Promenading and Dosey-dos-ing through History

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Photo by Lester Smith

Ralph Sweet’s Powder Mill Barn is still active on South Maple Street in Hazardville.

To say Ralph Sweet danced his way through UConn School of Engineering would falsify. But there were mornings when instructors could not wake him up because he had been out square dancing the night before.

A 1946 freshman at UConn, Ralph Sweet joined the 4H Club because “…they featured square dance lessons after meetings, which I skipped…” Connecticut’s 4-H sponsored a state square dance festival with callers who submitted their calls in advance “…so kids could practice them before the festival which was held on the football field, all marked out in lime in 12 foot squares. All live music…” Ralph exulted, “…and all singing squares!”

“At public square dances no teaching was done… You just dove in and scrambled around until you ‘got it!’ Square dancing thrived but centuries- old contra dancing was becoming extinct in New England. Hearing about a small, private Connecticut contra group, Ralph learned contra calls and “…itching to call to live people…” he went to Ekonk, Connecticut: “… two chicken farms, two houses, and one Grange Hall…” and called for the group.

Ralph called square and contra dances through UConn, earning his engineering degree, then working for 14 years at Hamilton Standard as a test development engineer. Meanwhile, he went with the National Guard to Georgia, Texas and Boston, “…to protect Boston from North Korean bombers…” Guardsmen could go out “…any night they wanted…” and Ralph wanted every kind of dancing there: American Square and Contra; Scottish and English country; and Irish Ceilidh.

In Georgia he hitchhiked across the state looking unsuccessfully for square dancing, but in Texas he discovered “…square dance paradise: early modern western square dancing three nights a week on the base, dances in town and at the Square Dance Ranch.”

Back home, Ralph married and had two sons. He danced and called throughout New England often playing piano accompaniment. Playing with many callers and dancers along the way, he became involved with many groups as teacher and official. He and his sons played in the Nathan Hale Fife and Drum Corps which he taught and accompanied on the accordion. Ralph also learned how to make flutes and founded the Sweet Heart Flute Company. He founded a band, “The Fifer’s Delight” with his son playing fife and flute, Ralph playing accordion, and with piano accompaniment by a former student.

Starting to teach classes in Enfield, Ralph looked for a barn to convert for dancing. He found a horse barn abandoned by the Hazard Power Company in Hazardville. Windows and frames were broken and the roof leaked. With the help of the Enfield Associated Square Dancers and others, the first dance was held there in 1959. Two new clubs formed: The Powder Mill Puffers and the Powder Keg Squares. “They were a PhD level club. I was the first to award a PhD to square dancers!”… Ralph wrote.

And did he write! This article is harvested from the detailed autobiography Ralph wrote about 2005. With materials and help from Boston Public Library, Ralph and two women in the Nathan Hale Corps produced a book, Twenty- four American Country Dances of the Revolutionary Era, named after books published in England during the 18th century. Ralph noted that these form the documented history of American Square and Contra Dancing.

Ralph wrote a book, Let’s Create Old Tyme Square Dancing offering a 12 lesson course. He taught fife to the Nathan Hale Fifes and Drums; they did Revolutionary War enactments and discovered that during that particular war “… they did a lot of dancing.”

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