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Tractor Drivers Demonstrate Square Dancing on Wheels

Harrisburg - Square dance calls rang out from the Large Arena again on Friday, but instead of a human square dancing contest at the 2011 Pennsylvania Farm Show, tractors took the floor.

Two tractor square dancing groups, each including eight tractors, put on joint exhibitions at 10 a.m. and noon in the Large Arena. The Roof Garden Tractor Buddies and the Middle Creek Tractor Swingers joined forces to entertain the crowd by navigating tractors around the ring according to authentic square dance calls.
Operators ranged in ages from 14 to 75. Due to a shortage of women operators, men donned bonnets and mounted smaller tractors to complete the couple.

"All our calls are based on regular, western-style square dancing calls," explained operator Dan Parks, of Somerset, Somerset County. He's a member of the Roof Garden Tractor Buddies and drives a 1948 Farmall H.

The Roof Garden Tractor Buddies, established in 2002, began when farmer Bill Blough noticed a newspaper article, purchased a video of tractor square dancing, showed it to some friends and realized they could square dance too. The group practiced for a year before their first performance, and performed about 15 exhibitions every summer, usually on weekends. Practices are at the John Zehner farm in Somerset every Wednesday night from spring to fall, after which members often enjoy a cookout.

The Middle Creek Tractor Swingers formed in 2005 as an offshoot of the Middlecreek Valley Antique Association. They practice Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Association's grounds. The group plans to put on 20 performances this year.

Despite some close maneuvers that elicited gasps from the Farm Show crowd, Parks said that the team only had one minor accident. "Dancing" partners are rarely separated; the bond developed over years of practice helps drivers learn the tolerances they can work with during sessions.

"We're not choreographed," said Parks. "We have to listen to the caller, and it's true that 90 percent of square dancing is listening." When first deciding how to translate square dance moves for tractors, the group spent many nights around a table using toy tractors to simulate the maneuvers.

Narrow-front tractors are required for the close-quarters maneuvers. While they are prized for their tight turning radius and maneuverability, their propensity for rollover and the evolution of farm machinery caused narrow-front tractor production to be phased out in the 1960s.

"People wonder why our tractors are old, but it's because they don't make modern machinery that meets our needs," said Parks.

The Middle Creek Tractor Swingers quip that "all our tractors meet AARP qualifications - they're more than 50 years old."

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural event in the nation, featuring nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 290 commercial exhibitors. The show runs Jan. 8-15 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg. Admission is free and parking is $10.

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For photos of the event, click here.