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COMING HOME: From country schools to country bars, dancing endures

WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- In the kitchen of the house I grew up in, my big sister hung a white sheet from the top of the refrigerator. She was dressed in a red dress that swung, her tap shoe heels and bright lipstick.

Jessie Veeder

WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- In the kitchen of the house I grew up in, my big sister hung a white sheet from the top of the refrigerator. She was dressed in a red dress that swung, her tap shoe heels and bright lipstick.

I had suspenders holding up my Wranglers, slicked-back hair and a painted-on mustache.

Because in a house full of girls, when it came to videoing a choreographed jitterbug to Elvis' "Thing Called Love," someone had to be the boy. And I was younger and taller, so, well, it was me. High kicks and all.

I thank the Lord every day that YouTube was invented after my youth was over. Because it's embarrassing enough knowing the evidence is tucked away on tapes in boxes in my parents' closet somewhere. I can only imagine what those archaeologists will say thousands of years from now when they dig those up. It could be very confusing for them.

But anyway, I've been doing my own observing of the culture of dancing in our community lately. Being in a band, on a stage, behind the microphone at bars, rodeo dances and the occasional western North Dakota wedding, I have a front-row seat, perfect for witnessing how the two-step has evolved, and taking tallies on how many of us still have the stamina to sustain the polka technique we all learned from our elementary school gym teacher throughout our entire 10-minute version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."


And it has me wondering if they still teach the two-step and polka in elementary school these days.

It was a staple gym section for all 10 of us in the third- and fourth-grade classes of the Johnson Corners Country School. Our teacher would put on a mixed tape of Garth Brooks, George Strait and maybe a little George Jones, and we would "step, step, back step," across the lunch room/gym for 40 minutes or so, switching partners a few times, wiping sweaty palms on our scruffy jeans, until everyone had a chance to dance with everyone.

And then sometime in the middle of the school year, Johnson Corners would host a dance on a Friday evening and there would be punch and cookies and the parents would visit and the kids would run around and eventually we'd all "step, step, back step" in circles together with our moms, dads and neighbors, sort of half-embarrassed and half-proud to know a skill the grown-ups know.

I'm not sure if the elementary kids in town kicked off their two-stepping lessons as early, but once we all got together in seventh-grade phy ed, the game of dance was definitely on.

And in my memory, it was the longest section of phy ed there was, lasting weeks with the same mix of music and the same mix of boys biding their time until the weather turned nice enough to end it all and head out to the softball fields.

I can't hear Tom Petty's "Free Falling" without being transported to that gym, the seventh-grade version of my husband with his hand on my hip, the seventh-grade version of me with my hand on his shoulder, awkwardly shuffling across the shiny floor in our stocking feet during fifth period.

Who would have known that 19 years later we'd find our grown-up selves at the end of a wedding celebration where my good friend, one of those girls who two-stepped in that country school lunchroom/gym next to me, danced with her new groom to a song I was singing with the band.

And so we were groomed for this really, us Johnson Corners kids, all grown up, dancing a polka and a waltz and a two-step with our parents, our grandpas and grammas and our neighbors down the road, just like the old days.


I played my last song of the night and I stepped off the stage to grab my husband. The boys played "Amarillo by Morning" and I put my hand on his shoulder, he put his hand on my hip, and we "step, step, back stepped," across the floor, shoulder to shoulder with a community who taught us to dance.

And I let him lead, despite my history with painted-on mustaches.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com .

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