New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

A New England Dance Overview


An Introduction to Traditional New England Dancing

Here is a quick introduction to contra and square dancing and to the music played for dancing. The material is presented in a series of four panels: (1) Introduction; (2) Contras & Squares; (3) The Music; and (4) Playing the Music.

In This Section

This section introduces the material for this website, and why I think it might be of interest. Many pages have tabbed sections; be sure to click on the tabs to see their contents. On a phone you may need to click on a tab header to get a menu of available tabs. Here's what's in this section.

  • An Introduction to Traditional New England Music & Dancing (This Page). This page gives a fairly quick introduction to New England dancing, including contras and squares, and a look at the music and playing for a dance.
  • Historical Look at Traditional New England Music & Dancing. This page looks at the dancing from a more historical perspective, from the prevalence of contradancing in New England to the increased popularity of squares in the middle part of the last century, to the contradance revival of the 1970s and the spread of contradancing to the rest of the country.
  • Dancing to the Music. Here I discuss how the music is phrased, and how the dancing in New England is done to the phrasing of the music. Dancers often express confusion about the specifics of this topic, so I present some examples to help make the relationship between the music and the dance more clear.
  • Social & Dance Interactions. Here I discuss some of the social and dance skills that in my opinion are useful for any dancer.
  • Generational Changes at Dances. There was a big generational change when people my age started dancing in the 1970s, and another one has gone on more recently. I discuss some of the implications of such generational changes.

On This Page

Here's what you can expect to find in the tabs on this page. Be sure to click on the tabs to see their contents; on a phone you may have to click on a tab header to get a list of available tabs.

  • The Dance Website. This tab: An introduction to the website.
  • Website News. That should be self-explanatory.
  • Website Overview. This box gives an overview of the different sections of website, with links to the Introductory page of each section. That page will have links to each page in the section.

Dancing in New England: Introduction

This page provides a brief introduction to the traditional music and dance of New England. It's intended to be understandable by people who know little about the topic although there are undoubtedly parts that would be of interest to someone more familiar with the music and dance.

West Hopkinton dance

Dancing at the Emerson School in West Hopkinton. Photo from Vivian Mitchell who organized the dance, 1990s.

People have been dancing in New England since colonial days. In the early days, not surprisingly, our music and dance were very much tied to what was happening with English and French music and dance. I remember at one of the early Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekends there was a presentation, possibly by Chip Hendrickson, in which that topic came up. It turns out that the earliest round trip from here to England and back for the purpose of learning and bringing back the latest dances was in the very early 1800s. That was far from a trivial trip in those days, which says a lot about the importance of the dance at that time.

Since then our music and dance have diverged from its European roots, while maintaining some commonality as well. We will look at that from various perspectives in this website, generally focusing more on the traditions than on modern contra and square dancing.

The remaining tabs give an overview of the music and dance. For more details there is an article in Wikipedia, and there are many other presentations on the web.

Contras & Squares

Contras and Square Dances

The two dominant forms of New England country dancing have been contra and square dancing for a long time. Both have changed a lot over the years, and their relative popularity has fluctuated rather drastically over the years. The contradances can be traced to English country dance, and the squares to the French quadrilles.

West Hopkinton dance

The square dance bands also played waltzes and foxtrots. They often included saxophones, drums, electric guitar, etc. (Photo, Vivian Mitchell, 1990s).

Contras are done in line formation: two parallel lines with partners generally across from each other. Some contras are in proper formation meaning that all the men are in one line and all the women in the other. Others are in improper formation, meaning that every other couple switches places with their partners. A more modern formation has everyone next to their partners, facing another couple in the opposite line. This is known as Beckett formation, named after the Beckett Reel which was the first dance to use that formation. Each time through the dance you dance with one couple; at some point you progress, or move on to the next.

Squares are danced in square formation (of course), with one couple on each side of the square. Many New England squares are visiting couples dances, in which the active couple goes out to each of the others and does a set of figures. There are also dances in which the head couples (facing toward or away from the band) are active together, alternating with the side couples. Some squares are breakdowns, meaning that everyone is active all at once.

The Music

The Music

Contras and New England squares (as opposed to club-style Western square dancing) are nearly always danced to live music. As most contradances are of a specific length, contradance tunes are of that length too.

Lamprey River Band

Contradance bands are more likely to include fiddles and piano (these days more likely a keyboard, sometimes a guitar instead). There may also be a flute, mandolin, and occasionally hammered dulcimer. This is the Lamprey River Band playing for the Dover contradance in July, 2006.

A contradance tune generally has two parts (called the A and B parts), each of which is 8 measures (16 beats) long. Generally each part is played twice in the pattern AABB for a total of 32 measures, the length of a dance.

Each part of the tune is divided into shorter phrases, generally in multiples of two. So there are generally four-measure phrases and sometimes even two-measure phrases. These match the phrasing of the dance which is divided into several figures, usually four or eight measures long and sometimes two measures long.

Music for square New England squares tends to be similar, except there are a number of squares where the calling is sung to specific tunes from the repertoire of popular songs of the last 100–150 years.

Playing the Music

Playing the Music

A basic band would be fiddle and piano. Beyond that you could add in guitar, bass, flute, another fiddle, accordion, or other instruments (e.g. hammered dulcimer, mandolin, etc.). At one time instrumentation was different, including horns, saxophones, drums, etc. These days guitars are replacing pianos at some dances. Sometimes sit-in musicians are encouraged, sometimes they aren't permitted. Sometimes there are even more sit-in musicians than band members.

Tunes have clear phrasing so the dancers can hear when to start a new figure. Musicians play the melody clearly and rhythmically. Accompaniment is also done strongly and rhythmically. Some harmony is also fine, as is variation, as long as you don’t lose the phrasing and rhythm. It’s important to play in a strong rhythmic fashion for dancing, and to give lift to the music so people feel like moving and dancing. When the excellent dance piano player Bob McQuillen was asked what advice he'd give to someone who was learning to play, he said, "Keep the beat!"

Boscawen Christmas Dance, 2018

The band for the Boscawen Christmas Dance, December 2018. Sometimes the band is quite small (e.g. fiddle and piano); other times it's pretty large, and sometimes there are as many sit-in musicians as band members.