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WOSTER: Stories of a dance hall band in South Dakota

I passed Hayes Hall on Highway 14 on my way to Philip the other day, and it occurred to me that my music career and my athletic career had a lot in common.

Both were great fun, but neither was the stuff of legend. I'm pretty sure, though, that more high-school athletes and dance-hall musicians have stories like mine than like Elvis or Garth Brooks. No state championships and no rock and roll show with thousands of screaming, swooning fans. We just had good times and tried to be a cut above mediocre.

The reason that thought came to me out on the highway was because my dance band, the Sensational Standbys, played a gig at Hayes Hall one spring Saturday evening. The community each year put on a play, usually a light-hearted show, with a cast of characters drawn from town and from the farm and ranch country around it. After the last performance one year, they asked the Standbys to give the folks a few hours of dance music.

We couldn't set up our stuff until the show had ended. We were using the same stage. After the final curtain, people went outside. A few locals cleared folding chairs from the dance floor as we hauled equipment and instruments up a narrow set of back stairs. We set up, tuned up and looked up, ready to kick it off with our usual "Looking for Love'' opener. Not a soul was in the hall except the four musicians on stage. I'm sure that never happened to the Beatles or Johnny Cash.

"Uh, hey, guys, there's nobody here,'' I said in a soft voice. "Suppose they all went home?''

"Maybe we should pack up and leave,'' the bass guy said.

"We can't do that. We were hired,'' the drummer, a real veteran of dance halls, told us. "We have to at least play one set.''

We kicked off our Johnny Lee opener. From somewhere, a young couple took the floor and danced quite enthusiastically for being the only two people out there. They hung with us through "King of the Road,'' "Roomful of Roses'' and "Fraulein.'' Four songs into a set, we had one couple captivated by the smooth stylings of the Standbys.

"Let's pick it up,'' the lead player suggested. I dug into the introduction for "Pretty Woman,'' and the bass and drums joined in. About four measures into the song, we heard the stomping sounds of an elephant stampede. People rushed through every door and onto the dance floor. A big cowboy flashed past me from somewhere and leaped off the front of the stage onto the floor. It had rained that day. The mud and dirt that had been tracked in turned to dust under the hammering boots and flying shoes. We had to squint to see the back of the room through the cloudy dance hall, but it turned into a memorable evening — for the band, for sure, and I think for the crowd.

(The next week, I opened my guitar case to set up for a gig. Dust billowed out and the smell of stale cigarette smoke slapped me in the face.)

Another time, we played for a sorority, some kind of sweetheart dance. Dancers filled the floor for our first two sets. We took a break just before midnight. Behind a set of risers that blocked the view of the room, we kicked back, shared some stories and got ready to hit it again. When I looked over the riser, I saw three or four people taking down decorations. Otherwise, the place was empty.

"Where'd everybody go?'' I asked a woman putting left-over snacks away.

"Oh, we thought you were done,'' she said. "People went home.''

We played a 50th reunion dance for the Pierre Class of 1939. We worked up "Over the Rainbow'' just for that crowd. After we finished playing — pretty well, too, I thought — an old guy approached the stage and asked, "Do you guys happen to know 'Over the Rainbow?'''

Life on the road, huh? I'll bet that stuff happened to bands like the Standbys way more often than it did to Elvis or Garth.