An Old-Time Jamboree
“People used to come in from the farms on cutters for dances in the winter,” says Beth. “The kids would sleep on coats in the cloakroom. So not much has changed, really.”
The village of Rosemont is a quiet place – the kind of place where you don’t expect surprises. So, on a certain evening each month, your curiosity might be piqued by the steady trickle of nicely-dressed folks stepping up the stairs of the old Orange Hall. Especially since every time the door opens, you hear snippets of lively music and the sound of feet sliding merrily over a maple floor.
If you dare to peek inside, you see dancers whirling and winding in patterns. Onstage, someone calls the steps, as the tune spills brightly from a piano, fiddles and guitars. Then the configuration pulls apart. Some of the dancers take up instruments, a new caller steps forward, new dancers take the floor, and the whole thing starts again.
The scene feels like a window back through time, but this is the Rosemont Fiddle and Square Dance Club, and it’s just six years old.
Artist and musician David Aspenlieder started the club with Beth Hunt, owner of Rosemont’s Globe Restaurant. They knew each other from church in Everett. She told him she had bought the old hall across the road from the restaurant, envisioning a place for art shows, kids’ lessons, community suppers, yoga classes and the like. To get started, they decided, “Let’s fill it with music.”
The Rosemont Hall has a handsome room for dancing. The dark wood ceiling and well-scuffed floor are framed on each side by six tall windows. There is a large stage at one end and a cloakroom at the other. “People used to come in from the farms on cutters for dances in the winter,” says Beth. “The kids would sleep on coats in the cloakroom. So not much has changed, really.”
“We started the dances in an effort to provide the community with traditional family entertainment,” recalls David. “We do occasionally get children and young people but, unfortunately, the tradition of square dance – or family nights out – is gradually declining.”
Still, as many as a eighty people, including up to two dozen musicians, gather on the third Tuesday of the month. The night I joined them, there was a contingent of kids bouncing through the steps at the back of the hall. The evening started with a free-form jam as the musicians warmed up. Along with fiddles and guitars, their instruments included dobro, mandolin, banjo, spoons and harmonica.
On that evening, the musicians included Melissa Mouck, an Orangeville high-school student who plays fiddle, step dances and sings with a panache beyond her years. And Carole Bayley, who comes with five to six friends every month. She’s been playing guitar for only four years and values the opportunity to learn from the other musicians.
The format of a jamboree is to have each musician play two traditional dance songs – such as Chrystal Chandelier, Faded Love or the Black Velvet Waltz – solo or with others, as they choose. Two-step and square dances are mixed in through the evening. Closing time in Rosemont is signalled by the announcement of door prizes and a draw.
“The evening usually concludes around ten o’clock,” says David. “However, some musicians hang about and continue jamming until I chase them out.”
Hosting a monthly jamboree takes a lot of work. But David has help from Beth and the club’s core members. And music is in his family. His grandmother played her own Stradivarius violin and his mother was an amateur, but accomplished operatic and jazz singer. David, a painter and semi-retired graphic artist, plays guitar and piano and took up the fiddle seven years ago.
The club is kept vibrant by the musicians and dancers who show up every month, members such as Ginny Pletts, Peter and Marge Goymour, and Ron and Mary Yorke, all from Alliston, and Ed Elliotson from Bolton. Like David, Ed took up the fiddle later in life. He was fifty-seven when his brother, a music teacher, gave him a violin and he first tried to play.
“This music we’re playing is old-time Ontario-style,” he tells me. “There are other styles in Canada. There’s Ottawa Valley, Métis, East Coast…”
An enthusiastic dancer, Ed also helps organize a jamboree series in Bondhead. He learned how to call square dances from Murray and Dorothy Morrison. The Orangeville couple are an integral part of the Rosemont club. Murray is the first person you meet because he takes the tickets at the door.
During sixty years of marriage, Murray and Dorothy have travelled all over Canada, the United States, Scotland and England to enter – and often win – square dance competitions. “I’ve called wherever there’s calling,” claims Murray. In fact, he has been calling dances since he was a boy of eleven.
Square dancing has its roots in French and English ballroom dancing. The form morphed as it moved across the globe to North America, and today it has a distinctly country feel. The Americans developed the tradition of calling out the steps for the dancers.
Canadian square dance, step dance and fiddle playing fanned out from Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. The traditional dance form experienced a heyday during the 1950s and ’60s as a result of the immensely popular country variety television shows hosted by John Allen Cameron and Don Messer.
A few years back, my neighbour offered to take me to an “old time jamboree” in Dundalk. Garnet McMillen, a former potato farmer of advanced years, is a fixture of our village scene. It was a cold Sunday afternoon when we headed up the walk at the Legion hall in the company of an older crowd.
The atmosphere was convivial, familiar and warm. It reminded me of joining my parents at their church. Soon, the hall was filled with couples stepping around the floor. Many of the dancers were not young, but they floated past with sure feet and serene faces. Everyone knew my escort and asked kindly after his wife, who was not well. As we drove home, I felt wrapped in the warm shawl of simple community pleasure.
At the time, I thought it was a unique event. But monthly jamborees happen across the hills and across the province. Locally, there are regular dances in Shelburne, Hornings Mills, Erin, Bolton and Dundalk.
In Rosemont, it was time for the main event. Siggy Dombrowloski, a teacher who lives in Shelburne, kicked off the dance. Siggy makes the violin look easy. He has been playing for nearly three decades, many years in community orchestras such as the University of Guelph orchestra. But he enjoys the free-wheeling jamboree style. “You could get out some Jack Daniels and play all night,” he laughs.
“An orchestra is very beautiful,” he explains, “because you are playing surrounded by forty instruments. But it is also very structured. This is just fun.”
Since I don’t know a Gay Gordon from a two-step, I wasn’t planning to dance. But as Murray and Dorothy stepped up to the microphone, Siggy took my elbow and off we went with three other pairs. It was an easy set, perhaps in my honour, and I tried to keep tuned to the caller’s instructions.
Even so, at times I found myself dashing off in the wrong direction. No one seemed to mind, though. There was laughter, a touch on my shoulder, or a tip of the head to straighten me out. As we rounded the circle in a promenade, I was glad I was wearing a swingy skirt.
Afterward, Cliff Woolner reassures me: “Everyone has a good time dancing. That’s what it’s all about.” A Rosemont-area farmer, Cliff learned to dance seventy-five years ago in a schoolhouse on Highway 10, north of Orangeville. (He also plays fiddle, guitar and banjo, but just for fun at home.) These days he often attends dances with his neighbour, Dorothy Caldwell, who, like him, has lost her spouse. Cliff and Dorothy remember attending many dances in the Rosemont Hall during their youth. When Dorothy was married fifty-three years ago, the young couple were “presented” at the hall after the wedding. “Everyone brought a dollar,” she says with a smile. “That’s how old time it was!”
Another couple, Dennis and Lois Leitch, were celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. They farmed strawberries south of Honeywood and now live in Shelburne. Dennis makes fun of their age: “I can still get her up and haul her around the floor.”
As I left the Rosemont Fiddle and Square Dance Club, the dancers were still turning round and round on the floor. Hands clasped hands through the steps – men with women, women with women, parents with children – and the stage held a mix of players, new and well-seasoned. I pulled my jacket close against the cold, and thought of David’s words about the old days: “Fiddlers were the lucky guys during those long winter nights. They got to stand near the woodstove and enjoy liberal amounts of spirits.”
The Rosemont Fiddle and Square Dance Club meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month, except August and December.
The $4 admission includes sandwiches and snacks. Coffee or tea is 50 cents, juice or pop is $1. Everyone is welcome.
There is no membership fee. For information, contact David Aspenlieder at 705-435-9753, [email protected].