Live music is 'fundamental to human nature': Fiddle and dance group keeps traditional music, dance styles alive
“I think that community dancing and live music is something that is fundamental to human nature and human society and human civilization,” Jeanne O'Neil said.
EAST GRAND FORKS — Jeanne O’Neil, co-founder of North Country Fiddle and Dance, isn’t worried about the traditional songs and dances her organization helps put together going away anytime soon.
While it may seem a bit daunting for some who have never danced or been exposed to the musical influences like southern Appalachian, Cajun, Métis and Scandinavian, O’Neil believes live music and dancing is important for human connection.
“I think that community dancing and live music is something that is fundamental to human nature and human society and human civilization,” she said.
North Country Fiddle and Dance is an organization with the goal of preserving and promoting traditional music and dance. The group hosts community dances every year, with a live band and a caller to teach traditional dances like reels, contra dances and the occasional waltz. There is always a fiddler amongst the band, their website promises, and no fee is required to join in, though donations are appreciated.
The organization’s next community dance is scheduled for Saturday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the East Grand Forks Senior Center.
Jeanne and Tom O’Neil, North Country Fiddle and Dance’s founders, met in Iowa when they both became a part of a clogging dance group. There were also community dances they both attended, and when they moved in 1986 to the northwest Minnesota area they decided to try and hold similar events here. As musicians themselves they often play for these events, and Jeanne O’Neil has acted as a caller for many of the dances. Guest musicians are also a common factor for some dances.
The group was started in 1986 under the name North Country Traditional Music and Dance Society, though it was shortened to its current title in 1998.
North Country Fiddle and Dance held its events in Grand Forks’ civic auditorium until its demolition in 2009, where they went “nomadic,” as Jeanne O’Neil said.
The organization currently hosts most of its dances at the East Grand Forks Senior Center, and O’Neil emphasized this doesn’t mean the events are only for older audiences. People of any age are welcome to attend, and there’s been an increase in families bringing their children in to learn the dances. However, O’Neil has noticed a decline in participants, and believes social media could be a reason behind this.
“They often tend to focus their energies there and not looking out, trying to find things to do in the community or ways to engage with the community actually in a physical way, face to face,” she said.
The O’Neils have invited different musicians from Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks and beyond to play for the community dances. While O’Neil has noticed a plethora of bluegrass bands in the area, she and her husband became interested in the French-Canadian music of groups from up north. No matter who the group plays with, she said being able to connect with other musicians to spread traditional music “keeps us all alive.”
North Country Fiddle and Dance also gets support from different sponsors to help pay for their venue and visiting musicians. Some of these sponsors are the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council, the North Valley Arts Council and the EGF Arts and Crafts Council.
A typical community dance starts with loading the instruments and sound equipment into the car, which can be stressful on a cold night, according to O’Neil, though there’s only been one time in all the years the organization’s been in action where they couldn’t show up due to weather conditions. Once the group arrives at the dance’s location, the sound equipment is set up and everything is prepared. As people start to trickle in, the musicians start to play and the caller starts to lead a dance.
“They start working out the fairly easy patterns of the dance,” O’Neil said. “And they start getting to know each other and by the end of the evening everybody just kind of knows each other in a sense. And they feel comfortable because you have this sort of framework to work with that gives you a little something to do. … It’s just a really good way for people to get to know each other and feel comfortable.”
O’Neil said she doesn’t think the music and dance will go away altogether. Even if it lessens in popularity, she is sure there will be some revival in the future.
“Because of its native, natural vitality it would take off again,” she said.
One of O’Neil’s favorite parts of hosting these events is watching newcomers get used to the dances.
“I think it’s just great to get people together and see them get excited for the first time when they’ve never done this before,” she said. “Just to see people’s eyes light up and the joy that it can bring if everything is right, the music is good and everybody’s happy. That’s probably the best thing about it.”
The key importance of these styles of dance, according to O’Neil, is the importance of those involved in it.
“This is totally immersive, totally participatory, totally noncompetitive and you can become a part of something that’s bigger than you,” she said. “You’re like a little piece of clock wheels that are going around and you’re part of what makes it work. And I think that’s really important for human beings so once you find it, if it rings true to you, then you want to keep doing it.”
As for the future, O’Neil hopes North Country Fiddle and Dance can continue for as long as possible, and that others can take these dances and music with them. O’Neil mentioned how a few dancers have done this already.
“He took what he got from here and took it somewhere else and carried that forward,” she said. “That’s been happening with some people that we know that come here and go somewhere else and take it with them.”