It’s strange, but true – tractor square dancing is a real thing. It involves daisy chains and do-si-dos too. But instead of people dancing on their feet, four seated couples maneuver vintage tractors to complete the moves.
Laurie Mason-Schmidt, the caller for Farmall Promenade (the most popular tractor square dancing group), said: “We are all from Nemaha, Iowa. We have real jobs, believe it or not.” Since it isn’t an organized sport, there are no real statistics available on how many other such groups exist. Most people only come together to perform at one-time events.
The origins of tractor square dancing can be traced back to the fifties. An ad campaign in 1953 by tractor manufacturer International Harvester is believed to have started it all. The ad aimed to show off the fast hitching abilities of their Farmall Super-C tractor. It came with the latest technology (back then) that allowed farmers to switch implements as easily as changing dance partners.
Although the dance form has been around for over half a century, it was never really popular until the late 1990s. When Farmall Promenade was formed to celebrate Nemaha’s centennial in 1999, the tractor square dancing scene really took off. The group became so famous, International Harvester even sponsored them officially. Unfortunately, Farmall Promenade dissolved in 2009, but by then they had become the face of tractor dances all over the US.
Even today, various tractor dance groups emulate Farmall Promenade’s special touches. For example, their performances always featured eight riders – four couples to make the traditional square. All eight of them were men dressed in exaggerated drag costumes, playing the male and female roles. Another interesting feature was the ‘patter-call’ – the caller’s colorful, rhyming instructions.
Laurie was famous for her performance rhymes, like: “Promenade this girl please do, she’s the one who came with you. She’s with you, have no fear; she won’t go home with that John Deere.” She used the rhymes as placeholders to give the dancers extra time to complete a longer step.
I watched a video of their Mystery Tour performance in 2005. It showed eight men (four of them dressed as women) driving narrow tractors to music, responding to their caller’s instructions. It was actually quite fun to watch, especially the aerial view footage.
The Country Fest Tractor Square Dancers are one of newer breeds of troupes. They’ve broken tradition by using both wide and narrow tractors for their high gear shows, as opposed to the traditional choice of narrow vehicles. Their dances also have themes, costumes and pyrotechnics.
According to Bob Unrast, founding member, finding good tractor square dancers is not an easy task. “All but two of our group are farmers,” he said. “If you’ve never driven a tractor, it wouldn’t work. Not only do they dance on tractors, they do it in third gear.” All their dancers are in the age group of mid 40s to late 60s, and they’re one of the younger troupes out there.
George Frymower, the organizer of Pennsylvania’s Middle Creek Tractor Swingers, said: “We had people who didn’t have a tractor and didn’t know how to drive a tractor. Now that’s too much.”
It looks like the younger generation of tractor-drivers need to step in and revive the art form. Tractor square dancing is a beloved attraction at country fairs and celebrations across the US, but it might just need some young blood to keep it that way in the future.