Bethlehem-born ‘square dancer’ welcomes Morley elder

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 24, 2008

He inspired all to yield as one to the rhythm of the music.

He loved dancing – and especially square dancing. The highly-respected elder of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and popular square dance caller, wheelchair-bound till just the other day, can dance to a lively new tune now. Bert Wildman, of Morley, passed away on Dec. 17. He was 87.

As a square dance caller, he was legendary throughout the southern Alberta ranch community in his younger days. Actually, I think he came by his talent quite honestly from the moment of his birth.

Bert was born at Morley to Dan and Leah Wildman on a wintry March day in 1921, the second of a set of twins. His sister, the late Lily Wesley, had been born only moments earlier (see my column of Oct. 24, 2007). Not realizing two would be born that day, the family at first honoured Lily with a snuggly new moss bag. But when a much-desired baby boy unexpectedly showed up on the scene – so a favourite family story goes – the moss bag was immediately taken from Lily and given to Bert. Lily, wrapped in a sheepskin, was relegated to the sidelines, while Bert, carried in the arms of his proud family, was promenaded to every corner of the adoring home – allemande left here, forward and back there, circling throughout the room.

Bert was a descendant of the famous Chief Bearspaw who signed Treaty 7 with the Queen’s representatives in 1877. His father worked as a stockman and interpreter at the old Indian agency, a job he held for most of his life. Observing his parents’ example, Bert learned generosity as a way of life.

He also chose to go into agriculture himself. He became friends with many of the ranchers in the Cochrane area – the Edges, the Sibbalds, and what he often referred to as “the Copithorne nation.” “I used to tease Marshall Copithorne about that,” Bert told me once. “One of the Copithornes was my best man when I got married.” Bert eventually became the Stoney tribal agricultural manager, a position he held for 22 years till he retired. Even in retirement and struggling with arthritis and cancer, however, his spirit remained strong.

Throughout his life, he and his twin, Lily, were very close. Her passing just over a year ago filled him with lonesomeness. It was in this regard that the joy of the Dance was interrupted.

Which brings me back to his fame as a square dance caller. In fact, my first memories of him include his calling dances at New Year’s feasts at the old community hall at Morley back in the late 1960s.

Bert had the gift of bringing folks together from all over the Bow Valley – not only from Morley, but from Cochrane and the ranches in between. Following fantastic roast turkey dinners and speeches by band chiefs and councillors and by visitors from near and far, he’d get everyone onto their feet to dance to his lively calls. He inspired all to yield as one to the rhythm of the music for a few hours and to experience the peace that the Christmas season was all about as they promenaded into a new year of hope.

Well, it’s Bert’s turn to dance again.

So, forget about the microphone, Bert, and forget about those painful hips and knees that kept you out of commission for so long. Get onto the dance floor and step joyfully to the call of Another, a Caller whose healing invitation you have so long awaited, an invitation energetically captured in Sydney Carter’s adaptation of that old Shaker song, “Lord of the Dance”:

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem
I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he.

Merry Christmas, Bert – all the merrier now because you’re in the very presence of the Bethlehem-born Lord of the Dance Himself as you enjoy some arm turns with your twin sister, Lily, whom you have so much missed.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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