Spring’s Maypole Dance

Our new bus driver stopped the school bus–to demand that we quit singing!

The small Iowa schools in Dallas and Madison Counties were reorganized in the late 1950s. In the shuffle, my sister and I no longer went to school in Dexter, but were bused to Earlham–a rival school.

One of the worst things about the move was that Mr. Cooper was no longer our bus driver. When Mr. Cooper saw our parents on the street, he would greet them and tell them what nice children they had, and how he enjoyed it when we kids sang on the bus.

And every year, on the last day of school, he would stop at the Dairy Queen to buy a nickel cone for every kid on the bus.

We’d sing riding to and from school, kids of all ages–from kindergarten through high school–riding the same bus. We couldn’t imagine not being able to pass some of the time singing.

All the kids in the Dexter school had something in common–a remarkable music teacher.

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Ruth Sellers.

Music classes were not held in the big two-story brick schoolhouse where my parents and even Grandma Neal attended, which has since been torn down.  Instead we filed outside to another small building, which in a former life was an old country school building.

I can still hear Mrs. Sellers lightly blow her pitch pipe, hum the first note, and enthusiastically raise her arms for the downbeat.

I’ll never forget Mrs. Sellers’ end-of-the year extravaganzas, which included the entire school. They were held in Dexter’s historic elliptical brick Community Building, also known as the Roundhouse, built in 1916.

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We students sat in the east-side bleachers, class by class.

My mimeographed program of the 1954 Music Festival began with the crowning of the May Queen by Mr. Winegar, our tall slick-haired superintendent. Next came the Tapping Toes–Beth Sellers (daughter of the music teacher) and Linda Lenocker (who gave dancing lessons as Linda LaVonne for decades).

The a chorus of 84 children, grades kindergarten through third grade, sang “Father We Thank Thee,” “April Showers,” and “The Woman in the Shoe.” My sister Gloria was named among the second graders. Then came folk games by these same classes. One was called “Captain Jenks.” I can remember the tune and part of the march, done with arms folded and held straight out, circling your partner as the record player sang out.

The Junior High Chorus included the 13 fourth graders (my name is among these), 18 fifth graders, and 26 sixth through eighth graders. We sang “Come,” the compelling “Down in the Valley,” and the lilting “Kentucky Babe.” I don’t remember the first one, but we loved singing the other two on the schoolbus. We also got to dance the Schottische–one arm up, the other akimbo, move around the circle, then back. And the Heel Toe Polka–heel, to, cha-cha-cha.

There were just 53 students in Dexter High School that year, averaging 13 per grade. You can see why there was talk of school reorganization. The high schoolers sang Rogers and Hammerstein’s “No Other Love” and “When Day is Done.”

The highlight of the whole evening for me was the Maypole Dance–performed by girls in fourth through seventh grades. Colorful streamers of netting, like our petticoats were made from in those days, flowed from the top of a pole.

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This is indeed a Maypole Dance done in the Dexter Roundhouse, with its iconic “D” on the gym floor–where my parents played basketball decades earlier. Date unknown.

Our mothers shared in our excitement because while we were practicing the dance and winding of the Maypole, they were busy measuring and sewing our polished cotton Maypole skirts in shades of pink, grey, and white. We’d all bought our fabric from Miss Kramer’s store there in Dexter.

I can still hear the first three chords from the record player, signaling when to kneel–just so–then to lift our streamers and step back in place. The music kept us synchronized for the first movements, all stepping in one direction around the pole, then the other, lifting our streamers over the others who marched in the opposite direction.

When the music signaled, the magic would begin–the actual winding of the pole.

Half of us wove in and out one direction, half the other, around and around the pole. A lattice pattern formed as we ducked in and out until the music ended, leaving the Maypole enveloped in a colorfully woven sheath.

The actual climax of the May evening was always something uplifting. In 1954, it was a concert version of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” It was like being in Heaven to sing with so many voices, with Mrs. Sellers’ encouraging and energetic directing from the gym floor below.

Yes, we sang, “Joshua Fit the Battle” on the bus.

Reorganization of a school that small was inevitable, and it actually happened four years later. I noticed that on our new bus, the kids weren’t as well-behaved. Even kids can sense that a man who doesn’t like singing on the bus doesn’t really like kids at all.

But even that curmudgeonly bus driver cannot spoil the memories of Mrs. Sellers’ spring music festivals. And the Maypole Dance. Or singing on the schoolbus.


 

8 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this so much! I attended primary school on the gold mine where I grew up – seldom more than 40 children from Grade 1 to Grade 7; how well I remember those netting petticoats too! We all walked to school then, mostly barefoot in the summer – and I still remember some of the songs we sang all those years ago. My experience was obviously very different from yours, yet the trip down memory lane has been a pleasure.

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  2. Hi, Joy. Jack told me about your blog and this piece. It was fun to read, and took me down the path of trying to remember the lyrics to “The Woman in the Shoe”. It took a bit of time, but now I can’t get the song out of my head. Mom would say, “Whistle Yankee Doodle” – her cure for a too persistent song. I love the idea of all of our mothers sewing our matching skirts. Happy May Day (after). Beth

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    • I told Jack that wish I had better pictures! And a colored picture of the skirt. As I remember, it had double box pleats and maybe even a set-in zipper. I saved it because I still loved the colors. Sounds like you’d better start writing down memories.

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    • Thanks, Leora! The on on May 11 will be “Year of the Weddings.” Would you believe our parents were married 75 years ago this month! And Uncle Don and Aunt Rose were married that January–all three siblings in the same year.

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