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Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp

by Pat McNees

This article first appeared in the Washington Post Magazine on June 22, 1993. The dancing, especially in the open-air pavilion, was still wonderful when I attended Almost Heaven dance weekend in 2004. After changing hands, more than once, Buffalo Gap became Buffalo Gap Retreat, which plans to reopen but with Covid that opening kept being postponed. (Follow on Facebook.) Many, many happy memories!


Here's to happy memories: 

Two hours out Route 50 and I am worlds away from Washington — in the rolling hills of Capon Bridge, West Virginia, heading toward a secluded retreat: Buffalo Gap Camp for the Cultural Arts, 200 acres in the foothills of the Alleghenies. It’s Cajun and country-western weekend, so even if nothing else goes right, I can be sure of good music.

At the check-in table at the bottom of the meadow, I get my cabin assignment and carry my gear to Cabin 11. If it were summer, I might pitch a tent, and sleep by the brook, changing in the cabin. But it’s October (1992), and I’m inept with tents, and it might rain.

I’m in a dormitory-style cabin with nine other women, in the “downtown” part of camp, halfway between the dining tent and Swisher Hall, the airport hangar-size dance hall where the Saturday night dance and half the classes are held. There are other kinds of cabins, from the “Hilton” with private rooms to the cabins on the hill, which are country quiet — but at this time of year country cold (with screens on the windows, but no glass). My cabin has glass windows and inside showers; no-frills-plus. No homogenized cuteness here; this is Authentic Camp, except for plenty of hot water.

With sleeping bag and pillow, I claim an upper bunk (away from the door and the john), store my belongings in a cubbyhole, and chat with cabinmates as they drift in. We range from twentysomething to fiftysomething, from thin to zaftig, from shy to exuberant. Age seems to make no difference here although I am somewhat taken aback when Audrey, a young economist, asks, “Who’s John-John?”

There is little “what do you do?” here. Our common bond is dancing; a common burden is loving to dance more than the people we end up with. Beth, from California, has stopped here on her way home from an archaeological dig — her husband hates dancing. Seeing party dresses hanging on the clotheswire, Beth expresses concern that she will be underdressed. We reassure her that anything goes, and that she can borrow something if she wants to. (Dancers given to sweating learn to bring at least one change of shirt to each dance.) Through the partition separating our shower area from another, I overhear one woman, concerned about the Finnish sauna perhaps, tell another, “My body is not ready for public viewing.”

Camp starts with the three things it’s best at: food, music, and dancing. The dining hall burned down in June, so we eat in a festive dining tent. Newcomers expect bad food — this is camp, after all — but despite a winter change in management, the kitchen still produces meals you’d go out of your way to eat. Barbecued chicken is the special tonight, plus dishes for vegetarians, who eat well here.

“Between 5 and 7 the sauna is reserved for those who are not comfortable with Scandinavian style and prefer to wear bathing suits,” drawls Mitchell Reeves, the new manager of the facility [no longer there]. The four original owners — Mel and Phyllis Diamond, Larry Weiner, and Jean Bollinger — had a poetic vision for the camp, but a consensus form of management made dysfunctional by divorce politics. Things got sticky after Paul’s Hall, a dance hall, and the dining room burned down and the owners disagreed about how to rebuild, at what budget — although everyone agrees that the open log pavilion that replaced Paul’s Hall is beautiful. Initial word is that Mitchell brings both country charm and a tough businessman’s practicality to the camp, although in 1993 some camp directors reported problems dealing with Mitchell — who runs the facility but not individual camps, except for Cajun — and worry that Buffalo Gap will lose its magic. [Mitchell is now gone and Buffalo Gap has kept its magic.]

After dinner, we dance in the new open-air pavilion, which catches the breeze through the valley — clearly designed for dancers. Empty, the pavilion has a Japanese serenity. Tonight, with Cajun music followed by country-western, it’s clearly a dance hall. Those who go to bed before the midnight snack fall asleep to the sound of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, a Cajun band from Lafayette, Louisiana, floating over the meadow.

But early sleepers in our cabin are rudely awakened when Heavy Country (band number 2) settles down to party, in the cabin a wall away from us. The boys are talking about how nice it is to be away from their wives. By 2, I wish their wives would come get them. Finally, after 3, Heavy Country nods off and so do we.

The bad news: I awaken feeling as if a lawnmower ran through my brain. The good news: our cabin has experienced Thelma-and-Louise-like bonding. We march to breakfast and complain to Mitchell, who tells us later that Heavy Country will be sleeping up on the hill tonight.

Amazing how quickly a full dance-card clears a lawnmowered brain. The problem is choosing: For each of seven one-hour time slots (starting at 9:30 in the morning), there are at least two choices. Should I go to beginning Cajun two-step or intermediate country-western waltz? To St. Louis shag or West Coast swing? The only time I’ve danced Cajun I’ve come home with a major charley-horse from the kind of limping step that Cajun dancing calls for. I choose Cajun two-step, and learn to shift the “limp” from one leg to another. Seven hours of dance classes and two meals later I am ready for Cajun Saturday night.

Cabin life is great for building up Saturday night expectations. Some campers hope for romance, and find it, but Buffalo Gap is a dancers’ scene, not a singles scene. Still, the worst catastrophe would be not to dance, so camp practice is to sign up equal numbers of men and women. As we get dolled up, we compare notes on footwear, meals, bands, teachers, and men. Those of us new to the Cajun crowd observe how much friendlier and more accepting it is than the swing dancers, who can be cliqueish. “Let the good times roll” seems to mean “even if you don’t know the steps yet.”

Swisher Hall is festive and — with 10,000 square feet of suspended hardwood — roomy even when there are 320 dancers (camp capacity). Off-season, we revel in its spaciousness. Both Cajun and country-western call for circular movement around the dance hall; tonight there’s a communal buoyancy, a feeling of whirling and swirling together. Everyone dances with everyone and even the great dancer from New York whom I’ve admired all weekend invites me to dance, twice. I vow to become a better dancer! There’s so much warmth and vitality — people are even talking to each other! It must be the Cajun influence. The music is light-spirited and I find myself flying joyously around the dance floor in the arms of a huge fellow from the Midwest, whom dancing transfigures. Oh, the powerful attractiveness of a man with a good lead.

The dancing stops for a midnight feast — cheese, fruits, nuts, and half a dozen wonderful pastries — and, after 10 hours of dancing and 4,000 calories, I call it a day. Only a young cabinmate stays up to sing around the bonfire by the lake. We hear not a peep from Heavy Country. I sleep through breakfast.

Too sore for the Sore Foot Boogie, I sign up for a half-hour of massage therapy. A few crazy people — from New England? — swim in the lake. I skip some classes, read in the autumn sun, talk with dancers from all over the country. “People come here to get away from their jobs,” says a Cajun old-timer. “They turn in the gate and become the person they want to be, even though an hour earlier they might have run you down on the Beltway.” Except for Heavy Country, the place does seem to bring out the best in people.

I feel years younger than I felt driving out Friday afternoon, like a kid at camp. I have filled up on dancing. I have found dance heaven.

For photos and current info, go to the camp website at www.buffalogapcamp.com

Copyright (c) by Pat McNees.  Contact www.patmcnees.com

P.S. A June 1993 letter from Verna Suit (reprinted by permission): “My heart stopped when I came to Pat McNees’ article, ‘ Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp,’ a secret treasure revealed to the world! In her brief profile she captured the special feeling of Buffalo Gap and I felt I was back there again. Starting in 1969, Washington area folk dance teachers Mel and Phyllis Diamond and Larry Wiener organized International Folk Dance Camps at Buffalo Gap over the Memorial and Labor Day weekends, and for many years these were the parentheses that marked my summers. I can still hear the sound of hundreds of feet learning to stamp out the intricate footwork of Balkan line dances in the Field House (now called Swisher Hall, not after the swishing noises of rustling skirts, but after the late local handyman Everett Swisher who built the original wooden buildings). I can still see the circle of dancers in the lake: after abandoning the dance floor in exhaustion and fleeing to the cooling lake water, they were still lured by the Balkan melodies drifting down from the still-in-progress dance class. So they formed their own line in the water and danced unencumbered by the sweaty clothes they had flung on the beach. Ethnic water aerobics. And I can still smell the wonderful aroma of the whole lambs turning and roasting all day on the outdoor mechanized spits, a constant reminder of the coming evening’s Cabaret and Midnight Feast, after which a gradually dwindling band of hearty souls would dance until dawn.”

Other dance pages on Pat's website

Dancing: A guide to the Capital area (Dancing in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia)
Ballroom Dance
Ceilis (Irish céilís and set dances)
Country Western Dancing
Folk dancing in the Capital area (Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish)
Love at First Waltz (by Cheryl Kollin)
Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp (Pat McNees)
Swing, lindy, jitterbug, shag, and hand-dancing
Dating -- again! (that's extra, but often relevant -- dancing is one way to restore your social self, after separation)
Many of the stories by Pat McNees posted here appeared first in the Washington Post

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