This evening we’re talking with Jim Belanger at Christie’s Campground in Newport, Maine. Jim lives in East Millinocket, Maine with his wife Pat and regularly calls for the LeVi Rounders, other Maine square dance clubs, Adult Continuing Education, fun dances, and the New England Convention. Jim is a long time caller and does a fine job of puttin’ smiles on dancers throughout the dances. We are looking forward to learning more about Jim with our interview. Let’s start that, today is June 19, 2008.
Joseph: So Jim, Why don’t you tell me where you were born and some childhood memories.
Jim: I was born in East Millinocket, Maine in 1938. Right in the middle of the early part of World War Two. Early childhood memories are I remember my father working as a … I guess it was called a patrol. He would go out and make sure there was no lights coming from the windows of the houses in town. They were afraid the Germans were going to fly over and eventually bomb the United States. Childhood memories of playing with my good friends. Back then we played army. Then after the war we played cowboys and indians. Definitely was not square dancing at that time.
Joseph: What was your first introduction to square dancing? How old were you?
Jim: I was 30. Pat was 28 and her mother and father were treasurers of the local club called the Paper Mates. And, they kept coming, asking every September to come and take lessons. I told her I don’t want to go up there and play ring around the rosies with those old people. But, uhm, one year the guys in the neighborhood were going with their wives and so I thought, well, what the heck, I’ll try it. I only have to go one night. I got there and liked it. And stayed with it. And early after that I was starting to call.
Joseph: What year was that?
Jim: We started taking lessons in 1968 and I started calling at an Amateur Caller’s night in ‘69. That’s when I took my first chance at calling square dancing.
Joseph: So you started with amateur night. What did you find appealing about calling?
Jim: It lets me bring out the ham in me. I like to show off. I like to be the center of attention. I really enjoyed calling. It was hard on Pat because she doesn’t dance much. I enjoyed what I was doing. I Guess I was selfish.
Joseph: When you first started calling, who impressed you?
Jim: A lot of callers impressed me. Cliff Long who was a great caller from Mars Hill, Maine. He always wanted us to hang around his dance till the last tip. Because it was the best one. He figured he called his way all night, now it was time for him to have a good time. It was really a good tip. I stood behind him one night and tried to figure out how he was keeping track of his corner. But it took me awhile before I could learn how to sight call. Barney Robishaw was an excellent caller. He lived closer. He lived in Mattawamkeag. Our caller was Leo Robinson from Bangor. He was a barber in the Bangor area and he was lame (he had one lame leg) he used to call sitting down. But he was a great caller.
Joseph: So, was Barney your first mentor for square dancing?
Jim:e More or less because he lived closer to us. I’d call him up and ask him things. He’d let me call at dances he was calling. I’d call and he’d come over to me and he’d say, “Where’d you get that material?” I’d say, “I read it in a book.” He’d say “Throw the book away.” He’d say “You call and be yourself. Just call easy stuff. Just keep ‘em dancin’ to the beat of the music and then you’ll be able to go on from there.” I thought he was belittlin’ me, but, he was helpin’. Really did. He helped a lot.
Joseph: What do you remember the most about Barney?
Jim: His easy goin’ way. He did a lot of calling down at a campground on the east coast of Maine. Called Sunrise Shores. He really did a fantastic job. Anyplace he called he did a fantastic job. He was one of the first callers to do what is now called the Advanced Program. Back then it wasn’t. Back then it was called Hot Hash back then. Now it has a category for itself. Advanced. A1, A2.
Joseph: Tell me about your first days of square dancing. What stands out?
Jim: Square Dancing, I guess I liked it from the start. Because I wasn’t very smooth as a Waltzer or Jitterbugger. Course that’s what we had back in those days. I found that in Square Dancing it wasn’t like you had to put your foot in one spot and the other foot in another spot. I just wasn’t smooth as a dancer. But, as far as Square Dancing I found that it was easy. I found that it was complicated at times, it was challenging at times. And, all the time, it was fun. And I really enjoyed square dancing. To this day I don’t like to ballroom dance. I do Round Dance some but I’m not very smooth at it.
Joseph: What is different then when you started calling with Square Dancing compared to Square Dancing of today?
Jim: Crowds. We had humongous crowds. In the Bangor area there must have been five or six clubs going. In Aroostook County, there were clubs in Presque Isle, Houlton, Caribou, Madawaska, Ft. Kent. I remember calling in Ft. Kent one night and I went down to get a drink of punch, and to work my way back through the crowds after the Round Dance Cuer was done it took me a good … seemed like five minutes. I was probably only three minutes to get back there. These were the same group that I had called to the Saturday night before in Madawaska. So, we used to get fantastic crowds. Then for some reason, all of the sudden, they just went kapoowee.
Joseph: That sure is different. The number of new dancers. Any suggestions?
Jim: We’ve tried everything. One gentleman down in Blue Hill told me one night, he and his wife brought in four squares alone for classes that year. He would go and knock on the door and tell people to come to the meeting hall … that we’re gonna have a square dance. His wife was waiting at the hall to greet the people, talk to them, keep them enthused till the husband got enough squares to get the club going. That’s one of the ways that I heard. They did have a good crowd that year. But, we’ve tried everything. Tried doing promotions. The LeVi Rounders danced the Bangor Mall and we didn’t pick up anybody out of it. It’s hard. I don’t know the answer. I wish I did.
Joseph: Often times I hear you speak positively about Callerlab. What was your first impression and what’s your impression of Callerlab today?
Jim: Callerlab standardized the levels of dancing. I remember that night going to Old Town, Maine to dance to the caller by the name of Lee Spaulding. And back then, the third tip of the night was considered by all the clubs as a workshop tip. And that’s where we learned the call Spin Chain Thru. Which is now in the Mainstream Program. That call stayed. But, you could get anything from any position on that third tip of the evening and you may not hear it again. Now with Callerlab, you have Basic number one thru fifty that makes up the Basic Program. Calls number fifty-one through sixty-eight which makes up the Mainstream. And then you go to Plus, then you go to A1, then you go to A2. They’re all defined if you know if you’re going to an A2 dance, you’re going to hear A2 calls. You’re not going to hear C1 calls, you’re not going to hear C2 calls. You’re going to hear A2 calls. The combination between A1 and A2, they tried to decide to make it all one. I’m glad that they left it at A1 and A2. The people wouldn’t have so much to learn right off quick. You learn A1, you dance it for awhile, then you can move on to A2. Whenever you feel like you want to be challenged more, there’s always something you can move on to. But Callerlab has really done a fantastic job at straightening out the levels.
Another big thing they did was when BMI and ASCAP decided that callers needed licenses to call, they stepped out and made it easy for us to get our license. They’ve really done a fantastic job to help square dancing.
Joseph: Going back to when you first started. You’ve been calling for more than 40 years. Who were some of the people who were your peers then when you first started out?
Jim: Of course Pat was my biggest peer. She’d tell me when I was doing something wrong.
Joseph: Pat’s you’re wife?
Jim: Pat’s my wife, yes. Barney Robishaw of course. There was a lady from … I don’t remember her name, I was calling at the bandstand in Millinocket, she came up and said you’re going to be good. I don’t remember the lady’s name. I’m sure she’s no longer with us because that was 30 years ago. She said you sound like you’re going to be good. And, I thanked her. Betty Bates would never criticize me in front of a crowd. She’d come over to me after I taught it, she’d say, “I think this is the way the call goes. I think you left something out or put something in and I would look it up and sure enough she was right. Anybody I talk to. Like last week I was calling a call wrong. A friend asked me about it. I looked it up and sure enough, I was wrong. And this is after nearly 40 years of calling. We’re not all perfect. We do make mistakes but we can think about it, talk about it, and come up with the right answer and take our time and don’t get flustered.
Joseph: What was your first club?
Jim: Paper Mate Square Dance Club in East Millinocket.
Joseph: As your popularity increased, how many clubs were you calling for in the peak years?
Jim: We would call for most of the clubs in the area. At least twice a year. Some clubs, I was teaching as many as four classes a year during the peak years. A week, yes.
Joseph: Your furthest dance. Furthest distance you’d traveled for a one nighter?
Jim: For a one nighter would have to be Burlington, Vermont. That’s eight hours drive, one way.
Joseph: Did you have any limits on distance?
Jim: Usually I worked a schedule that I had a long weekend every fourth weekend. We’d take the long ones and do those then. Rest the time. Oh, I’ve gotten home a , , in the morning. Then have to get up at 5 to go to work. Oh, I’ve done that many times while I was still working.
Joseph: Any special train or cruise dances?
Jim: I never went on a train. But we did do the Grandeur of The Sea which is a Royal Caribbean ship. We sailed out of the Port of Miami. We went to San Juan Puerto Rico, to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Cocoa Cave which is off Bermuda. I called and danced four dances on that cruise ship. I thought I was in seventh heaven. That’s the way to be. I’ve called in grange halls, in church halls, in High Schools. Called in people’s garages. But the first time that I set up and called on that cruise ship I thought: “This is it. I’ve made it!” It was fantastic.
Joseph: Now, you’re a regular at the New England Convention. What was the first year that you called there?
Jim: 1986 in Portland.
Joseph: Any convention that stands out that was memorable?
Jim: Probably the convention that we worked in Bangor. While we were … I was the sound chairman . Being involved in the convention really made it fun. It made it, like we, we really did a good job on that convention, I think. And, we, I enjoyed working.
Joseph: Switching Gears. Ever call a Round or Contra dance?
Jim: I called one Round. “Frenchy Brown”, one night. I tried one contra dance in Houlton and it didn’t go good. And, I’ve never called one since.
Joseph: Why did you pick Frenchy Brown?
Jim: It was the first one we learned from taking lessons and I knew it by heart so I could queue it.
Joseph: What Caller organizations do you belong to?
Jim: I belong to North East Caller Teachers Association. It’s a association located in this area. We are also a member of NECCA. (New England Council Callers Associations). And NECCA is the one along with two other groups that put on the New England Conventions.
Joseph: Any positions you’ve held within the North East?
Jim: I’ve been program chairman and now I’m the Treasurer and spokes person for the group
Joseph: Any suggestions for other caller organizations?
Jim: They should do their best to let the dancers in the area know that they are a group of callers and they’re willing to help. And, anything that the dancers need we are more or less the authority as far as square dancing goes, we know what they should do. What we don’t seem to know is how to get people there. That’s the biggest thing. If you could start out in the Fall or in January when they start the second class when they start the second class, if you could start out with 4 or 5 squares, you’d be right in heaven.
Joseph: Now we get to the fun part. Any funny stories you’d like to share? Any embarrassing stories?
Jim: Reg Albert and I, a good friend of mine, who was originally from Limestone Maine, we called at Sunrise Shores Square Dance Campground in eastern Maine down on Passamaquoddy Bay. We’d call for weekends there. On Saturday night we’d dress up and do a skit. We’ve done everything from being babies … indians, girls. We got married one time. He buried me one time. We were calling one time and they put us back to back and they wrapped us up in toilette paper. And I told him, I said “We’re calling away but I don’t hear anybody dancin out there. I think they’ve all left. I think we’re just standin’ here like a couple of fools wrapped up in toilette paper. And talkin’ and nothin’ is goin’.”
Joseph: That would have been a site to see. Any other stories.
Jim: I did. Regy and his wife Gloria ran a square dance shop in Limestone. He had a couple of western suits. He really looked good. He was a good lookin’ guy. He looked good in his suits. And he always presented himself as the best dressed square dance caller in Arroostook county. I was calling with him on a thanksgiving night and I had a full length tuxedo. So I got all dressed up. After he started calling the first tip, I ran down and changed. I went out and just as he was about ready to call his singing call, I took the mike away from him and said you used to be the best dressed caller in Aroostook county, I have just taken over your slot. He went over and sat down in a chair and almost cried he was laughing so hard.
Joseph: Well Jim, nearly 40 years is an outstanding milestone, one that few have achieved as a caller. You looking at achieve 50?
Jim: I’d like to. I told Hillie Bailey one time, I said I’m not quitting calling. In fact I said when I go, I’m going to take my calling equipment with me to the grave. He said, you’d better take asbestos records where you’re going. (Joseph laughts)
Joseph: Dancing with you, I notice you play Jose a lot. It is a popular record. It’s been remade. I believe it is one of your favorites. Is that true?
Jim: Yeah, I like Jose. I like a record with a good beat. I pick out a lot of singing calls that are ballads. There good to sing to but they are not what the dancers want. They want lively records. And, so I try to incorporate some lively ones in. I don’t have any that I would say are my favorite. Anything that I pick up that I like is good.
Joseph: Any singing calls stand out that are a winner?
Jim: Oh ... I like NY, NY is a good one.
Joseph: Any reason for NY NY?
Jim: Yeah, I’m kinda favorite with the Yankees but the let me down the last couple of seasons.
Joseph: They’ll bounce back. Any special memories you’d like to share? Anything that pops into your head?
Jim: I remember one time we were asked by the president of the club to go to the Eastern Maine Medical Center to dance, entertainment wise, for some folks who were in wheelchairs. When we got them out there, I decided that, I don’t know if I decided or the president decided to put the wheelchair people in squares. Some of them could not move. And they would walk them through the squares as I called them in their wheelchairs. I put them in a big circle wand did a right and left grand or a weave the ring or whatever. And the dancers would do their thing in the wheelchairs. You could see the smiles on their faces. Kinda gets ya. To think you are going to walk out of there that afternoon and put your stuff in your car and go home and those people are going to be in their wheel chairs for the rest of their life.
Another thing was when the LeVi Rounders honored me for calling for 38 years. They had quite a session, I didn’t know what was comin’ on. I was supposed to call a dance with a friend of mine from New Brunswick, Canada, Ronnie Lowe. And I had no idea they were having a celebration for me. It was nice. It was really nice.
Joseph: What are your thoughts on Square Dancing’s future?
Jim: I’m worried that if we don’t do something soon square dancing in the state of Maine is going to be non-existent. There’s only one club. Well, maybe two. The biggest club that is doing anything is the Sage Swingers in Brunswick. And they are working really hard. But, some of the other clubs are working hard but they’re just not helping them far enough. I used to call every Saturday night. Now I’ve got maybe one, maybe two dances a month. After awhile you’re not going to make enough money to pay for your license.
Joseph: Anything you would do if you were King of the square dancing world?
Jim: I be able to say: You, You and You, come on and square dance and they’d love it. If you could get them there and it would be fantastic to see a square with … I called in Houlton many, many years ago on a class night and I had a big circle. The circle was so big it wouldn’t fit in the hall. So, I had to say to the Gentlemen, those of you with birthdays in January, February, or March, move into the center and make a center circle. And we had two circles going. That was fantastic. If you could get two squares now you would say, that’s fantastic!
Joseph: Any regrets since you started. Anything you wish you could have done differently?
Jim: I wish I could have raised my kids and called square dancing at the same time. But, I was calling and busy, working in the mill. Calling almost every night of the week. Before I knew it, my two oldest girls were graduating. I missed a lot. We now have five grandchildren. And don’t intend on missing anything. If they have track, I’m there. If they have soccer. I’m there. If they have little league baseball, I’m there. I missed our five children growing up, I’m not going to miss the grand children.
Joseph: Sounds like you’re pretty active with your family now.
Jim: Yeah, you gotta be.
Joseph: Well Jim, it was an honor to interview you this evening. I can easily speak for the thousands that have danced to you: You are one of the best. This tape will go into the archives of the Square Dance Foundation of New England. It’s going to be accessed by hundreds of dancers, aspiring callers, and folk dance researchers for many many centuries to come. And, I thank you.
Jim: Thank you Joseph.
(End of original interview with Jim Belanger)
Addendum: July 24th, 2008.
At Jim’s request, a brief discussion of his recently passed away friend and square dance caller, Reginald “Reg” Albert who passed away one week earlier from Parkinson’s and Dementia.
Joseph: This is an addition to the interview with Jim Belanger. Today is July 24th, 2008 and we are at Christie’s Campground. Something important has happened and Jim would like to add this to the interview. So at this point I’m going to turn the microphone over to Jim and let him talk as long as he wants.
Jim: I mentioned the fact that I’ve called for 21 years at different campgrounds. Sunrise Shores in Perry, and at Christie’s campground here in Newport, Maine with my good friend Reg Albert. On July 17th, Reg Albert passed away at the Veteran’s Memorial home in Bangor. A great loss to his family, a great loss to square dancing, and I lost my best friend.
Joseph: Thank you Jim.