Dance To The Song Of This School Room: The Highlandville Dance

by Annika Quinn*

The old schoolhouse in the tiny community of Highlandville in northeastern Iowa seems nondescript at first glance. However, a few nights a year people from near and far make their way to the schoolhouse for a night of dancing and old-time music. The Highlandville dances have been held in the schoolhouse since around the 1970s, and it’s an event held dear to many people in the Driftless area. In the beginning, well-known local fiddler Bill Sherburne played with his band for the dances. When he was to retire, Beth Hoven Rotto apprenticed with him to learn his repertoire through a grant from the Iowa Arts Council in the 1980s. The music itself draws from Norwegian heritage, which makes sense as the Driftless boasts prevalent Norwegian heritage and a strong history of Norwegian immigrantion. However, the music is not simply Norwegian. Over the years it has formed into a musical tradition of its own, specific to the region and to the schoolhouse itself.

The 1990s kicked off with the formation of Foot-Notes, with Beth on the fiddle, Jim Skurdall on mandolin, Jon Rotto on guitar, and Bill Musser on the acoustic bass. Later on, John Goodin took up the mandolin for Foot-Notes instead of Jim. As a group, they play two-steps, waltzes, schottisches, and polkas into the night for the dancing crowd. The crowd itself is usually dancing in casual clothing, and sometimes with bare feet. Dancers like David Alstad and Carol Bergan have been coming to the schoolhouse for decades. During the school year college students are a common sight, and the summer months see more curious newcomers. Be it new faces or regulars, the Highlandville dances can be found attended by people of all ages and of any dancing experience. It’s a popular event, one that many hold very dear. Once people come, they tend to come back.

Highlandville School House during the day
The dances are housed in the Highlandville schoolhouse, built and maintained since 1911. It is surrounded by trees and neighboring campgrounds and consists of one large room and a smaller entry room. Photographer: Nathan Gibson.
Meghan Sickel cleans windows in the Highlandville School House
A building used seldomly throughout the year, the first step in holding a Highlandvillle dance is to clean the schoolhouse. This time the fieldwork team (Meghan Sickel pictured) performed the task, cleaning the floor, windows, and chairs. The chairs are then arranged around the perimeter to leave the floor open. Photographer: Nathan Gibson.
Foot-Notes albums for sale.
This table sits before the door and houses the admissions and Foot-Notes albums for sale in the wooden basket. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
Foot-Notes admission tin
The admission tin sits on the table. Patrons drop five dollars into the tin on their way into the main room. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
Foot-Notes setting up musical equipment for performance.
Foot-Notes set up their instruments and equipment at the back wall of the schoolhouse around 8:00 in the evening. Foot-Notes bring all of their own equipment, including their chairs. While there is a piano in the corner, it is now out of use. Photographer: Annika Quinn.

The music that Foot-Notes plays is usually described as old-time music. However, as John Goodin points out, that can mean different things. “It’s Scandinavian-American old-time music, which is its own little pocket,” he says. “It’s just a great treat to find this little island of this special music that exists here.” Beth also makes a point about the dance’s strong regional connection: “A lot of what I like and what’s helped our band to kind of have an identity is to…focus a lot of our repertoire on local tunes and tunes with Scandinavian heritage.” She also noted that the schoolhouse itself plays a large part in the special atmosphere of the event. It puts everyone a step back in time to match the music. The unique atmosphere of the old schoolhouse is praised by dancers as well.

People standing outside of the Highlandville School House
People begin to arrive soon after, parking on the lawn around the schoolhouse. Photographer: Meghan Sickel.
Foot-Notes begin to perform.
Foot-Notes begin to play. From left to right is Beth Hoven Rotto, John Goodin, Jon Rotto, and Bill Musser. Photographer: Nathan Gibson.
An older couple dancing to music.
The moment Foot-Notes start playing, the dancing starts, no matter if not many people have arrived yet. This couple smile as they dance together. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
Two young women dancing.
These two girls were students from the area and are skilled dancers. Third from the left sits Carrie Solberg from Decorah, a skilled baker of traditional Norwegian fare. Sitting to her left are Steven and Donnalou Baner from Illinois, attending their first ever dance on their way through town. Photographer: Meghan Sickel.

An aspect of the dance that garners attention from both Foot-Notes and attendees is the amount of young people that come. Families come with their children, but also seen are local high school and college students. Usually, old-time music and dancing polkas are associated with only older generations. However, according to Foot-Notes, the amount of young people has only increased over the years. According to dancer David Alstad, their enthusiasm makes them fun to watch. The fact that the event spans all generations is something locals find truly special about Highlandville dances.

David and Carol Alstad dancing.
David and Carol Alstad from Spring Grove, Minnesota, have been coming to the dances for a long time and came to a dance for their first date. David says that they try not to miss any. Photographer: Ariel Byerly.
Many couples dancing.
The amount of people increases as the night goes on. Few people don’t dance. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
Carol Bergan stands outside the schoolhouse.
Carol Bergan stands just outside the schoolhouse as the dance goes on inside. Her grandson and other children play on the lawn nearby. Photographer: Annika Quinn.

Family is a common theme attached to the Highlandville dance. Foot-Notes were happy to bring their children and the adult dancers bring their children or grandchildren. Carol Bergan can mark four generations that danced in the schoolhouse, from her mother to her grandchildren. She herself attended the first dances around 1974 as a high schooler. Like many others at the dance, they try to make it a family event to come as a group to dance with each other. The importance of the dances to Carol extend beyond the event itself. Her daughter’s wedding dance was at the schoolhouse, along with a couple family graduation parties at which Foot-Notes played. “It’s big history for us,” she says with a laugh, “It’s very special.”

A group of people dance the schottische.
A schottische in full swing. Whether with strangers or friends, dancers form groups of four and dance counter-clockwise around the room. There are many variants of the schottische but this one is the variant familiar to the Highlandville dance. Photographer: Meghan Sickel.
Foot-Notes perform.
Foot-Notes play on. The blue stool behind Beth has a traditional Norwegian rosemaling design painted on top of it. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
Couples waltzing.
People dance an enthusiastic waltz with Carol Bergan in the center. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
David Alstad talks with Beth Hoven Rotto of Foot-Notes.
David Alstad talks with Beth Hoven Rotto during one of the few breaks that Foot-Notes take. Foot-Notes say that he is one of the only dancers to ever have requests. Photographer: Annika Quinn.

There’s a specific repertoire that Foot-Notes plays that regulars are familiar with and like to hear. Carol Bergan can hear the music and knows the kind of dance that goes along with it. She loves the feeling of arriving after it’s begun and hearing the familiar music floating out the open schoolhouse windows. But in addition, John Goodin notes, “If we add something new, there’s no question about it. Nobody ever says ‘What’s that?. They just dance away.” Foot-Notes marks the dances as relatively easy to learn and follow up along. As long as there are dancers there who know what to do, newcomers will pick up the patterns.

A couple teaches a young man to dance during a break in music.
The break is prime time for two people to teach a friend how to dance a waltz. Most dancers take advantage of the break to go outside and cool down. Photographer: Annika Quinn.
Many couples dancing.
Dancers engage in one of the last dances. The dance goes on until 11:00pm, although they have been known to go on longer. Most dancers keep going until the very end. Photographer: Annika Quinn.

Attendees of the Highlandville dance will say that the dance is “special”. It is special for its location in the charming old schoolhouse. It is special for the way it easily spans generations. It is special for how the atmosphere, full of laughter and constant dancing, welcomes even the most inexperienced dancers onto the floor. It is special for the dancing itself. As David Alstad says, “Hardly anyone plays schottische anymore”. In fact, whatever people say is special about the Highlandville dance is often followed by something along the lines of ‘You don’t see that anymore’. In this way, people feel pride in continuing on a tradition from older times, a form of preservation for a fading culture. Indeed, there have been fewer and fewer dances over the years. It’s a musical tradition ingrained in the memory of regional tunes and dance from a Scandinavian-American beginning. From Bill Sherburne to the repertoire of Foot-Notes, the music people recognize at Highlandville has become a heritage of its own. As the dance comes to a close, Foot-Notes start up the local favourite: the Highlandville Waltz. It was penned by two local community members for the Highlandville dance specifically. The dancers waltz around the room, mouthing the words of the refrain: “Dance to the song of this school room.”

The Highlandville School House lit up under the night sky.
The schoolhouse under the night sky. Photographer: Annika Quinn.

*Annika Quinn is an undergraduate student at St. Olaf College. In June and July of 2019, Annika took part in Folklore 490: Field Methods and the Public Presentation of Folklore, and completed this photo essay as a final project in the course.