This world needs more barn dances

In this week’s podcast, my husband and I reflect on who taught us to dance, how our Dirty Dancing days are over and pontificate on the old house that used to be on the ranch, who lived there and why they left

I think what this broken old world needs is a few more barn dances.

You may have forgotten that those used to be a thing that people did.

Above the house where I grew up is an old shed. It’s sat there for nearly a hundred years now I think. It outlasted the homestead house where a family used to live and then one day moved away, leaving what seemed to be everything behind—dresses and books and filled-in calendars and ledgers and dishes in the cupboards, canned garden vegetables in the root cellar, the lilac bushes and the apple orchard and mattresses and lace curtains moving like quiet ghosts with the wind cutting through the gaps in the walls. Old houses fall apart in the most slow and lonesome way when there’s no one there to sweep the floors and wipe the windows and serve the bread.

They left the house and all those things and they left that little wooden shed my dad said used to be a granary. He remembers it and he remembers those neighbors.

They used to have dances in there my dad told me when I was poking around as a kid. It seemed impossible to me. That granary was much too small, not even close to 1,000 square feet. If you danced it would be a tight circle. Add a guitar and a fiddle and the quarters would be beyond close. Tight. Unimaginable to us these days, losing ourselves and one another in wide-open floor plans, separate rooms and all the space between. Houses are big enough now so that you never have to lay a hand on each other on your way to the kitchen sink, or sit with legs touching on the living room sofa, or fall asleep to the sound of your sister breathing in the small bed next to you. Not if you didn’t want to anyway. Not if you’re what we call “lucky” to have all that room…

Back then I imagine the landscape, and the work that needed to be done upon it, gave you all the space you needed from the next living soul. Lonesome looked a bit different back then.

Maybe that’s why they turned tiny granaries into dance floors. Because wouldn’t you want to hear the slow drawl of the neighbor’s fiddle spill out of the leaky roof and into the night sky lit with stars? Wouldn’t you want to put your hand on her waist and swing her around laughing? Wouldn’t you want to sing along, to hear their voices overlap and chatter, gossiping and encouraging and entertaining to help you forget for a moment the worry of it all?

You would have wanted to then, when it was a bit quieter. When the world you knew stretched only as far as the horizon, or as far as you could afford a train ticket to take you. You see, they were islands too, in much different ways. And then, in so many of the same. Humans have always been humans, after all.

But the dancing in that tiny building, well, one hundred or so years ago, there was no other choice.

Now we have so many. So many excuses. So many oceans we’ve put between us… But last week a man in the middle of rural North Dakota, more than one hundred years from when the first barn was raised on this northern prairie landscape, called his family, his neighbors and friends, and told them to come on over to the Homeplace. Come on over to the barn. We’ll feed you. There will be music. And there will be dancing.

He’s been doing it for years, so they knew. They had it on their calendars. And his daughters and their families and he and his wife, they made the Fleischkuechle and the kuchen because that was tradition too. And me, well me and the guys were lucky enough to witness it all from the little stage in the corner of the loft of the old barn with the shined up floors where we strummed guitars and sang some songs they knew and some they didn’t and all with a beat for a good two step, or a waltz or a chance to join hands in a circle. Because I heard him say it into the microphone when he welcomed them all to that loft after a picnic supper–he didn’t want his grandchildren to grow up in a world where there were no barn dance. So he made sure, at least for his community, it was not a lost tradition.

And from my perch behind the microphone he reminded me that we may not all have big beautiful barns preserved from the cruel weather of time, but if we’re lucky, we have a spot that might work just fine enough for dancing in a circle.

Because I’m not sure, but I think it’s true, that just like old houses, people, they fall apart too, slow and lonesome if there’s no one there to sweep the floors, to brush past, to breathe the same close air, to sway side to side, and open the curtains and let the light in and serve the bread and do the things that, together, people are meant to do…

And then we sang Red River Valley…

Sometimes in the middle of a life in the middle of America, you are handed a couple of days, or moments, where you are graciously reminded of what is so good and wholesome about a community that exists on the end of a two lane highway with no stoplight, no Walmart, no mall and no place else you’d rather be on a Friday afternoon.

And so I had a weekend filled with small town, mid-west, rural, main street, wholesomeness that began with the execution of an event I helped to plan on Main Street Watford City, ND–my hometown’s Best of the West Ribfest–where I manned the entertainment stage while community members milled around the vendor booths, ate lunch on picnic tables outside Main Street stores, breathed in the scents of barbecues warming and turning their rib suppers and enjoyed games, music and other entertainment on the big stage…

entertainment that included watching me attempt to help call bingo by turning on the bingo blower machine thingy and launching the numbered balls all over the damn street.

Lord, I just wasn’t meant for some things.

Anyway, husband, along with seventeen other businesses, vendors and crazy grillers, participated in the rib cooking contest. And at 5:30, after the judging was done, Bingo was mercifully over, my big sister’s dancers showed us their Michael Jackson Thriller moves, the kids were all settled in for the rest of the evening on those crazy, sweaty, inflatable jumper things, and Lonesome Willy and I sang for our supper, it was time to eat already.

I had a great view from the stage and watched as people emerged from their businesses, ready for the weekend, and began filling the street, up and down, waiting for the smokey, spicy, barbecue tastes of the grilled ribs. The street flooded with neighbors, tourists, new comers, children and pets.

And from my post it became apparent that this was the most people I’ve ever seen on Main Street Watford City at one time. I was proud of our town as I rested my blistered feet that were shoved in my fancy boots for the day and listened to some of the best local musicians around pick a banjo, a dobro, an acoustic guitar, and sing songs about their North Dakota home.

And the music filled the street, the ribs sold out, I announced the world’s longest chicken dance, signed an autograph for a couple of confused guys who thought I was a famous D.J. and then wondered who the hell’s name was on the back of their shirt as they walked away, the big band showed up, the full moon rose, I found myself a beer and watched my community laugh, relax, dance, shake hands, meet one another and enjoy themselves in the middle of the street, in the middle of America, in the middle of an oil boom, in the middle of a season that passes all too quickly around here.

It was necessary. It was appreciated. It was hometown as hometown needs to be…

I loaded up in husband’s pickup and he drove me home, pulled off my red boots, poked at my blisters and then I got up to do it all over again the next day. Because as wholesome as Friday night was, I got another dose as I put on a dress and headed back to town to sing at a wedding at our hometown church and then pointed my car north to meet the guys out at a farmstead near Hazen, ND.

Because we were scheduled to play a community barn dance and, so, when you’re at a barn dance you need the proper footwear. I did a quick outfit change, squeezed on my fancy boots again and followed the highway out of oil country, down a gravel road and into a perfectly mowed, perfectly beautiful, perfectly placed farmyard on the edge of Lake Sakakawea.

And in the middle of the yard stood a white and green barn that reached up the prairie sky and was spilling out people and children laughing and chatting and singing in cowboy hats and boots. The smell of burgers on the grill greeted me as lugged my guitar towards the band milling around outside, waiting for 8:00 to get behind their guitars, behind their microphones and behind their music.

We climbed the steps to the hay loft where the festivities took place and instantly I was transported to another place, another time, where the world still had barn dances, where the table cloths were still checkered red and white, where people danced the two step and sang along with old time country music, where they still wore cowboy boots.

I was on a movie set, you know, like the one where Sandra Bullock wears a beat up hat and jeans and takes photos and drives around a classic old pickup. The one where the small town band sounds straight out of Nashville. The one where she falls in love at the end after Harry Connick Jr. swings her around the wood floor of the barn as the lead singer taps his foot to Peaceful Easy Feeling and the crowd sings along.


But I wasn’t Sandra Bullock. Sandra Bullock was that beautiful blond in the black hat dancing with her boyfriend. No, I was the band.

And the guys playing next to me, some of the best musicians around, picked all the right songs and played all the right beats. Their grins spread wide as the family crowd requested songs the guys knew and then danced and cheered when they played them. The lead part drifted out through the hay loft window behind me and on over the prairie and to the lake as I sang harmony to my dad’s chorus and then a song I wrote and then Red River Valley and oh my, there they were, singing along.

So we all sang together. That family, that community. We sang Red River Valley and then Home on the Range and stomped our feet and clapped our hands as our voices joined together…

“May the circle, be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by…there’s a better home awaiting in the sky Lord in the sky…”

We sang it again…

and again…

and so did they, the crowd, our hosts for the evening. They sang with us too as they bounced their sleepy children, swung around their grandma, slapped their cousin and uncles on the shoulders, and just genuinely enjoyed themselves.


I headed home into the dark sky, the guys with the band trailer pushing through the early hours of the morning in front of me, with a renewed hope that the world maybe hasn’t changed much.

That maybe in the hustle and bustle of progress, politics, and technology even the fancy cell phones that can tell you what road your on when you’re on it still can’t tell you where you really might be headed…

to a place where people still wear cowboy boots, where time has been preserved in the wood floors of a nearly hundred year old barn, where the only agenda is to laugh and dance with one another for goodness sake…

where the music really matters and so do the friendships.

A place on the end of a paved street with no stoplight, a place on the edge of a wheat field under the moon under the roof of a green and white barn that the GPS would never find…

but that we should never forget still exists…