We kept checking the weather. Our weather apps. The radio. The sky itself. Everyone promised rain. Some promised a drizzle. Some promised a downpour. We couldn’t afford much more than a drizzle. We had taken a chance and scheduled our annual dance to be outside. Rather than a barn dance, this one would be a bowery dance. Rather than inside, we’d be outside, under the September skies of Wisconsin. The dance floor was laid out, the band was in place, the hot chocolate was ready in case the temperatures dropped and we just kept staring at the clouds.
Late September in Wisconsin can be fickle. Fall has arrived, the mosquitoes have disappeared, and there’s often a chill in the evening air. Or it can be 90 degrees and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was July. We knew this, but the possibility of a bowery dance, a long-standing tradition in the region, was too tempting.
Bowery dances are, of course, dances that take place in a bowery. But bowery’s aren’t usually permanent structures, so you’d be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, a bowery is, and where, exactly, we’d be constructing one. Bowerys are usually temporary structures, open to the elements, sometimes decorated with greenery, that are used to give some shelter, shade, and respite to outdoor events. Weddings, picnics, celebrations, and, of course, dances, were common under a bowery. The Dictionary of American Reginal English cites mentions of the bowery dances as far back as the 1860s.
Our bowery dance, though, was hosted at the Allen Centennial Garden, a beautiful space, but one that didn’t allow for the quick construction of a temporary structure. So the dance floor went down and the musicians took their places, and the bowery dance was held under the September sky.
Luckily, the rain held off and our fourth-ever dance (and first-ever bowery dance!) featuring the music of the Scandinavian-American Old-Time Dance Music Ensemble and our 2022 musician-in-residence, Beth Hoven Rotto, was off to a dry start. Slowly, but surely, folks took to the dance floor and as the night went on, we quickly realized our dance floor wasn’t quite big enough. Turns out, that’s a good problem to have.
Dancers learned and taught waltzes, polkas, and schottisches. Students wandered in from the dorms nearby, community members braved the weather report, and old friends taught new friends how to dance a polka.
The bowery dance was a reminder of how important music and dance can be in creating community. The work we do on campus and throughout the Upper Midwest as part of this project aims to sustain and support various Nordic and Nordic American traditions. That includes finding ways to improve understanding of our past and our present through traditions like old-time Nordic American music and dance. By hosting these dances, by bringing musicians and dancers together in a barn in Middleton or in a garden in Madison, we hope to remind everyone that these traditions are alive today, changing today, creating community today.
Thank you to all who came out, the musicians, the dancers, the beginners and the more experienced, and thank you to everyone at Allen Centennial Garden for helping make it happen. We look forward to another dance in 2024!