classically touched violin is reeling, the jigs, is turning the changes. -- Boston Journal, March 14th.

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