Each Thursday evening, more than 100 people gather at Warren Wilson College’s Bryson Gym for a community dance tradition that dates back to the 1930s. That’s when Raymond Peak started a dance called the Farmer’s Ball at a hall that he and his father-in-law, George Watkins, built on Warren Wilson College Road. The original dance — big-circle-style, Southern Appalachian squares — drew couples from hours away and even had its own traveling dance team. The original Farmer’s Ball lasted until Peak moved away in the mid-1950s.
Luckily, the story didn’t end there. A visit to what today is known as the Old Farmer’s Ball reveals a mix of ages, from teenagers to dancers in their 70s, all having fun together. Able Allen, who started dancing regularly at the Old Farmer’s Ball in 2001 and served as board president for five years (he’s also an Xpress staffer), believes the intergenerational nature of the contra dance makes it unique. “I think that’s a deep and abiding service to the area, just to offer a really wholesome and valuable, joyful experience,” he says.
And, as Phil Jamison, professor of mathematics and Appalachian music and dance at Warren Wilson College, points out, “When else do you get to hold hands with people you don’t even know in our society?”
Open to anyone
The OFB mission is to “bring joy to our community by cultivating folk and social dance and music traditions.” The Thursday, June 6, dance will be an open band night, led by Laura Light and Roger Gold with Tim Klein calling. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with the original, inclusive community spirit of the OFB, which has had a tradition of holding open-band and open-caller nights.
When veteran contra dance musician Laura Light moved to Asheville five years ago, she started meeting with local musicians who wanted to play at dances and providing them with more structure and support to develop their skills. The Front Porchestra, as the group is now called, meets twice a month at Light’s home.
“It’s still ‘open band’ in that anybody can come and play. … It’s just that we actually rehearse,” says Light. The community band plays a variety of jigs and reels, plus a couple of waltzes, drawing from New England, Quebecois and old-time traditions, in addition to more modern, improvisational and composed music.
“It might be 20 people onstage,” says Light, “so you’ve got this huge amount of not only sound but energy, so that makes it a lot of fun.”
The weekly dance was revived in 1981, when musician and old-time dance presenter Frederick Park moved to Swannanoa from Brasstown. He heard country and bluegrass music coming from what was previously the Farmer’s Ball venue and took to playing and talking with the building’s owners, Jerry and Lily Wooten. When Park, who had danced and studied Appalachian studies at Berea College in Kentucky, discovered the history of the building as a dance hall, he had the idea to start a new dance.
In January 1982, following a few trial runs at the old hall, Park sent out a letter to local callers, inviting them to what he dubbed the “Old Farmer’s Ball.” The first official event was scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 28, 1982, with a $2 admission. “We couldn’t start on a Wednesday, because folks went to church on Wednesday,” Park explains. The dance has been held each Thursday since.
“The music and dance community in Asheville was very small back then,” says Jamison, who was one of the five callers leading dances that first night in ’82. “We’d all come out on Thursday nights, whether we wanted to dance or not.”
Musician Julia Weatherford describes the ruggedness of the building: The dance hall had no insulation and would be freezing. She remembers attending work parties for repair projects and how community members would arrive early to sweep and build a big fire in the woodstove. Dede Styles, a heritage dyer who has lived in this area for 72 years, recalls watching over children and taking admission at the door. She and a couple of others collected rocks to build a stone chimney for the hall.
Over the decades, the Old Farmer’s Ball has grown from a small, homegrown dance to a nonprofit with an elected board of directors and affiliation with the larger Massachusetts-based Country Dance and Song Society. It started attracting out-of-town bands and has had a broad impact, says Weatherford, influencing the start of the River Falls Contra Dance and other regional dances. As at many contra dances across the nation, some callers at the Old Farmer’s Ball have adopted the gender-neutral terms larks and ravens (indicating the partner on the left or right), as opposed to gents and ladies.
Callers in the OFB’s early years led a mix of contras, square dances, mixers, couple dances and circle dances. The community learned how to waltz, schottische, polka, mazurka and swing. “I’d say in the first 15, 20 years of the Old Farmer’s Ball, people were simply interested in having a good time,” says Park. “And if it was a new and interesting dance, all that mattered is it was fun.”
Over the years, the dance has changed. It moved down the road to Warren Wilson College after The Blizzard of ’93 collapsed the roof of the original dance hall. This led to more students and fewer families participating. “The young people were on the tails of the big contra mania that was happening all over the country,” says Weatherford. New England contra dance took over as the main dance form at the OFB. Currently, Thursday nights feature primarily contra dance, with waltzing at the break, and only the occasional, thinly tolerated square dance or mixer.
Allen notes that the incorporation of swing-dance-oriented moves increased heavily in the late ’90s and early 2000s. For some OFB old-timers, this shift in style was not a good thing. “Over the years,” says Styles, “especially after they got to Bryson Gym, [dancers] didn’t seem to pay much attention to the music … and I guess maybe they were more exuberant or more reckless. They sort of lost interest in good form.”
For others, however, the addition of new moves like dips and extra twirls made Asheville-area dances more flavorful and creative than contra dances in other places. “It became an exciting, fun place to be,” says Allen. “It was a wild ride.”
WHAT: Old Farmer’s Ball, oldfarmersball.com
WHERE: Bryson Gym, Warren Wilson College, 701 Warren Wilson Road, Swannanoa
WHEN: Weekly on Thursday. Beginner lesson at 7:30 p.m., dance at 8 p.m. $7 members/$8 nonmembers/$1 Warren Wilson community