Dancing. It is one of the oldest human activities. As something which has been commonplace for millennia, the origins of dancing have long been long lost in the mists of time.
In Central Alberta, dancing was deeply rooted in the ancient cultures of the First Nations.
It was rich in symbolism and spiritual meaning. Dancing could be a means of conveying stories, celebrating successes, mourning losses and deepening the connections with family and fellow band members, as well as the natural world.
Dancing was also very important to the early pioneers.
A community dance was a means of meeting newcomers to an area and providing opportunities for socialization, recreation and fun.
Often these pioneer dances were held in the local schoolhouse.
However, they were also held in stopping houses (pioneer hostels), barns, private homes and just about any other place that could hold a reasonable crowd.
Places where dancing did not take place (at least not legally) were bars and beer parlours. There was an official and widespread public belief that mixing alcohol and dancing would lead to all kinds of inappropriate and immoral behaviors. Consequently, any consumption of alcohol at community dances almost always took place behind the hall, or at another place where it could not be easily seen.
A major obstacle for dancing in the Red Deer area was the attitude of such powerful groups as the Methodist Church. Devout Methodists did not believe in dancing. Methodists were traditionally the largest Christian denomination in Red Deer.
However, even the Methodist Church had to bend somewhat to the popularity of dances. Hence, the Church organized what were dubbed ‘conversaziones’.
People gathered in a hall, but instead of dancing, they would walk around the room to music in pairs, while having ‘interesting conversations’.
Dances in Red Deer got a big boost in 1903 with the construction of the Purdy Opera House, on Gaetz Avenue, south of Mann (49) St.
While the Opera House was primarily used for plays, concerts, vaudeville shows and public meetings, dances were often held there as well. Beginning in 1904, the new Red Deer Fire Brigade held its popular annual balls at the Opera House.
In 1906, the Red Deer Quadrille Club was formed.
Quadrilles were a popular form of group dancing, not that dissimilar from modern square dancing. The local Quadrille Club proved to be very popular, particularly with teenagers and young adults.
Disaster struck in December 1907 when the Opera House burned down. Because a deep recession had beset the community, it was never rebuilt. A farm machinery warehouse on Ross Street was converted into the Lyric Theatre. However, the Lyric did not lend itself to the holding of dances very well. The renovations had been geared to the showing of the movies, a new and very popular form of public entertainment, which required numerous rows of fixed seats for the optimum viewing of the films.
Dances did continue to be held in such places as the local Oddfellow’s Hall, although this facility was quite small. In early 1913, the large St. Luke’s Parish Hall was built on Gaetz Avenue, north of MacLeod (54) St.
The Anglican Church did not have the aversion to dancing that the Methodists did. Hence, the Parish Hall was frequently rented out for dances and similar social gatherings.
In 1913-1914, on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War, the Red Deer Armouries were built on 49 St. south of City Hall. While the building’s primary purpose was for the recruitment, training and billeting of the military, the large open space in the drill hall quickly made the Armouries a very popular spot for large dances.
More about the history of dances and dancing in Red Deer will be written in a future column.
In the meanwhile, the Country Pride Dance Club is organizing a Celebration of Dance in Red Deer as part of Alberta Culture Days from Sept. 30th to Oct. 2nd.
The dances, lessons, workshops and other activities will be held at the Red Deer College. More information is available at www.countrypridedanceclub.ca and the Red Deer Arts Council web site.