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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Mary Lea Bailey
Leader and Teacher
as told to Susan English in 2015

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Mary Lea Baley


Let me tell you about my life as a leader of international folk dance – where it started, where it took me, and some of the many special people I met along the way.


I was born in 1926. I have a wonderful childhood memory of grabbing grapevines and swinging out over open space. This was in the mountains of West Virginia where my father, Harry Wolfe, was sent by the Civilian Conservation Corps to manage a tree-planting project. We lived in a one-room cabin, and I went to a one-room school. By my 5th grade, we moved to a town that had a covered bridge, where my father was in charge of building a right-of-way to get electricity to people in rural areas. I became active in 4-H – making muffins and cornbread, going to camp for a few days and coming back homesick. At home with my two sisters, we often played Monopoly, which came out in 1932. We were fierce competitors.

By the time I got to 8th grade, we moved to Michigan, where my father was leading a 2-county Michigan Consumer Cooperative project. Because of the poverty brought on by the Depression, people were organizing cooperatives to buy their food more cheaply in bulk and help each other along in various ways. Circle Pines Camp, northeast of Kalamazoo, was the center of our social activities. There we did group dances and play party games, often to piano music, because in those days it was rare to have an RCA Victrola. Sometimes my mother would play the piano. That's when I really started to dance, in the mid 1930s.


My high school years began in Circleville, WV, and ended in Washington, DC, with my summers back in West Virginia with my family. At 4-H camp, there was an extension recreation specialist who took a special interest in me because of my enthusiasm for dance. Her name was Jane Farwell.

As our local extension agent, Jane was scheduled to lead dances all around. Once she couldn't go and sent me in her place. I took her sound system and records and went down to Virginia Tech. These were farm people who wanted to be out and square dancing, all in a big circle, things like "Birdie in the Cage" and other figures that you do around the circle. I had seen this done and knew how it worked, but this was my first large group. I had about 300 people.

Jane Farwell also talked about Oglebay Folk Dance Camp in Wheeling, West Virginia, which she had founded. Jane being the magical person that she was, she convinced my whole family to go. Our first time there was Labor Day weekend in about 1943.

Next I attended Earlham College in Ohio. At the same time, my parents moved to Washington, DC, where my mother got her masters degree in teaching. She then taught at Sidwell Friends School, which was across the street from where they lived. I also worked at Sidwell a summer while I was in college.

After college, I went back to Oglebay Institute to work with Jane Farwell. I worked full days plus evenings, learning and teaching folk dances from around the world. We might have an expert in a particular ethnic dance, such as Albanian or Turkish, offering workshops in the morning and afternoon. Then we'd have an ethnic meal – Jane's idea‚Äďand in the evening we'd do mixed international dances and end with a square dance. I remember learning "Misirlou" from folklorist Mary Ann Herman. New Englander Ralph Page came to Oglebay. That's also where I got to know the Baileys, a Quaker family who had a fruit farm across the Ohio River from Wheeling, about 5 miles uphill. Warren Bailey would become my husband.


Warren and I were married on August 13, 1949, at the Friends Meeting House in Washington DC. We returned to West Virginia so Warren could help my father run a sawmill providing local people with employment. My father, who was an electrical engineer, had to first find a way to create the steam to run the sawmill. He convinced a wealthy man from Chicago to provide the start-up money – there might have been some Quaker connection there. I worked in the office, and then one year I taught school.

After a few years at the sawmill, we were ready for a change. Some friends who ran a children's camp invited Warren and me to be assistant directors for a summer. It was 1953. Our first daughter, Sara, was just a year old, and the three of us lived in a tent. Warren and I had a great time with sailing, cooking camp meals, and so on, but we also started making wooden games from around the world and teaching the campers to play them. Many of the ideas came from a little 4-H booklet I happened to have – games like Nine Men's' Morris, Fox and Geese, and Skittles – and Warren was an expert at fine woodworking.

The games went over so well with the campers and their parents that we figured, aha, there might be something there. So that was the start of World Wide Games, which would become our company and means of support for the rest of our lives. We would travel to nearly 50 states, not only selling games but also teaching international folk dance, singing, and other group activities – always helping people have fun. We got into selling folk dance records produced by Michael and Mary Ann Hermann, plus book and record sets like "The World of Fun." Our home in Ohio would become a constant parade of interesting people coming and going. Thirty-three years later we successfully sold the company.


Back to 1953. Since we were just getting started with World Wide Games, we decided to move close to Warren's brother Oscar so he could print the directions for the games. Oscar had just graduated from Wilmington College in art and found a job printing little books about dance and recreation for some people near Delaware, Ohio – Lynn and Katherine Rohrbough. The families knew each other through a Consumer Cooperative connection, and one of their daughters was also in my class Earlham College.

Lynn Rohrbough and his wife, Katherine Ferris, owned a farm with a big barn, but they were not farmers. Lynn was actually an ordained minister, probably Methodist, who was focused on recreation. Katherine was a quiet woman with a PhD who handled copyrights and managed the finances. Lynn went around collecting songs, games, and dances, and he frequently invited international students from Ohio Wesleyan University to come out for a visit. He collected their songs and games as well and published them all in little booklets, for which he had an enormous printer in the barn. Each page was on a molded plate, probably metal, which they would lay out on the deck. This is why he hired Oscar, to work on design and printing. They sold the booklets to the Methodists, Presbyterians, and for camps and conferences everywhere. Every time a new booklet was published, Lynn would hand us a copy.

Many of our games came from Lynn's research. For example, we started selling Mancala games, the West African board game with all the cups. We sold it as "Adi" because in what is now Ghana, they used the seeds of a particular bush. I had played this game with an Ohio Wesleyan student from that part of Ghana, and we used those actual seeds.

We rented a house from the Rohrboughs for about 3 years, until they divided a large piece of land into two- to five-acre plots. We bought one of those plots and started working with others to build our houses. That was 1956. Oscar's house was the first house to be finished. The "Homestead Acres" community shared a pond for swimming, and we had potlucks at the Rohrbough barn, just off the print shop. It's not that we were close friends with everybody, but we had these connections. We were all in this cooperative movement kind of thing because we had to figure out a way to survive. In a way, we're still doing that nowadays. People will thank us for reaching out, but that's just what we always did.


We took our World Wide Games to many Recreation Leaders Labs, sometimes six or seven Rec Labs in a year. The Rec Lab idea came out of a meeting of mostly ministers at Walden Woods in Michigan in the early 1930s. They were looking for ways to help people get through the Depression by creating their own recreational activities and making handicrafts that they could sell. They all went back to their home communities to start leadership training programs in recreation. There was Black Hills in the fall, Great Lakes and Laurel Highlands in the spring, and so on, probably 10-12 Rec Lab groups in different states. A rural sociologist at Ohio State University, R. Bruce Tom, went back and founded Buckeye Leadership Workshop. Many churches also developed similar programs, including the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Southern Baptists.

I collaborated with Bill Alkire at many Rec Labs over the years, as well as Oglebay and a wide range of camps and conferences. I would teach international folk dance while Bill led American dance and conducted various leadership activities. One time Bill and I and another person did a weekend program where we taught everything out of "The World of Fun." Bill was especially good at getting people to move to different squares and then in the end getting them back to where they started. For me that was pretty amazing.

I think I have made a difference in recreational dance. I know when I first went to Southern Baptist, they were eager for performers for an audience, and I had to warm them up to the concept of everybody participating. When I was in Wheeling and would take my students out for a demonstration to Kiwanis or a class or church group, we would always ask people to come up and dance with us. So, part of it was getting people to try something new and mix with people who are different from themselves.

Folk dancing and singing were always important to me – group activities that did not require buying anything. I became a regular instructor for the Columbus Folk Dancers in Ohio. I also liked something where I could be in a different place and do different things every week. One memorable time, I was leading dance for Great Lakes Rec Lab at Camp Cavell in Michigan. We went out onto the porch that overlooks Lake Huron and did the simple line dance "Hallelujah," which I had learned years before at Oglebay. I remember moving to the music and looking out over the water with this group of maybe twenty people. Every time since then, when I dance "Hallelujah," I'm transported back to that porch, looking out over the water.

Mary Lea Bailey currently resides in an assisted living complex in Delaware, Ohio, where she taught international folk dance classes through 2015. For this article, I visited Mary Lea in 2015, attended her dance class, and spent two days listening and recording. Her daughter Linda Bailey Johnson assisted with the editing of this article.

This will become a chapter in a book I am writing entitled Dancing with Bill Alkire: An Oral History. Please feel free to contact me at 330-347-8155, senglish@umich.edu, or https://www.woosterdance.com/ Thanks, Susan 3/1/22


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