Square dance, potluck dinner celebrates community
By Michael Turton
Saturday, June 22, marked the 28th year that Sandy Saunders welcomed the community to his Garrison farm for an old-fashioned square dance and potluck dinner.
After nearly 30, it’s safe to call the event a fixture in the community. The Saunders barn dance is steeped in tradition that also celebrates the building in which it is held. “The first dance was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the barn being built — and my mother and father’s wedding anniversary,” Saunders said. The barn is located on South Highland Road just off of the historic Old Albany Post Road.
The evening is anything but fancy, which only adds to its casual, rural feel. A pasture serves as the parking lot; outdoor seating is on bales of hay, and the large, potluck dinner table is a farm wagon on any other day. The bar consists of a couple of large coolers. But the centerpiece of the annual hoedown has to be the haymow in the barn’s upper level. Swept squeaky clean, it provides a basic dance floor. Behind the band and the caller, the large, open barn door looks out over one of the prettiest landscapes in all of Putnam County.
Through the years, the dance has helped celebrate a number of events, including Saunders’ daughter’s graduation from college. Another time it was simply to pay tribute to “a very good haying crew.” Saunders laughed as he described composer-conductor and local resident David Amram’s noteworthy participation in a previous dance. “He had never called a square dance before. He got into a Virginia reel and then couldn’t figure out how to get out of it!”
Saunders and “regulars” at this year’s dance also fondly remembered Culver Griffin, an iconic caller in the world of square dancing. Griffin, who began calling dances in 1938 and was a fixture at the Saunders party for years, died in 2006 at age 92. “His funeral had callers from all around the world … and it lasted five or six hours!” Saunders said.
This year, music was provided by Connecticut residents Janet Steucek, Sue Hill and Michael and Lisa Charbonneau, with Bob Livingston calling the dance. Asked how long he has been calling square dances, Livingston said, “Oh my goodness. With a live band? Since 1980.”
Jessica Mandy attended her first barn dance in 1995. “It’s such a community event. There’s room for everyone. New people move into the area and come here. … There’s old friends, family. … He just welcomes everyone,” she said of Saunders. “My favorite thing, though, has to be up in the barn. You see 80-year-olds dancing with 4-year-olds.”
This was the first dance for James Hoch, a relative newcomer to Garrison. “It’s quintessential Garrison,” he said. “Bringing people together from all walks of life — the school, the arts, the community — it makes people feel a part of the community as soon as they arrive.”
A recent transplant from Brooklyn agreed: “It’s just a great thing. I’m from the city — I love this farm.” And how did she hear about the dance? “Many mouths told me about it,” she said.
It’s not as though Saunders is a close personal friend of everyone who attends his annual get-together — the faces change each year. “If I know 10 percent of the people here tonight, especially the young people, I’d be surprised,” he said. “But that’s wonderful. People are very generous — they always bring good stuff!”
This year’s attendees enjoyed what was a near-perfect evening as the first full day of summer came to a slow and easy end. Up in the barn, the band played and the caller called, while young and old alike danced up a storm. Outside, conversation was nonstop and easy. People went back for potluck seconds. Adding to the idyllic feel was the precursor to the “supermoon,” the largest full moon of the year, which filled the sky the night after the Saunders dance. But at 98 percent full, the moonrise over South Highland Road and the Saunders’ barn was the final touch for the 28th version of an authentic community tradition.
Photos by M. Turton