Working cross-country, a Chillicothe family is keeping barn dancing alive during the pandemic

Leslie Renken
During production of the third Rusty Pickup Barn Dance video in rural Chillicothe Oct. 4, Gail Heinz calls the steps while sisters Lucy Poeppel, 18, Susannah Poeppel, 16, and Laura Poeppel, 12, dance.

CHILLICOTHE — Making the decision to cancel the monthly Rusty Pickup Barn Dances during the shutdown in March was painful for Peggy Holmes-Hicks.

Peggy and her husband Jim Hicks founded the event in the early 1990s, and barn dancing is something she’s been doing most of her life.

“I was crestfallen. It felt like a big part of our lives had been cut out,” Peggy said. “Putting on dances is just part of who we are and what we do, and it was gone.”

Rusty Pickup Barn Dances bring together people from all walks of life to hold hands and step and swing to live music as a caller issues directions. There is laughter and easy conversation at close proximity — it’s the perfect way to spread the novel coronavirus.

After making the tough decision to cancel during the shutdown, Peggy started talking to her daughter Emma Holmes-Hicks about putting together a virtual barn dance. Emma is a professional violinist who lives on the East Coast.

“One night, in a phone conversation with Emma, we hatched an idea: What if we could patch together her East Coast music with our Midwest dancers and caller?” said Peggy. “This would give the musicians a way to keep their dance music alive and it would keep our loosely-formed dance community connected.”

Emma and fellow musician Peter Zay were already doing classical music performances virtually for the various groups they perform with, and soon they were switching genres and making music for the first Rusty Pickup virtual barn dance which aired in July. To see the first two videos, visit the group’s Facebook page at

Emma, 37, has been making music with her parents for most of her life.

“My parents and I started playing together when I was probably 5 or 6. I started playing dances when I was 10,” she said. “Whenever I can, I love to come back and play.”

The Hicks started hosting dances in the early 1990s to both further their daughter’s interest in the violin and to continue a tradition.

“Our Rusty Pickup Dances began when local caller Don Caldwell, then hoping to retire, placed the baton in our hands,” said Peggy. “I had grown up in the little town of Edelstein, dancing at the community dances in the church fellowship hall. And Don was the caller. He did a lot of singing calls and he had the kind of personality that encouraged everyone to dance.”

Peggy has fond memories of attending dances with her parents and falling asleep on the pile of coats as the adults danced the night away.

Today Peggy is keeping that tradition alive by organizing video sessions and manning the camera.

“So this is how it works: With Emma on fiddle and Peter on guitar, they record the dance music in Peter’s home studio or in an outdoor location near Boston,” said Peggy. “They send the recorded music to Jim and me.”

Living on a farm in rural Chillicothe, the Hicks aren’t blessed with high-speed internet, so it can take as long as a day for Emma and Peter’s video to download. Once that’s accomplished, the dancers and callers gather together for a recording session in Illinois. The locations are typically outdoors, often with rustic backdrops. The second video included a sheep pen, occupied by the Hicks’ sheep (Tear-drop, Chai and Rambo). In another shot, the Hicks’ neighbors danced in front of a log cabin.

“We are fortunate to have neighbors with three daughters who love to dance and who are wonderful dancers. We connect our computer to a little Bluetooth speaker so the dancers can hear the prerecorded music, then with our camera on a tripod, we record the caller teaching the dance and the dancers in action,” said Peggy.

After the Illinois recording session is complete, the video is sent back to the East Coast where Peter edits it before posting it online.

Viewers are encouraged to dance along while watching the video, but they don’t have to. The production includes music and commentary as callers Jim Hicks and Gail Hintz talk about the various dances, many of them historical, before teaching the steps.

“From the response of our listeners, we’ve learned that not everyone dances along. Some folks watch and listen from their couches and their tables. That’s okay,” said Peggy. “We’re just eager to keep this traditional form of music and dance alive. And we’re delighted that we can bring what we do right into our viewers’ homes. How magical is that?”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or Follow her on, and subscribe to her on