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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Margot Mayo
and the
American Square Dance Group (ASDG)

By Faith Schottenfeld Zavon, July 2, 2013

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Faith Schottenfeld Zavon

Faith Schottenfeld Zavon of Cincinnati, Ohio, was born on September 13, 1923 and passed on September 18, 2021 at the age of 98. She was a prolific writer. Faith was born in Brooklyn and graduated with a BA in science from Brooklyn College. She married and raised four children, working over the years as a food chemist, a bacteriologist, a court reporter, and a legal secretary. She also taught a course in logic at the University of Cincinnati. Faith was a friend of the Society of Folk Dance Historians founder, Ron Houston.

Here is one of her folk dance essays.


PROLOGUE

I don't intend to give dance instructions to any dances. Instead, I want to explain the style that Margot taught, because when I go to a square dance now, style seems to be completely absent. The entire evening, while I'm dancing now, I'm making this contrast mentally to the detriment of my enjoyment. Please bear in mind that I'm only commenting on what happens in Cincinnati. My dancing days are largely over. Here the caller starts the dance without having us square up and without having us honor partners and corners. The lines of the longways sets NEVER start out straight and often never get straight. This bothers me immensely. I don't enjoy sloppy dancing after having learned what I did from Margot. (Longways are contra dances done in two lines facing each other, such as in the Virginia Reel.)


AMERICAN SQUARE DANCE GROOUP (ASDG)

I was a member of the ASDG from 1940 to 1947. In 1947, I married my husband, Mitch, and never lived in New York City after that, although I visited often.

To me, it was amazing to have found this pocket of traditional American dance and song in mid-town Manhattan, New York City, closely surrounded by all the famous night clubs, restaurants, famous actors and actresses, and theaters. Even the famous Stage Door Canteen was only about two blocks away from where we met.

I joined the ASDG in the early 1940s. I was 16 years old and a freshman at Brooklyn College. There was a square dance club at college. After I joined it, I learned that more square dancing occurred every Monday night in mid-Manhattan. I was a very new dancer then, a beginner. I loved the dancing in the college club. It was never enough for me, so I decided to investigate the square dancing in mid-Manhattan. This is what I found.

The group met in one of several studios run by the Nola family, obviously called Nola Studios. Our studio was a large, oblong room with a wooden floor and several folding chairs lined up against one wall. On a slightly elevated level at the far end of the room stood a piano and a piano bench. I arrived when only a few people were there. Gradually, others arrived.

Soon, a slightly short, energetic woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth came and sat down at the piano. This was Margot Mayo, the leader and the teacher. She knew all about Appalachian dances, dancing tradition, and the songs of that region. Later, I learned that she was born and brought up in Kentucky, and that her uncle was "the banjo pickin'ist man in Kentucky." Margot knew the New England square dance and longways traditions extremely well, too. She and Ralph Page were good friends. He was the expert in New England dancing, and she had the ASDG doing New England dances just the way Ralph Page did. When Manny, the caller, arrived we began to dance. We danced from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 or 10:30 p.m.

The ASDG met every Monday night. Once a month, on a Saturday night, Margot and Manny conducted a square dance to which the public was invited. The ASDG also had a Demonstration Group that performed all over New York City. To qualify for the Demonstration Group, you had to be a knowledgeable, excellent dancer AND you had to write a paper on some aspect of Appalachian or New England folk tradition. Because Margot taught us many Appalachian folk songs and Negro Spirituals, I wrote my paper on Work Songs.

On a typical Monday evening, we might dance several squares, a New England longways dance, a Kentucky Running Set, and maybe a Quadrille. There was always a break near the middle of the evening. Then Patty Tobias, one of the dancers, seated herself at the piano to play European couple folk dances. Others in the group already knew these dances and taught them to those of us who didn't know them. The first such dances I learned were "Road to the Isles," "Toting," and "Varsouvienne."

Several times a year, folk singers would drop in for a visit. Margot was very good friends with all of them. Our older, more experienced dancers seemed to know them well, too. I didn't know any of them. I just sat with the rest of the group, enthralled as they sang and played their instruments. The singers were Pete Seeger accompanied by his then wife-to-be Toshi, Leadbelly, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie.

Margot insisted on accuracy and good form in even the simplest dance. This meant keep the set trim and concise. Don't swing so long that you become out of phase with the music. Be where you're supposed to be at the end of each phrase of the music. In a very simple, repetitive dance, being precise in this way makes for increased enjoyment, which such a dance would lack if done sloppily.

At the beginning of each dance, the caller began with: "Honor your partner. Honor your corner." We would turn first to our partner and then to our corner to acknowledge them with a polite nod and perhaps a smile. The caller might sometimes add: "Honor the couple across the hall." Then couples 1 and 3 and couples 2 and 4 would acknowledge each other in the same way.

In numbering couples, couple 1 always had their backs to the music. Couple 2 was to the right of the first couple; couple 3 was across the set from them; and couple 4 was to their left.

O 3
4               O
O               2
1 O


CALLER AND MUSIC

Before each dance began, the caller reminded us to keep our sets trim and tight by calling: "Square your sets," or "Square up." One hard and fast rule was that even if you knew the dance well and you knew what to do next, NEVER anticipate what the caller will say and NEVER start to do any figure before the caller actually calls it.

Our costumes for performing were very simple. The men wore white shirts and dark trousers. The women had to make their dresses, because even though they were simple, there was no place where one could buy what Margot required in a square dance dress for us to wear while performing.

The fabric had to be of cotton in a small calico print. The dress had a square neck trimmed with rick-rack. It had a "dirndl style" blouse with several rows of rick-rack around the bottom. A long, narrow sash surrounded the waist, tied at the back with a small bow. Margot would not have tolerated the huge, flouncy, flared skirts that one sees so often on square dancing women performing now. She maintained that such outfits were not traditional.

It is important to know that what Margot taught was what she knew – the Appalachian tradition that she grew up with in Kentucky. She didn't make up any of it. She didn't commercialize any of it in an attempt to make it more appealing or acceptable to a public largely taken up with big band music and Frank Sinatra.


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