Dancing in Maine: The Revival, Bowdoinham & Origins of Stylistic Features
This page looks at the revival of contradancing in Maine starting around 1975. I also write about some of the influences on Maine music and dance, and how some of the stylisic features of Maine dancing came about.
Based on an article in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, December 2006; a fuller version was on an earlier version of this website. I did some editing and revising for the website, and filled out parts of it to include material not in the original article.
On This Page
Click on the tabs to move between sections. Here is a brief description of what is in each tab.
Introduction: Old Grey Goose in Kingston. . Playing piano with Old Grey Goose.
The Maine Contradance Revival . and how it came to happen..
The Maine Country Dance Orchestra. . About their beginnings; going to a MCDO dance.
Origins of some Maine Dance Features. . Rights and lefts, and balancing to the right.
Lady of the Lake. . No discussion of Maine dancing would be complete without mention of Lady of the Lake!
Dancing in Maine
In 1980 some friends moved up to the yurts Bowdoinham and invited me to come visit. I went up to visit and they told me there was a really good dance in town. We ended up walking to it along with a few friends. The dance was a lot of fun, and the dancers were all so friendly that by the end of the evening I felt like I was with a group of my best friends. I started going up to dance regularly. In the set of articles below I discuss dancing in Maine, some of the influences, and why it came to have some of the characteristics it had for many years and to some extent still has.
Keep in mind that although I danced in Maine a lot for many years, I'm not from there, and the Seacoast and Monadnock New Hampshire dances are also important in my dance development. That gives me both the advantages and the disadvantages of an outsider's perspective, as well as a large degree of feeling like the Maine dances were part of my home.
Please note that the sections are intended to be read in order.
Old Grey Goose
Introduction: Old Grey Goose in Kingston
Last month Old Grey Goose played in Kingston. For various reasons Doug asked me if I’d play piano for the band that evening. While I’d have been quite happy to dance, and I always enjoy hearing Doug play piano, his reasons all were good, and I had certainly enjoyed playing with them the last time they were here, as well as at Maine Fiddle Camp together with all the other people who are always there. While Carter wasn’t there last year he was this year, so it was my first time playing with the full band.
It was a very enjoyable experience. Although a few times we played tunes with difficult chord progressions that were unfamiliar or that I’d never tried to accompany before, generally I didn’t have too much difficulty. They have a lot of fun while playing, and they’re all excellent musicians who have been playing together for many years. The combination makes for a very enjoyable musical experience. Furthermore, my own musical style has been strongly influenced by them ever since I went to my first Bowdoinham dance more than 25 years ago, and my piano style has always been strongly influenced by Doug’s style - even if I’ll never be technically as good as him I often look for a similar feel in my playing. So it was particularly fun to play music with a bunch of musicians whose style fits so well with mine for the obvious reason that they helped to form my style!
Playing with Old Grey Goose made me think about my involvement with traditional music and dance in Maine, which led to the following stories and history. I hope you find it interesting.
The Maine Contradance Revival
The Influences of Otto Soper & Dudley Laufman
In Maine the older tradition was to do contradancing; squares weren’t generally part of the Maine tradition. As in so many other places, traditional music and dance had largely died out by the 1960s and 1970s. There were a few isolated small local dances here and there, and there were a number of old-time musicians around who either had stopped playing or were more likely playing in bars and at contests.
The members of Old Grey Goose have been playing together in various configurations for over 30 years. When they started, like so many people in the folk revival movement, they were playing music from the southern Appalachians. Two things happened to change that.
Doug and some of the others started to ask why so many Maine musicians were playing tunes from North Carolina when there was lots of music from all around them. That led in 1975 to their friendship with Otto Soper, an old-time Maine musician who had been playing for dances since the very early 1900’s. He played fiddle and saxophone, and he was an excellent piano player. He encouraged the younger musicians to play the music of Maine, an idea which immediately made sense to them. They began searching out old-time Maine musicians and learning from them, which they continue to do to this day. He also taught them a lot about playing, both repertoire and style; Doug’s piano style is very heavily influence by Otto Soper.
The other major influence was that Dudley did some dances in Maine, at least one of which, at Colby College around 1975, was attended by Doug and Elaine (who were married at the time), Greg and John. I believe I’ve heard Dudley mention the scruffy-looking hippies that started showing up at his dances, possibly even taking notes; I’m sure that was an accurate description!
Independently Doug and Elaine, and Greg realized how much fun the dancing was and thought about how much fun it would be to start calling and playing for dances themselves. This was the beginning of the revival of traditional music and dance in Maine. Although major changes have happened since then, it’s still going strong.
2020 note: In addition to taking notes, they recorded the dance. A couple years ago I got a copy of the recording and I can see why the dance made them so enthusiastic.
Maine Country Dance Orchestra
The Maine Country Dance Orchestra
At that time there were three bands that were playing traditional music that started doing dances, some of which were in the Bowdoinham Town Hall. These were the Pine Hill String Band, the Northern Valley Boys and the Cambridge Country Band. As things got going, they decided to get together once/month for a combined dance in the Bowdoinham Town Hall, and with that the Maine Country Dance Orchestra was born. They relied on playing with lots of energy and enthusiasm, multiple button accordions and multiple fiddles, and everyone taking turns calling, to be able to do the dance with no amplification.
The rowdy energetic music, the shouting of the caller, and the more rural character of the dancers combined to produce a dance that was much more energetic and enthusiastic than what you’d usually see elsewhere.
In the summer of 1980 I went to Bowdoinham to visit some friends who had just moved up there from Newmarket. They mentioned having a great dance in the Town Hall, not far from where they lived in the Yurts. So the next month I visited them on the first weekend of the month, and on Saturday night we walked to the Town Hall. By the end of the night it was my favorite dance; I left feeling like I’d spent the evening with a hall full of my best friends. What it lacked in polish it more than made up for in friendliness and enthusiasm; you could count on having a great time in Bowdoinham, hearing wonderful music, and feeling like you were in a hall full of friends. Although there have been many other great dances in my dance experience, nothing will ever remotely resemble an Orchestra dance!
The Maine Country Dance Orchestra dances were more like the old time dances than a modern contradance. They did contradances that could be called to a rowdy bunch of dancers without a sound system — some of the classic chestnut contras, some that were written by members of the Orchestra, and some from other sources, generally not too complex. They also did more (and more varied) couples dances than in most places. The dance typically started with a polka as the band members appeared on stage; it could go on for quite some time. There would be several other couples dances during the evening including a few waltzes, a couple schottisches, and often one or two others including a zweifacher, a five-step waltz and more. And of course we’d dance Lady of the Lake, often more than once.
During the break we’d go outside in back. I’d frequently hang out with the band and listen to them plotting things to do in the second half of the dance to make it fun for them and for the dancers. For Lady of the Lake they generally played jigs. But sometimes they’d come up with a switch to a reel such as Bay of Fundy which would always get a reaction from the dancers. And now and then they’d switch to the Buddy Holly song It’s So Easy to Fall in Love, which worked surprisingly well and which everyone enjoyed.
2020 Note: It’s easy to remember something that happened long ago when you were young and the dancing was new and exciting as being special, but I have no doubt that the Bowdoinham dances of the 1980s really were special for many reasons. (Much of this section was written for the website.)
Dance Style Origins
Origins of some Maine Dance Features
Along the way I picked up some interesting stories about how Maine dancing acquired some of its characteristics. I used to play for a dance in Lewiston with Doug and Elaine and others (the forerunner of the current Chase Hall dance [2020 note: apparently no longer happening, at least regularly]). One night after the dance Elaine and I were staying over with Cindy LaRock in her apartment in Lewiston, and we ended up talking until some ridiculous hour of the morning. Elaine told me much of the story of the Maine contradance revival along the way.
Rights & Lefts. I remember her saying that when they first started, most of the dancers were inexperienced, so it was easier to have people take hands on the rights and lefts. The dancers apparently enjoyed it, and that just became the way it was done and for years people were proud of it. Now I see some Maine dancers who apparently want not to be different who refuse to do it; too bad.
The Balance. Why do they balance onto the right foot first in Maine? Well, no one could remember which was the correct foot, so that was an arbitrary decision. By chance it was consistent with most of the rest of the world, although not with New Hampshire in those days when most dancers balanced onto the left foot first. At the time many dancers came up to the Monadnock dances from Boston, resulting in some urban/rural clashes in dance style. The Boston dancers tended to insist that their way was the correct way, and the New Hampshire dancers weren’t very open to having people from the city telling them they were wrong at their own dances.
So when Boston dancers told us we were wrong to balance onto the left foot first, that made many New Hampshire dancers even more proud to do it that way as it differentiated us from the Massachusetts dancers. Interestingly, when I danced in Maine I was happy to do it their way because they were always so friendly and no one made a big deal about it.
These days people travel more, and the Boston influence is so strong that many New Hampshire dancers don’t even realize that we always used to balance onto our left foot first and were proud to do it that way. I suspect that many dancers think I’m doing it wrong because I still dance that way. Dudley says you used to be able to tell what town someone was from by their style of dancing; now you can barely even tell what state they’re from, even in New England.
Happy Fiddler Dancing. This is from the Visual Delights collection of graphics from SunShine, 1991 (see footer for more information).
Lady of the Lake
Lady of the Lake
When I was thinking about writing up something about Old Grey Goose and the early contradance revival in Maine, I asked Doug if he had any written material about that time period, since I had heard the stories many times but wanted some clarification and verification for my memories. He referred me to an article in Salt Magazine (issue #44) published in 1993. I found it on the web and ordered a copy (most back issues are still available), and it’s a great article; it was very helpful in refreshing my memories of the early years.
*[2020 Note:* It's still available, now online as the Salt Story Archive. It has many of the articles and photos from the magazine, all digitized and online for everyone to see. There's even a set of photos from the Bowdoinham dance.]
One interesting tidbit that I’d never heard before is that when they first started calling dances, Otto Soper told them about Lady of the Lake, and said it was the most popular contradance and should be called at least once an evening. He gave them the calls as he remembered them, which included down the center four in line. Technically that’s Haymaker’s Jig, but by the time they figured that out it was firmly established as Lady of the Lake, so no one wanted to change it! Now it seems wrong when a caller from elsewhere teaches it with just the actives dancing down the center.
Dudley once showed me a book with programs from the old-time dances in Maine, and they used to dance Lady of the Lake two or three times in an evening, sometimes as many as five.
Old Grey Goose preserves much of the spirit of old-time Maine music and dance, and it will be a lot of fun to have them at the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend this year! [That refers to when they were there in 2007.]