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Henry Ford and the revival of country dancing.

He is remembered as the wizard of the production line, the nemesis of organized labor, the history buff who spent millions of dollars creating Greenfield Village, Michigan (his tribute to America's past). Henry Ford changed the face of twentieth-century America with his development of the affordable automobile. But, even as his cars rolled off the line, transforming American society and making him one of the wealthiest men in the country, Ford yearned for the horse-and-buggy days. He was a passionate collector of antiques -- furniture, clocks, violins -- and old-time dances.

His antiques filled the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village, and his collection of old-time dances filled a small book, with a lengthy title: Good Morning -- After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. Published in 1926, it remains an important reference for leaders of country dancing today.

Good Morning was written to further Ford's mission of reviving the dances he remembered fondly from his youth. They included quadrilles (squares), contra dances (using many of the same figures as square dance, but danced by couples in two facing lines -- for example, the Virginia reel), and round dances like the varsovienne, the waltz, and the polka. Ford considered all of them highly preferable to the "new-fangled dances" that were sweeping the country in the twenties. He deplored jazz and dismissed the Charleston as a form of dancing "that enables the largest possible number of paying couples to dance together in the smallest possible space."

Ford, who grew up in a Michigan farming community in the years following the Civil War, met his wife, Clara, at a grange hall dance. Their courtship was carried on to the sound of fiddle tunes and the caller's instructions, "do-si-do" or "promenade home." But within a few years of their marriage in 1888, the Fords had put aside their interest in dancing as Henry became engrossed in building his automobile empire. By the early twenties, he was one of the richest and most powerful men in the country, but he had also suffered public humiliation as a result of his libel suit against the Chicago Tribune. Ford won but received negligible damages, and his testimony during this protracted trial revealed a woeful ignorance of American history.

He responded by amassing a huge collection of antiques and purchasing and refurbishing historic properties, such as the Wayside Inn in Massachusetts. After Clara reminded him that "we have danced very little since we were married," Henry renewed his acquaintance with old-time dancing. The couple's fumbling attempts at recalling their favorite dances sent Henry, never willing to be found less than perfect in any desired accomplishment, in search of an authoritative dancing master.

The man he was looking for was Benjamin B. Lovett. He and his wife, Charlotte, both natives of New Hampshire, had been teaching traditional New England social dancing in Worcester, Massachusetts, for some twenty years. Lovett believed that dancing lessons should produce a "growth in social training as well as in habitual graceful carriage ... We clung to the old American country dances because they were typically American and provided much greater opportunity for this social training than the modern dances." Ford met them on a trip to Massachusetts and was delighted to find another man with strong convictions about the role that old-fashioned dances could play in instilling manners in young people. The Lovetts were invited to Dearborn to help organize a series of dances for the Fords. They expected to visit for a month or two. They stayed twenty years.

As soon as he had secured the Lovetts' services, Ford sought out players familiar with the violin and the sousaphone and such rare instruments as the cybalum and dulcimer to serve as a house orchestra. They were given rehearsal space in the Dearborn engineering laboratory, where they were to be ready to play at a moment's notice when their patron felt like going over a sequence of dance steps. An area of the large laboratory building was curtained off to serve as a ballroom, and Ford called in company executives and their wives to share his enthusiasm. By the end of the first evening of dancing, confusion reigned. Ford's response was typical: "We'll have lessons every night until we get it right," he told the assembled group.

For the next two weeks, Lovett's instruction was compulsory and, after the Ford executives began to "get it right," so was attendance at Ford's Friday evening dances. If anyone occasionally demurred, saying for instance that a dozen guests were coming to dinner that evening, Ford would instantly respond, "Bring them out here. What time will you finish dinner? Nine o'clock? I'll send cars." And indeed, at 9:00 P.m. the couple and their guests would look out to see a line of Lincolns or station wagons parked in front of the house.

A massing a collection of dances came next. Agents were dispatched around the country to research the old steps and figures and collect the tunes that traditionally accompanied them. Assisted by Lovett, Ford published the results of his research in Good Morning. The book began with a series of introductory chapters that dealt with style and deportment (how to use a handkerchief "to protect ladies' dresses from the perspiring palms of their partners"). These were followed by step-by-step descriptions of specific dances, including several quadrilles and contra dances, the waltz and other round dances, and even a minuet. There was also a brief discussion on "Exercising the Knee Joints."

Introductory chapters were clearly aimed at proselytizing not only devotees of the Charleston but also the significant numbers of Americans who considered any form of dancing sinful: "The dance is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Some have regarded it as a part of human speech ... the expression of emotions and ideas in rhythmic movements of the body bears all the indications of a deep natural instinct."

While acknowledging the universality of dance, Ford also reveals his ethnic biases: "Denunciation of the dance by the protectors of public morals has usually been occasioned by the importations of dances which are foreign to the expressional needs of our people. With characteristic American judgment, however, the balance is now shifting toward that style of dancing which best fits with the American temperament. There is a revival of that type of dancing which has survived longest amongst the northern peoples. " (Italics added.) This was, of course, the old-time dancing that Ford espoused. Good Morning became a major factor in promoting its revival.

Because anything Ford took an interest in was grist for the media, cartoonists had a field day depicting the auto magnate tripping the light fantastic. His invitation to Mel Dunham, a seventy-three-year-old fiddler from Maine, to play for a dance in Dearborn produced a spate of stories in newspapers around the country. Dunham, who had made the trip in the industrialist's private railroad car, was a man after Ford's own heart: "Jazz ain't dancin'," he had told the New York Evening Journal in December 1925. "Anyone can get up and prance around like that. It's the old-fashion dances that are real dancing."

Naturally, some journalists went looking for divergent opinions on the subject of old-fashioned dancing. One Paris correspondent for an American paper got an earful in an interview with Isadora Duncan (also no admirer of jazz). She accused Ford of surrendering to the sex instinct in reviving the old-time dances. She was particularly concerned about the effect of Ford's dancing program on children: "I believe all these dances are inadvisable for children, and I mean children of 1850 or children of today. The aim of educators should be to teach children movement based upon youthful heroic impulses, not upon sex impulses." If Ford wanted to teach children real dancing, he could send for her, Duncan suggested, and she would come with joy to teach a dance that would express the highest vision of the country, "a dance that would be worthy of Abraham Lincoln."

Not surprisingly, Ford ignored her invitation. He was indeed concerned with the dance education of children, but his chosen instrument in that mission was Lovett. Nine months after the first dancing party in the engineering building, Ford decided that Lovett should organize a dancing school for young people in Dearborn. The first class of eight boys and eight girls (enough for two quadrille sets) quickly grew into a much larger group, which eventually had to be subdivided into many classes. At one time there were 22,000 students from public schools in the Dearborn area participating in these classes. Ford later took his mission to Detroit, providing training in country dancing for that city's physical education teachers. For years, these dances were part of the Detroit public school curriculum, which used a manual that Ford had written.

Lovett's influence soon extended to colleges and universities. Where European dances had been the only kind of folk dance taught in college physical education classes, now American dancing was added to the curriculum at such institutions as Temple, Michigan, Radcliffe, Stevens, and North Carolina. Under Ford's sponsorship, the Lovetts taught in thirty-four universities, colleges, and normal schools.

Meanwhile, Ford's enthusiasm for promoting manners and deportment in the young led to his establishment of a private, self-contained system of schools in Greenfield Village. Old-time dancing was part of the curriculum, along with academic subjects. Lovett, as the acknowledged authority on manners and deportment, was Ford's choice for school superintendent, even though the dancing master had no teaching degree or background in general education. Only when Ford decided to add a three-year engineering work-study program at the high school seven years later did he accede to the suggestion that someone with a technical and academic background be in charge.

Lovett seemed quite happy to return to full-time duties as a dancing teacher. He was now able to conduct dances and classes in Lovett Hall, the elegant ballroom that Ford had had built in Greenfield Village in 1937. With its parquet teakwood floors and crystal chandeliers, it reflected the greater formality that Ford had brought to the dances over the years. The Friday night dances continued there, and the calls and music were nationally broadcast.

The Lovett Hall dances ended after America's entry into World War II. Ford, who had continued dancing with vigor well into his seventies, lost his enthusiasm for dancing and for life after his only child, Edsel, died of cancer in 1943. Not long afterward Lovett decided to return to New England. When he went to visit Ford at his Fair Lane mansion to say goodbye, Ford did not recognize him.

For many years following Ford's death in 1947, dances were held sporadically at Lovett Hall and in other locations in Greenfield Village. But it was almost forty years before old-time dances resumed on a regular basis. Today, the monthly dances with caller Glenn Morningstar and his old-time string band draw two to three hundred dancers from miles around. For the most part, the evening dress of Ford's day has given way to T-shirts and jeans. Women are as likely to ask men to dance as vice versa. And most of the figures, especially the stamping "balances" and the wildly spinning "swings," are done with a vigor that would have shocked Ford and Lovett. Yet the Good Morning comment on the dances still holds true: "fascinating to the spectator, and exhilarating and joyous to the participant."


Henry Ford must share credit for the revival of old-time country dancing over the past 70 years. Several decades before the publication of Good Morning in 1926, Cecil Sharp, an English musician and educator, had made preservation of the dance and music of English country folk his life's work. He found no one acquainted with English folk traditions until he met a group of Morris dancers in a country village. Sharp spent the next twenty years collecting dance and music native to the rural areas of England. Later he conducted similar research in the Southern Appalachians. Today, the English Folk Dance and Song Society and its American branch, the Country Dance and Song Society of America, founded by Sharp, continue to promote traditional dance and music. Write CDSSA at 17 New South Street, Northampton, MA 01060; or phone (413) 584-9913.

Grace Ryan, an instructor in physical education at Central Michigan Normal College (now Central Michigan University) in the early 1920s, wondered why the curriculum included only European dances. Why not teach some of "our own kind of dancing," she asked. As a young girl growing up in the small town of Portland, Michigan, she had learned these dances at the community dance hall. Years later at Central Michigan, she asked her students, many of whom were from rural areas, if their folks did any dancing. After several years, Ryan had collected enough dances to fill a book. She sent the manuscript to a New York publisher, who quickly returned it. "When it appeared that the great Henry Ford of Dearbon, Michigan, was publishing his book, Good Morning," she recalls, "they wrote to me asking to return the manuscript. So my book, Dances of Our Pioneers, was published in 1926." Later, Ryan was invited to a party at Ford's Fair Lane mansion, where she danced with the great man himself. She remembered him as very meticulous: "Every step had to be just so. There was no freedom, no letting go at all."

Dudley Laufman, a caller and fiddler in New Hampshire, recalls going to a dance called by Lovett in 1949. He remembers the dancing master dressed in a tuxedo, teaching the minuet. "He was kind of a stuffed shirt, not our cup of tea," he says. One of the major figures in the country dance revival in New England during the sixties and seventies, Laufman termed it " part of the back-to-the-land movement of the period. Now it's moved back to the urban areas. It's all the rage with computer programmers." Laufman himself started dancing in 1947, when he left urban Massachusetts to work on a New Hampshire dairy farm; there have always been rural pockets in New Hampshire (and elsewhere) where old-time fiddlers and dancers have never let the old traditions die.

In Colorado, Lloyd Shaw, like Ryan an educator who wanted to teach his students American dances, began searching out the old dances of the American West. Shaw had first used Good Morning as a source of American dances, but he was also able to learn enough Western dances from elderly callers to publish his book, Cowboy Dances, in 1939.

Traditonal American dance forms like New England contras, Southern Appalachian Mountain dancing (including buck dancing and clogging), and Western squares continue to flourish in all parts of the United States today, thanks to -- among many others -- Cecil Sharp, Grace Ryan, Dudley Laufman, and Lloyd Shaw.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on other country dancing pioneers
Author:O'Neill, Kate
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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