Western North Carolina’s long tradition of community dancing continues every Thursday night in Bryson Gym on the campus of Warren Wilson College. The weekly contra dance is a high energy event, drawing large crowds of enthusiastic dancers — beginners and experts, young and old — from all around the region. For those who may not be familiar with contra dancing, it’s a group dance, similar (but not identical) to square dancing, with a “caller” who calls out the steps in time with the music.
The Old Farmer’s Ball had its genesis back in the mid-1930s, with a small family-owned and operated dance hall on Warren Wilson College Road, known as the Farmer’s Ball. The dance hall was originally built for family get-togethers, but it took on a life of its own, eventually becoming a public square dance that attracted as many as 100 couples every Saturday night. The sounds of fiddle, banjo and guitar filled the night. The Farmer’s Ball remained a popular gathering spot until the mid-1950s, when the original owner sold the property and moved to Old Fort.
But that was not to be the end of community dancing in Swannanoa. In 1982, caller Fred Parks started a new community dance in the old building, this time calling it the “Old Farmer’s Ball.” Dancers and musicians gathered there every Thursday night until March of 1993, when the “Blizzard of the Century” dumped over two feet of snow on our area, collapsing part of the dance hall roof. The following week, the dance moved to Warren Wilson College’s Bryson Gym, where it continues to this day.
Newcomers are always welcome at the Thursday night dances. A lesson for beginners starts at 7:30; the main dance begins at 8:00. Cost is $5 for Old Farmer’s ball members; $6 for non-members. Bryson Gym is located on the Warren Wilson College campus at 701 Warren Wilson College Road. For more information, visit www.oldfarmersball.com.
Editor’s Note: Much of the factual information in this article was gleaned from a history of the Old Farmer’s Ball written by long-time caller, dancer and musician, Phil Jamison.