Team Farmall’s Mechanical Hoedown: Square Dancing Tractors as Performance Art

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October 10, 2012
Max Kennel |

“Swing your partner ‘round and ‘round” used to be a predictable slogan, conjuring up images of people square dancing in a barn to jigs and reels, but this is no longer true.

Gone are the days of strictly human square dancing. The industrial (or agricultural) revolution has finally conditioned our culture to the extent that even our folk dance now includes machines.

The International Plowing Match and Rural Expo has reached its 99th year, and one of its most attractive events, as you may already guessed, is Team Farmall’s square dancing tractors.

With all critical theory aside, the spectacle of square dancing tractors is surreal to experience. Seeing men (and men dressed as women) on tractors locking wheels and spinning around in perfect musical time boggles the mind. According to the Team Farmall website over 2500 hours of practice have been invested in the performance piece since spring 2007, and it shows.

On the morning of the performance the stands were packed, and school children stood a little too close to the concrete barriers between the audience and the spinning red participants. Although excessive rainfall made for a soggy year at the International Plowing Match, the clouds seemed to part for Team Farmall’s performance. Even events as interesting as the lumberjack show and the barn raising paled in comparison to the performance art of Team Farmall.

The look that was visible on most faces of the drivers was somewhere between excruciating concentration and rapturous excitement, and the albeit necessary cross-dressing made the whole scene hilarious. Part way through the show the most animated driver dethroned himself from his metal horse and proceeded to initiate a ritual familiar to baseball fans: the wave, which was met with stunning results from schoolchildren and elderly alike.

The whole performance was strangely enthralling despite its repetitive nature, and much to my surprise, tractors are truly capable of the moves that I once thought only humans could do.

The Team Farmall motto “When in Doubt, Throttle it Out” rang true during the performance as tractors of a previous era had many a near miss on the dirt dance floor. Only a few times did the red dervishes run into one another, and these bouncy confrontations only added to the audience’s thrill.

The voice of the caller rang out over the PA system and it seemed as though she could barely keep a smile out of her voice. I couldn’t have either. Having found square dancing to be a confusing art form to begin with, I can only imagine the dexterity required to navigate a tractor in circles around a relatively small dirt pit.

For connoisseurs who are so inclined the tractors themselves are the ‘H’ and ‘C’ series, the former of which was known for its plowing capability back in the 1940’s. And now, years later, these artefacts of cultural history return as a strange reminder that before the massive farming machinery that we know and love today much smaller machines tilled the soil.

After the show was over I found that the strange wonder of Team Farmall had stretched my concept of performance art past its limit and into new territory. It’s not often that I see a performance in a genre I have never heard of, and it is even less often that I witness a performance in a genre that I could never have even imagined. Suffice it to say that the whirling farm implements blew my mind. And rest assured that I like that feeling. Here’s hoping you do too, whether you watch them online or catch them at their next live performance.

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