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Keeping time: Tradition of big band and polka dances surviving, but smaller

Photo essay, video: Those who love it are moved by music from the past

Jun 23, 2018 at 2:00 pm
    Lyle Beaver (from left), Al Hunzinger (on drums), Larry Fountain and Dale Thomas perform an impromptu concert in front of the Ackermans' home. The performers, who rarely get to play together, are revered among musicians and dancers in the area. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    A hundred years ago, Bill Ackerman’s ancestors farmed the land surrounding his present-day home, which they also built.

    The foursquare colonial, painted a sunny yellow with blue and white trim, now sits amid student housing, the University of Iowa medical campus and the Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City. What was once a dirt driveway leading up to the house and barn is now a parking lot with numbered spaces the Ackermans rent out to nurses and hospital staff who work nearby.



    During the summer, Ackerman and his wife, Karen, invite musician friends to perform on their wraparound front porch — a pastime they and others in their community fear is dying out in Iowa.

    The dancing community consists predominantly of older Eastern Iowans who grew up listening to big bands and polka music in small rural venues. The few remaining dance bands continue to draw crowds that get smaller every year.

    They play in former dance halls that since have taken on new lives as wedding venues or community centers.

    On a given evening, the dancers fluidly transition from a waltz to a two-step on the dance floor. Partners find each other anew after each set by a band — two songs followed by a break — and a woman or man may dance with every person in the room before the night is through.

    Bill Ackerman’s wife doesn’t care for dancing, so he picks up his partner, who lives in What Cheer and has been dancing with Bill for two years, for their twice-weekly promenades. If a new couple turns up, others are quick to invite them to the floor for a lesson, if needed.

    Despite what has changed through the years — attendees joked that both musicians and dancers are dying with few in the younger crowd to take their places — those who love dancing will keep coming back for the chance to be moved by music from the past.


    Care to dance? Upcoming events:

    • June 24 — Dale Thomas (Iowa City Eagles)

    • June 26 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • June 27 — Dale Thomas on dobro with BSBB (The Mill)

    • July 10 — Lyle Beaver (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • July 11 — Dale Thomas on dobro with BSBB (The Mill)

    • July 17 — Buck Hollow (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • July 22 — Lyle Beaver (Polishville)

    • July 24 — Barefoot Becky (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • July 25 — Dale Thomas on dobro (The Mill)

    • July 27 — Dale Thomas (Walcott Coliseum Ballroom)

    • July 31 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • August — Dale Thomas (Iowa City Eagles)

    • August 7 — Buck Hollow (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • August 12 — Larry Goodman (Polishville Community Center)

    • August 14 — Lyle Beaver (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • August 21 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • August 26 — Jerry Beauchamp (Polishville: Free Dance!)

    • August 28 — Barefoot Becky (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • September 4 — Lyle Beaver (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • September 9 — Ned Francis (Polishville)

    • September 11 — Larry Goodman (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • September 18 — Barefoot Becky (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • September 23 — Larry Goodman (Polishville)

    • September 25 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • October 2 — Lyle Beaver (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • October 7 — Jerry Beauchamp (Polishville)

    • October 9 — Larry Goodman (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • October 16 — Barefoot Becky (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • October 21 — Ned Francis (Polishville)

    • October 23 — Jerry Beauchamp (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • October 30 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • November 6 — Lyle Beaver (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • November 11 — Lyle Beaver (Polishville)

    • November 13 — Barefoot Becky (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • November 20 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • November 25 — Larry Goodman (Polishville)

    • November 27 — Larry Goodman (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • December 4 — Lyle Beaver (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • December 11 — Dale Thomas (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    • December 18 — Barefoot Becky (Ponderosa Ballroom)

    Also check for periodic updates from the Walcott Coliseum Ballroom, Oxford Junction Legionnaire Ballroom, Iowa City Eagles, Ponderosa Ballroom, and Bill Peck at the Polishville Community Center. Dale Thomas’ summer schedule:

    Did I miss one? Email me at and I’ll add it to the list.

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