1,881 dancers partake in folk dance; Guinness World Record sought
DECORAH, IOWA – What should an Iowa band specializing in Scandinavian and Scandinavian-American old-time dance music do to celebrate its 25th anniversary?
How about attempting to set a Guinness World Record?
Foot-Notes is a band based in Decorah, Iowa, a town in the northeast corner of the state, population 8,000. Its residents are comprised of predominantly Norwegian-American ancestry.
The band is known in the area for hosting dances that draw participants from differing generations and from all walks of life.
As Foot-Notes’ quarter-century mark drew near, its members Beth Hoven Rotto (fiddle), Jon Rotto (guitar, vocals), Bill Musser (acoustic bass, vocal) and John Goodin (mandolin), were faced with the decision of how to best commemorate the occasion.
Beth Rotto and Musser shared their thoughts about their 25th anniversary, the attempt at a Guinness Record, and their reflections on Foot-Notes’ impact and legacy.
Foot-Notes carries on a tradition of monthly old time dances in a rustic two-room schoolhouse in Highlandville, Iowa, where area residents have been gathering for years.
Of their musical repertoire, Rotto said, “Our repertoire is rich in tunes we’ve collected in our area from older musicians and from descendants of the area’s early fiddlers, but also includes a smorgasbord of traditional and original dance tunes, many learned from other fiddlers at Scandinavian festivals and musical events.”
Rotto describes the beginning of Foot-Notes:
“Our band was forming in 1990, not long after I had completed an apprenticeship with Bill Sherburne, a fiddler from just north of Decorah, in Spring Grove, Minnesota. He was the fiddler with a band that performed for dances at the Highlandville Schoolhouse, where I had enjoyed dancing since I was in college. The rumor was that he was threatening to quit, and I was concerned about that. I saw a press release in the paper announcing a master-apprentice program in the folk arts through the Iowa Arts Council, so I made contact with Bill Sherburne, applied and was accepted into the program.”
She continued, “My lessons with Bill Sherburne didn’t start too well. He hardly seemed to remember who I was, and he left the TV on while we played. Feeling frustrated, I brought Jon and his guitar to one of my lessons. That changed everything. Then we were a band, and Bill started remembering old tunes and was ready with more each time we came.
“By the end of the three-month apprenticeship, I believe I was working on all the tunes that Bill recalled at that time. I tried to play not just the notes, but I tried to copy his bowing and the set of his jaw. I played with him after the apprenticeship formally ended, but he died not long after that. Before he died though, he gave me his electronic pick-up for amplifying the fiddle and asked me to keep up the dances in Highlandville. I believe we were playing our first dance in Highlandville on the night he passed away.”
Rotto describes the type of music the band performs:
“The music we play is based in Scandinavian and Norwegian American traditions,” she said. “Even if we don’t know the lineage of a tune, we still play it in this style which is danceable, with a strong beat, but not fancy, not hotshot.
“I collected tunes early on from Bill Sherburne, but also from some elder women in the area who had accompanied their fathers or grandfathers who were fiddlers. They remembered the tunes and taught them to me, and I used what I knew from Bill Sherburne’s style to play them until the women agreed that I had the tune right. I also enjoyed going to workshops from visiting musicians from Scandinavia, and have loved swapping tunes from other Americans who play Scandi-style tunes. I get a boost from attending the annual Nisswastamman festival in northern Minnesota as often as I can, for example.”
Musser elaborates on the band’s musical heritage:
“Scandinavian-American old-time dance music was played by people in the immigrant community, and often people picked up tunes from other ethnic groups and incorporated them –German polkas occasionally slid in –but it was mostly Norwegian polkas and schottisches. In the 1930s and 4os, when radio was more prevalent, people learned music on the radio. Family bands were the entertainment in those days. People would go to community dances, and the bands incorporated tunes they heard on the radio into their repertoire. They would utilize a little bit of a flavor of American popular music, and eventually incorporated swing and country music as well.”
Musser said, “Music is like religion or language or art: A blend of all sorts of influences and that’s certainly the case with the Scandinavian-American dance music. There are certain elements that have stuck and made it still hold to its Scandinavian identity: We play tunes we’ve gotten directly from musicians from Norway and Sweden, so we go to the sources sometimes. There were lots of fiddlers in this area. Beth did some research for the Smithsonian documenting fiddlers in the Northeast Iowa area. Families, dynasties of fiddlers and musicians were around us here. Kids grew up hearing music at home. They would go to the community dances, and a fiddler came from the vicinity and they’d play all night long. The fiddler was usually a farmer too, and would go milk cows in the morning and work all day. Music was localized and regional.”
As the band marked a quarter century of music making, they knew they wanted to commemorate the occasion in a way that acknowledged their heritage.
Applying to the Guinness World Records
Rotto said, “The idea for celebrating our 25th anniversary as a band started about a year ago. We wanted to do something special in our community, and something that was unique to our heritage. In the past we had played for some large events, and we had even said, ‘I wonder if this is the world’s largest schottische?’.
The band members applied to Guinness World Records for the World’s Largest Schottische in January 2015.
Rotto said, “We were notified that the application was received and that we could expect to hear back from them in six-12 weeks. That sounded fine because we had six months before our event. We didn’t hear anything until July 9th, just two weeks before Nordic Fest. They said they we were not accepted because ‘. . .The dance you have applied for shares many steps and is almost identical to a record we currently monitor which is the largest polka dance. Due to this similarity we would not monitor the same record twice just with a different name.’”
She continued, “Although they suggested we apply for Largest Polka Dance (record held in Germany with 802 dancers), we did not want to do that. The schottische is a locally favorite dance, and is something unique to the larger Norwegian -American community. Most people here do a special variation of the dance called the “horse and buggy” schottische, which is nothing like a polka. Our publicity was out and we had our hearts set on doing the schottische. Of course lots of people who came to dance wanted to get in the Guinness Book of World Records, so Bill is gathering statements from authorities on folk music and dance and is crafting a letter to send the people at Guinness. They have said their decision is firm, so I’m sure we won’t make their record book, but we can at least say our piece. It was a really fun event and people are still talking about it.”
Musser added, “The schottische is distinct from the polka enough that it should be recognized as a separate dance. We are going to try to resubmit our application. There are types of schottisches that look like the polka, but the kind we do, the horse and buggy schottische, has two people in front two in back all holding hands. The front couple goes to the back, and the back couple comes forward, stepping and hopping.”
Collaboration with community groups
The members of Foot-Notes didn’t let the rejection from the Guinness World Records discourage them for long: They set their sights on Decorah’s annual Nordic Fest in hopes of drawing an even larger crowd of dancers.
Rotto said, “I had hoped to get this event approved by Guinness World Records, and looked at their website. There were tracks for individuals and businesses and there was a track for community involvement. That got me thinking about seeing if I could partner with Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum (also in Decorah), and about doing our event during Nordic Fest (Decorah’s annual celebration of its Norwegian heritage). Vesterheim liked the idea and Martha Griesheimer, coordinator of volunteers, became our contact and she was also the liaison with the Nordic Fest Board, so that was perfect.”
Musser added, “Martha got the registration set up and we advertised it as much as we could on our Facebook page and other media, encouraging people to register ahead of time so we had a sense for how many people would be coming. A week before the event, we had about 500 people registered, and we weren’t sure we’d get 1,000, but it happened pretty quickly. Foot -Notes has fans scattered throughout the country, but a lot of people came back specifically for this event, so that helped build the numbers, too.”
Rotto said, “Martha and Vesterheim were very involved from the beginning and besides setting up registration they helped choose the dance site, they did publicity, coordinated with other city organizers, recruited volunteers and fielded questions.”
1,881 registered dancers
Rotto said she was surprised by the turnout at Nordic Fest, which took place July 23-25, 2015.
“I had hoped for 1,000 registered dancers, but we had 1,881 confirmed registered dancers,” she said. “We really had no way of telling what things were like other than what was on the street in front of us, and since it was so crowded, we didn’t see everyone because they didn’t make their way around the circle to dance in front of us.
“Apparently they only moved a short distance during the dance. Usually people travel by and we can see and smile at them. Just before we started Jon climbed on top of his stool (making me nervous that he’d crash and damage himself or his guitar) and he said he was shocked to see people standing in dance formation filling the street for a long way. It was kind of like rising water. There weren’t so many people earlier in the evening, and I thought it might be sort of a regular- sized large crowd, but then suddenly the street was full all around us.”
Video and photographs of the crowd were posted on the band’s Facebook page, Foot-Notes Fans, and its website. As the band readies its re-submission to the Guinness Book, fans may purchase their newest single, titled ‘World’s Largest Schottische,’ online at digital music companies including iTunes or CDBaby by searching for Foot-Notes or World’s Largest Schottische.
Rotto said the rewards of playing in a band include sharing music at community events and for a wide range of people:
“The most rewarding part of being in Foot-Notes is playing for real events in our community and playing for a diversity of people, from all ages and walks of life,” she said. “We play for anniversaries, weddings, festivals, elder hostels, farm tours, radio shows, church groups, fundraisers, nursing homes, reunions and our regular dances at the Highlandville schoolhouse. We’ve played for dances at the college, a dance at the middle school, and one year the high school kids on the organizing committee wanted us for prom, but the principal said they had to have a DJ.
“Families come to our dances, and so do high school and college kids, and seniors. Some come to watch, but most come to dance. People from elsewhere always say, ‘How do these kids know how to do this dancing?’ They’ve grown up with it, and it’s not hard, and around here, anything goes really, and nobody cares if you are doing things just so. Our dancers are pretty creative. Kids add a leap frog move, that’s okay.”
As Foot-Notes celebrates its 25th anniversary, Rotto and Musser consider the impact of the band’s music:
“Many people have written to or told us that our music makes them happy, or reminds them of their family member, usually deceased, who played the fiddle, or that coming to our dance is something they look forward to and want to share with their friends and family,” Rotto said. “Many times people tell us that they have played our recordings or taught people to dance using them around the world- in a village in Africa or Asia, or a preschool in Oregon or California, in the mountains of the Philippines, or a nursing home in Minnesota or North Dakota.”
Musser said, “We see older people and younger people dancing together; the younger people learning how to do the dances from the older people. More recently, since there have been a lot of younger people coming to our dances, the revisions they have made have become standard. The old-time two- step we learned from our parents is different from the younger generation of Highlandville dancers. A couple of folks added another step to the two-step, so it feels more right with the music to them. What happens is that when music is introduced, dance forms are introduced, and they evolve, because people make variations by choice. What we do in Foot-Notes is a microcosm of how music evolves. If we were absolute dictators about everything, then we wouldn’t be a living tradition. I think we’re flexible enough to allow the evolution within the whole dance tradition in Highlandville.”
Foot-Notes’ two CDs available for purchase, ‘My Father Was a Fiddler’ and ‘Decorah Waltz’, and their new single “World’s Largest Schottische” are available online at iTunes, CD Baby and elsewhere.
And now, courtesy of Cassandra Faldet Cook, the World’s Largest Schottische.
Sara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa