American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 3
October, 2005

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 AMN Article  

Review of Farmall Promenade: "Square Dancing Tractors"

Richard S. Holmes

Nemaha, Iowa, population 120. A "Mighty" Small Town, it says on the sign; and it's the home of some of the best molly dancing you'll ever hope to see.

That claim might bewilder a resident of Nemaha, where they've probably never heard of molly dancing, and it might confuse someone familiar with the Seven Champions and the teams they've inspired. But remember what traditional molly dancing was: men, some of them dressed as women, doing social dances as display dances. That's just what the Nemaha Farmall Promenade is, with just two main differences: The dances are American square dances, and the dancers do them on farm tractors.

It's the sort of thing you need to see to believe, and if you're in the midwest during the summer you have lots of chances -- the 2005 schedule on their web site at lists twenty shows in venues from Nemaha to Butler, Illinois to Yankton, South Dakota. On the other hand, you could just watch the video. It's available from the web site (VHS format, 57:20, $19.95 plus $4 shipping), and I assume it's the same video I'm reviewing here, though the packaging seems to have been spiffed up a bit compared to the version I have.

We open with scenes of life in Nemaha -- the post office, the Town Hall that appears to be mainly a garage, the men on tractors. Then comes the show. Before a crowd that looks to be ten times the population of Nemaha, eight men walk on -- four in cowboy shirts and dungarees, four in matching skirts and petticoats -- and, after a bit of banter, they climb aboard eight bright red, restored antique Farmall tractors. The caller starts the taped music and begins calling the figures, and the dancing is under way.

Half a dozen dances are shown in their entirety. The tractors do basic square dancing figures -- stars, promenades, allemandes, do-si-dos, right and left grands. It'd be pretty dull if they were dancing on their feet, but on the tractors it takes on a whole new dimension. That they can do square dances on tractors at all is pretty remarkable, but, wait, there's more: They do them well. Watch the promenade, for instance: the couples drive around the ring with the tractors' big rear wheels only a few inches apart. A little mis-steering, or a little mismatch in speed, and it would get ugly fast -- but they stay in synch. At least one couple doesn't find much challenge in that, though, so they steer one-handed -- and hold hands.

Again, look at the right and left grand. Four tractors go clockwise, four counterclockwise, and they weave in and out, passing left shoulders -- tires? -- then right. That needs a fair bit of skill right there, but from the high camera angle you can see the tractors across the set from one another are directly across on a diameter of the circle. The last dance ends with a "chorus line" of all eight tractors in a single line, pivoting around the center. Their spacing is tight, and the line is ruler-straight.

What these guys have learned, in other words, is something some of us Morris dancers take decades to figure out: that ninety percent of good dancing is having a set where everyone knows what everyone else is doing, keeps their eyes and ears open, and makes what they're doing fit. Dancing as a team, that is, not as a bunch of individuals who happen to be in the same vicinity. The tractor square dancers obviously practice a lot; it shows. So does the fun they're having. The caller has some fun with the patter -- "Promenade around and round, keep those wheels right on the ground" -- and, in another case of Morris deja vu, one of the dances is interrupted by the arrival of a fool. He's dressed in black formal attire, causes havoc, and drives (well, of course) a green John Deere.

The tape concludes with brief interviews with the dancers and caller. There are some amusing stories about dressing as women, and some historical background (they started doing this in 1998 and the show was taped in 2001 -- how many three year old Morris side dance this well?). What I found most interesting was that apparently none of them but the caller knew much of anything about square dancing when they started. They were tractor guys, not dance guys.

I wish the audio were better -- pretty much it's what their microphones picked up off the PA, and some of it isn't very intelligible. Other than that, it's well produced, and it makes a strong case that traditional-style molly dancing is alive and well, living in America, and driving tractors.

 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 3, October 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689