CONDON — With a ballfield for a dance floor, surrounded by pine trees and flanked by the Swan and Mission mountains, a small community gathered recently for an evening celebration with an old-time tradition.
Couples of all ages stood in squares on the field just off a U.S. Forest Service airstrip and listened for instructions from the caller on stage:
“Couple One lead out to the right
Circle to the left with all your might,
Put the Bird in the Cage and shut the door.
Bird fly out and the crow hops in,
Crow fly out and everyone swing!”
Couples giggled, stepped on each other’s feet, hollered and exchanged confused looks. Most had only just learned the steps, and they did their best to remember in which direction to swing, and whose turn it was to be the caged crow.
On stage, the Beet Tops, a Missoula-based old-time string band, played lively dance music that accompanied Chelle Karcher, the band’s fiddler and caller, as she instructed the dancers. The annual Shintangle event — which also included a barbecue, beer and wine, and a raffle — was put on by Swan Valley Connections, a conservation and education nonprofit in Condon, a community of about 400 people.
“Tonight we are here to celebrate the fantastic place where we live,” said Maria Mantas, executive director of Swan Valley Connections.
Mantas’ organization advocates conservation on multiple levels. Its members work with private landowners who need help managing forests on their properties, restoring their wetlands, handling weeds, and monitoring carnivores like bears and mountain lions. Swan Valley Connections also works with the Forest Service to support projects in native fish restoration and trail management in the Swan and Mission ranges.
“Our mission is to conserve our intact ecosystem and to connect people with our landscape,” Mantas said.
They also offer collegiate semester programs that are accredited through the University of Montana. Students from across the country come to enroll in programs like Wildlife in the West or Landscape and Livelihood, spending most of their time in the field, participating in conservation efforts.
The Shintangle is Swan Valley Connections’ way of thanking their community supporters and sponsors. In the past, they’ve invited bluegrass or country bands, but this is the first year they’ve had square dancing, an old dance form that many locals may have learned in grade school, but seldom have the chance to practice nowadays. Square dancing requires specially trained callers who instruct dancers on their movements and teach them the steps as they go. It makes the dances accessible to everyone, experienced or not.
The Beet Tops’ music style derives from the traditional music of Appalachia, where square dancing was born. As a result, the music is closely linked with the dances. Claire Baer, the Beet Tops’ fiddle player, grew up in West Virginia, where every spring her community cleaned out a barn and gathered to square dance.
“The square dance calling is as old as the music,” Baer said. “It’s a very traditional thing that goes with it, and a lot of the dances are like songs — there are stories weaved into them, and the dances have names.”
Square dancing also creates a special connection between the musicians, the caller, and the dancers, said Brian Herbel, who plays guitar for the Beet Tops.
“Everyone’s in it together, it's very inclusive,” Herbel said. “When everybody — the dancers included — when we all kind of come together and everything clicks, and it really lifts off, it’s fun to look out and see everyone laughing and smiling.”
The calling aspect makes square dancing accessible to people of all ages, socioeconomic levels and dancing abilities, and it removes the need to have had formal dance instruction. While square dancing has its roots in English, Irish and Scottish dance traditions, it evolved into a uniquely American folk dance, according to Phil Jameson, a scholar of traditional dance and professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.
Calling, for example, was not part of the European tradition.
“So I became very curious about where it came from, and I started digging to see the earliest reference to a dance caller I could find,” Jameson said. “It turned out, all the earliest dance callers dated back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, and they were all black musicians.”
He realized that back then, European Americans went to dancing schools where they learned the steps for each dance before going to balls and other events. Slaves knew many of the same dances, but it wasn’t from lessons. Rather, musicians learned the steps and then came home and instructed others on how to follow along.
Thus, a calling tradition was born. At some point in the mid-19th century, Jameson said, white musicians adopted the practice of calling as well.
The blend of African and European influences is also evident in the instruments used in traditional Appalachian music. The handmade gourd instruments that became the modern banjo originated in West Africa and were introduced to North America through slaves.
“The important thing is that people look at this music and these dances as white and European, but there's more to it than that,” Jameson said. “What makes it truly American and different from the European tradition is the African-American influence.”
After a few minutes of instruction, Karcher, the caller on stage, asked the crowd if they were ready for the music to begin.
The dancers groaned and insisted they needed more practice. Karcher disagreed.
“The great thing about square dancing,” she told them, “is when you almost get it.”
The Beet Tops started playing, and despite initially not feeling ready, the dancers came to life as if they’d known the steps for years. More than 100 people came to the Shintangle, and couples of all ages held hands and danced together.
Sara Halm, 25, first came to Condon from Vermont as a college student to attend the Wildlife in the West education program through Swan Valley Connections. She has since graduated college, and now works as a conservation and education program associate for the organization. The Shintangle marked her first introduction to square dancing.
“It’s so fun — I mean, I think it’s great to be put in an environment where everyone feels goofy and not very good at dancing,” Halm said. “So it’s an equal playing field for everyone ... it’s as if we were all learning a foreign language together, like it just all sounds bad. And especially the generation gap is really wonderful, I think.”
Halm fell in love with the West when she learned about public lands — something she hadn’t heard of growing up on the East Coast. It’s a feeling that binds many Montanans in that area.
“I can’t imagine ever living in a place that isn’t surrounded by public land,” Halm said. “I think it’s a really special thing to be a person who maybe can’t afford a lot of property, but then to feel so rich and abundant in the places you can go and recreate.”
The Shintangle is a rare opportunity for community members, many of whom live miles apart, to come together to celebrate. After serving a buffet-style barbecue dinner, John Ryan, owner of the Brooklyn Rolls food cart, distributed sugar-dusted Italian cookies and fruit kebabs. The Whitefish-based Great Northern Brewing Co. donated beer, which no doubt helped embolden hesitant dancers.
Patti Leonas, 64, lives in Condon and came to the Shintangle to support a good cause and because “camaraderie around small communities is important,” she said. She knows Swan Valley Connections through their outreach and services to private landowners like herself, and is currently using their help to thin out the forest on her and her husband’s 4-acre plot.
“They do it responsibly to minimize the fire hazard,” Leonas said. “It’s wonderful that that’s available to people here.”
Leonas spent the evening square dancing for the first time. For those who have never done it, she offers some advice.
“They have to try it,” she said, looking out at the dancers while resting between songs. “They tell you exactly what to do. If you look at the faces of people, everybody is smiling.”
The Beet Tops hold community square dancing at the Top Hat once a month, except during the summer. The next square dancing night at the Top Hat is Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. Admission is free.