The Battle Hymn of the Dance Republic and/or Way Down South in the Land of Dance?
By Ken Westgate 7/12/2011 


It was a cold Sunday early afternoon in late winter even though the sun was shining brightly. We ate tuna salad and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank sodas and coffee as our car sped toward its destination. The four of us, my wife Kim and I, and our two friends, Sobe and Shawna, were on our way to a dance class in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the Civil War Museum. The class started promptly at 2:00 pm and we wanted to be there a bit before the class so that we could catch a demonstration by the professional dance team and get a glimpse of what we would be learning in the class. Sobe and Shawna had been coming to these classes for the past two years, and participated in the annual ball at the State Capital Rotunda in May of each year. There were four classes beginning in January, meeting once a month, and continuing through April in preparation for the ball. The classes were free and Kim and I had been told the dances would be easy to learn and far less strenuous then other ballroom dance classes. These were period dances, straight out of the Civil War period. They were the dances done by officers and their wives and the society of Washington and Richmond, and other major cities on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line during that awful time in our nation’s history. They were the height of civility at a time when death and destruction was reigning down on hundreds of thousands of the nation’s young men. The irony of it all was that in the midst of this national tragedy, citizens could still gather to socialize and celebrate far from the thunder of cannon and the wiz and slap of lead shot. The Civil War Balls were often occasions for the spies on both sides to gather important information about troop strength and movements as members of the officer corps having a bit too much libation were somewhat looser with their tongues then they should have been. Dressed in their finery it was difficult to tell exactly whose side you were on unless you wore the uniform of one of the embattled armies.

As our car wound its way up the steep hill to the Museum we were awestruck by the expansive view of the valley below and the wide Susquehanna River winding its way toward the Chesapeake Bay.
The view of the State Capital Buildings and the surrounding communities was equally impressive. As we exited the car, other cars nearby were disgorging their Civil War costumed participants and a great throng was headed toward the doors of the museum. We were in regular street clothes. Our hosts, Sobe and Shawna had said that a number of the participants in the classes would come dressed in regular street clothes for the lessons, but many others would be dressed in authentic looking period costumes for the ball. As we entered the museum a tall man dressed in period formal wear stepped toward the microphone in the center of the lobby to greet the guests and students who would be participating in the lessons to follow. Sobe headed off to a set of steps to the left side of the lobby and up the stairs to a dining area where he could eat his lunch since he had been driving and didn’t have time to eat his as he focused on getting us here in time. Shawna, Kim, and I stood off to the right of the speaker. He introduced himself and the principal dancers who would be demonstrating a few of the steps we would be learning. He started off with a simple waltz step. The dancers took a much more formal position for the dance then I was used to when it came to the waltz, but the familiar one-two-three, one-two-three beat of the music and the similar step, step, side-together foot pattern I had done hundreds of times before put me at ease. Kim hadn’t done any real ballroom dancing, so I could see she was immediately intimidated by the precision of these dancers. The second dance was a dance that looked a bit like a square dance, but had many more partner changes and movements. I had done square dancing from the time I was in Junior High up through the end of High School and then had done it again after Graduate School with our church’s annual summer camp group. I understood what was going on, but knew I was going to have to pay much closer attention to all the partner changes in this type of dance. Kim had squared danced a few times herself, so she look a bit more relaxed then before. The final dance was a reel, a sort of precursor to the modern day “Dancing with the Stars – Quickstep”. The movements were lively and much more relaxed then the other two dances we had seen demonstrated. It looked like fun and the overall steps seemed a bit like a very quick foxtrot step. I thought I would really enjoy this type of dance since I always enjoyed the foxtrot in dance classes.

The announcer / dance caller thanked the dancers for their demonstration and then invited those of us who were interested in attending the classes upstairs to continue with the lessons. The rest of the audience he invited to visit the museum exhibits which would remain open until 4:30 when the dance class would be over. We headed up the winding staircase from the lobby into a large open carpeted room. The view from this room was astounding as it looked out over the valley below. The entire rear of the room was large floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The sun shining through the windows and the building heat actually made the room quite warm as all of us shed our winter wear and at the direction of the announcer headed to the dance floor area where the lessons would begin. The students ranged in age from about age six up to dancers who were clearly in their late 70’s or perhaps even early 80’s. All of the instructors were in period costume and they positioned themselves around the room where there could work with groups of 10 to 15 students at a time. There were well over 100 students in the room as the announcer begin saying that we would start with a simple slow partner dance. Not quite a waltz, but something similar. I don’t remember the exact name he gave it, but he said it was often the type of dance where you could meet a new partner for the first time, and do a series of slow deliberate steps that allowed the partners to exchange a few greetings with one another so that they could get acquainted with each other if they did not know each other prior to coming to the dance. Men and women wore gloves in those days and there was no direct contact flesh to flesh at any time during these dances, but looking your partner in the eye and exchanging pleasantries as you danced was permissible. Young officers would often meet prospective wives from among the single young women invited to attend these balls during the war. Married couples had a chance to catch up a bit and to take time to reconnect perhaps after months apart while husbands were serving on the battlefield. Politicians could hobnob during the musicians breaks, and if the ball were attended by some high ranking official in government, it would afford the ranking officers an opportunity to pitch their requests for additional troops or supplies. If the president was in attendance. Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis in their respective capitals these balls served as opportunities to chat about their leaders perspective on how the war was advancing.

Kim and I took our positions on the dance floor. Each “newbie” those who had not attended class before were partnered with someone who had attended at least one other class, and if you were lucky you were partnered with someone who had been coming for several years, and you would have the benefit of a very skilled partner to make sure you were doing things right. The costumed group of instructors were called to the center of the floor to demonstrate the steps again for us, more slowly this time, and then they were positioned where they could see us as we attempted to mimic the steps. There was no music at first, only a slow walk through of each step, then the announcer would indicate that the music would be started and he would call out specific tips on when to do certain moves or partner exchanges while the music played. We practiced two or three times without the music and with the instructors guiding those of us who were struggling through the steps. Then the announcer would indicate that there would just be music and no guidance from him, while we went through the steps to the music being played as it would have at the ball. I recall feeling absolutely helpless on my first attempt without guidance from the instructor. It brought back vivid memories of my early days in ballroom dance class. Without Miss Mack calling out the steps for us to do, I felt like my feet would move independently of anything even barely resembling the steps we were to do, and I was terrified I was doing nothing more then crushing the delicate feet of my dance partner who seemed equally terrified at the thought that I might actually do that as I stumbled around the dance floor. Miss Mack would quickly halt the mayhem for those of us who were “newbies” to the class, and proceed to demonstrate in front of the whole class with us, how the steps were to be done. Despite the incredible shades of red which I was able to attain while undergoing the embarrassment of being so singled out for the whole class, I was relieved that by the end of her demonstration I actually felt I could do the steps and somehow mustered the confidence to try again. My dance partners seemed quite relieved as well, as I didn’t step on their feet once following these intimidating demonstrations. I was beginning to feel that same flush of red grow in my face as I found myself being pulled aside by one of the instructors who then proceeded to walk me through the steps again with my partner in front of the group of students he or she was supervising. My wife chuckled as silently as she could seeing her “ballroom” trained husband stumble around with two left feet in the early phases of this instruction. She was actually doing quite well with her own partner and only found herself in my predicament when she was actually partnered with me and I blew some of the steps again.

The announcer continued to walk us through a variety of slower dances for about an hour and then we took a break. My wife was very thankful as her feet and back were in a good bit of pain from her chronic fibromyalgia, and her damaged discs. She had been a real trooper in trying this out and had toughed it out for an hour without complaining. She got a coke and downed a couple of Ibuprophen in order to help ease her pain. She said she’d sit out the next couple of dances and see if she were up to returning in a bit. She sat down next to a lady in a wheelchair with a cast on her right leg from ankle to above the knee. She had come with her husband and as a veteran of these classes, she was hoping that the cast would come off and she’d be out of rehab in time to attend the ball with her husband this coming may. A skiing accident had caused the need for the cast, but she was confident she’d be up and dancing by mid-May when the ball was to be held. I wandered off to the Men’s room to splash some cold water on my face and try not to look so flushed as I had earlier, both from embarrassment and from being a bit out of shape. I actually hadn’t expected that these classes would take so much out of me, but not having done formal dance classes in quite a few years, I had forgotten how much of a work out they could be.

The second half of the class involved adding more dances that picked up the tempo a bit. I was okay with some of the “line” type dances, and some of the “large circle” type dances. These were simple steps, quicker in pace, but nothing really complicated. I was paired with a very lively and very enthusiastic student who had been doing this for over 7 years, and she was quite good at helping me with the steps. I managed to keep up with these dances until the announcer started with the reels. While these were obviously the most fun dances and probably represented the “rock-and-roll” of the Civil War era, they were much harder to keep up with, and after two of the reels, I finally slumped off the dance floor to catch my breath. My wife and I sat and watched our friends giddily prancing around the floor with the other dancers as they finished up two more reels. The announcer finally stopped and called the group together for some final information about the remainder of the lessons in the session and several other balls that were preceding the one here at the State Capital building. After about 10 minutes he dismissed the group and reminded us all the museum was closing in 10 minutes. We gathered our belongings, said some final farewells and thank you’s to our instructors and some of our partners for the day, and then headed back down the winding stairs into the lobby of the museum. We spent a few minutes talking with the wife of the announcer about the dance troupe and how this all got started. She was very helpful and obviously had a vast knowledge of dance during the Civil War. We would have loved to chat longer, but the museum security staff was ushering people from the building.

As we got into the car to start our journey home, our hosts asked us how we felt about our experience. I said I had enjoyed it and would love to come again. My wife quietly squeezed my hand firmly and smiled and said she found it interesting but found it a bit more physically challenging then she was up to but said she would consider my enthusiasm as we checked our calendar to see if she was working at the hospital the next time there was the dance class. We chatted with Sobe and Shawna about a whole bunch of other things as we stopped for dinner at the local Pancake House, and then finished the drive home. My wife and I never went back to dance class. Sobe and Shawna attended their third ball. Shawna was a dedicated Civil War enthusiast and had made period costumes for her and her husband. In addition, she invited the Harrisburg dance troupe to come to Allentown to the Allentown Historical Society Museum to give a demonstration locally. Shawna is a dance major in college, and has been a dance instructor for many years, and is hoping to start a Civil War dance troupe in the Lehigh Valley area. Whether she will have time for all this as she finishes up her college degree is unknown, but she and her husband will continue to share this unique experience and they continue to encourage others to participate as well.

So…; here we go again, just how does all of this fit into the Technology Picture?

First, we need to remember that our present-day technology is the outgrowth of many efforts that actually began during another war, World War II. The first computer systems were designed to help us break enemy codes during the latter part of World War II. The theoretical and practical concepts developed during that time laid the groundwork for what we use today. Even the INTERNET that we have come to take for granted today was the outgrowth of the Post-World War II efforts to speed communications between military bases and military research programs. The development of the transistor and the modem which took place in the early 1950’s made both modern computing and modern computer telecommunications possible. Even the beginnings of the cell phone were first put forth during World War II; although it obviously took a bit longer for that to develop then other aspects of technology. We need to remember that while computer technology has advanced exponentially since then, it goals were noble in its beginnings and continue to be for many applications that we use today, including those in education. Remembering the past; the tools we have used to educate, the methods, strategies, environments, etc. are all important to providing a foundation for our understanding of how all of these things have changed in the world of education today, and what things of value should be retained regardless of the changes in technology around us.

Second, we need to go back and revisit the history and development of this technology so we can understand its foundations and how the technology gradually began to reshape the world we live in, so we can better anticipate how it will shape the future for ourselves and our students. Learning the “dance steps” of the past, helps us manage the dance steps of the present and future.

Thirdly, we may stumble over some of the steps that we are learning, even when they are “simple, old, and seem to belong to another era”, but if we hang in there, and don’t let our embarrassment, discouragement, or our initial inability stop us, we will learn and progress just like we expect our students to learn and progress with the subject skill content we are teaching them.

Fourth, it actually doesn’t matter how we come dressed (how prepared we are to undertake new technology learning). What matters is that we understand why we were “dressed” a particular way in the past (how they were prepared), and understand that the important thing is our interest and desire to learn (the dance steps) how to use new technology that counts now. Our methods of training will continue to be impacted by the technology we are using. We won’t always have an “announcer/caller” / teacher in our classrooms in the future. Blended learning (computer-based / teacher supported) will be much more common and is now taking precedence in many schools across this country. Being afraid of this change, or reacting as if our only hope is to return to our “Civil War” days when the technology didn’t exist, isn’t an appropriate response to these changes. Our response needs to be one of engaging (the enemy – if you don’t like technology) or embracing the technology if you are willing to view it as another important and valuable tool as we try to reach the young minds who are growing up with these tools in there hands from the time they are in pre-school. Remember the Civil War divided and decimated our nation. While we survived it and rebuilt, the rebuilding was painful and continued to impact our nation negatively up through the beginning of the 1980’s, just a few years before (1990 was the beginning) of the public availability of the INTERNET which opened new horizons to millions around the world.

Finally, as much as I love history, and I do, I was a history major in undergraduate school, I have learned long ago, that you must learn from history, but you don’t want to repeat its mistakes. You want to learn from them and move on. If we don’t move forward as we encounter the new developments in technology and its impact on education, we will be doomed to repeating the failures of our educational systems and methods of the past. We live at a time, where repeating such failures will be costly to our very existence, not just as a school, but to our nation as a whole. We lost nearly 680,000 men almost 1/3 of all males in this nation during the Civil War. We can ill afford to lose nearly 1/3 of our children to a system that refuses to recognize the changes that technology is bringing not only to education but to the world around them.

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