New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

Dance Programs


The Bradford & Emerson Hill Square Dances

Here we look at the Bradford dance, called by Frank Fortune, which for years had up to 400 dancers every Saturday night. We also look at the Emerson Hill square dance which was started after the Bradford dances ended and called primarily by Bobby Boynton and George Hodgson.

Section & Page Overview

This page talks about Frank Fortune and the Bradford dances, and then about their successor, the Emerson Hill and Contoocook square dances, called by Bobby Boynton and George Hodgson. Then I try to give the feel of what an evening at one of George's Emerson Hill dances was like; the Contoocook dances he ran were similar in many ways.

On subsequent pages, I present the program for a dance called by Frank Fortune, and for two dances called by George Hodgson. I also present a bit more about their repertoires of dances based on other information that's available.

Bradford & Emerson Hill Dances

About the Dances: Bradford & Emerson Hill

Frank Fortune

F rank Fortune called for the dances in Bradford from about 1940 until 1968. During much of that time Myron Colby’s Orchestra played for the dances. The dance was held in several different halls, and for many years had up to 400 dancers every Saturday night. In the late 1960s the dances were continued by several other callers and other musicians including Marcel Robidas of Dover. Frank Fortune’s Barn closed in the mid 1970s.

I discuss Frank Fortune and the Bradford dances in more detail in a page about the Bradford Dance, and there’s a much fuller presentation of information about the dance on Walter Lenk's website. I encourage you to look at both to get a better picture of the ford dances and their overall importance. Walter Lenk's website has been a major source of information as well as inspiration for this and other parts of this website.

Woody Roberts

Woody Roberts playing for the Contoocook dance, June 2007.

The Emerson Hill Dance: A Brief History

After Frank Fortune stopped calling in 1968, the dance continued with a variety of callers through the mid 1970s. Members of Myron Colby’s Orchestra came together to form the Woody Roberts Band. Woody was an amazing piano player who delighted in playing an occasional “sour note” as he put it. These were notes (or perhaps chords sometimes) that were deliberately and obviously incorrect, played for the amusement of the dancers. He would play one and look up with a big grin on his face. If there were musicians dancing who he knew would appreciate it he would look at them for a reaction. Woody was an excellent piano player who generally played melody or harmony with his right hand and accompaniment with his left hand.

Together with several others from Colby’s Orchestra, they started to play twice/month for squares at the Emerson Hill School in West Hopkinton in 1980. At some point (I’m not sure if it was from the beginning) they came to be known as the Woody Roberts Band. At first Lee Keyser and Wilbur Grace were the callers. But Myron Colby’s grandson Robert Boynton Jr. (generally known as Bobby Boynton) started calling the singing squares, and in 1982 he took over calling the West Hopkinton dance.

In 1992 Bobby Boynton retired from calling regularly at the Emerson Hill dance. This was shortly after I started dancing there, and I wasn’t a regular at the dance yet. I'm not sure if he stopped completely or if he might have called for a while after. I do remember some discussion at the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend (presumably in 1993) of the need for a new caller. As George called there nearly every year his name came up, and through a series of improbable connections he became the next caller in West Hopkinton.

Also in the early 1990s Woody Roberts decided to retire from playing. Walter and Lou Heath took over. Walter played piano and Lou played fiddle. They played for a number of years along with a slowly changing set of musicians, many of whom had played with Myron Colby’s Orchestra.

George Hodgson, The Contoocook Dance

About the Dances: George Hodgson & Contoocook

George Hodgson

George, unlike the others who called at the various incarnations of the Bradford dance, came from a different background. He was from western Massachusetts where there was a strong tradition of singing squares. I believe he had a greater familiarity with the wider world of contra and square dancing than most of the other callers. George started calling in the 1940s. He called at Ralph Page’s camps, he had called at NEFFA, and he was a regular at the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend from the beginning, calling at least a couple dances there every year and being on staff a few times.

He liked to call singing squares from the 1940s and 1950s that had somewhat greater complexity and that had some early Western Square Dance influence. He also called some of the classic contras like Hull's Victory, British Sorrow and Sackett's Harbou His repertoire at the Emerson Hill dance was mainly squares, as that's what people there liked to dance. There was a fair amount of repetition from week to week and the dancers were very comfortable with squares. As a result, even though the dances were more complex than many were used to, he usually didn't have to do a walkthrough more than once or twice in an evening.

The Contoocook Square Dance

On August 8, 1999 the Emerson Hill school burned to the ground. I was at Northern Week at Ashokan and didn’t learn about it until we got home. That was terrible news. It was a wonderful hall to dance in, and both Woody and Walt considered it the best piano they’d ever played. I never played it, but it was a marvelous piano to dance to. That was very sad for all of us. We ended up moving to a room in the Contoocook library. The dance never quite recovered from losing the Emerson Hill hall, but it did continue for a number of years after.

In 2006 Walt and Lou retired from playing. Woody came out of retirement. I think at first it was on a temporary basis, but he was obviously having lots of fun playing for the dances, and I guessed correctly that he would keep playing. Finding a fiddler was less obvious. At some point it occurred to me that two of the regular dancers had a daughter who was an excellent fiddler, although she played mostly Swedish fiddle music. But I knew she read music well and suggested her. Margareta Fopiano ended up playing for the dance, and although she struggled with the music at first, she became a pretty good square dance fiddler after not all that long. And it was obvious that Woody enjoyed playing with her.

George Hodgson kept calling until he had a heart attack in 2007. That was a shock to all of us. But Bobby Boynton was willing to come out of retirement, and he became the caller again. His dances were rather different than George’s dances, but we enjoyed them too. George’s dances were mostly from the 1940s and 1950s, and while distinctly New England dances and danced in New England style, they had elements of Western square dance influence in them. They tended to be pretty busy, and sometimes a bit complex. At the time George could call a grand square without any warning and count on the dancers knowing what to do. Bobby’s dances were largely the repertoire of Frank Fortune. They were a bit older and less complex, and were the repertoire of rural New Hampshire.

From the time I started dancing at the Emerson Hill dance Teresa and I were almost always the youngest dancers there. Over the years the dancers got older, and while new dancers joined the dance they were fewer in number than the people who died or became unable to dance. The dance went on for several more years with Bobby calling, but finally in December 2013 we took our usual break, but the dance never started again.

An Emerson Hill Dance

An Evening at the Emerson Hill Dance

The Emerson Hill School was a very nice dance hall with an attached kitchen. There were tables around the sides of the hall which were used by everyone. The piano was generally agreed by everyone who played it and those dancers who paid attention to be one of the best dance pianos in existence. Some people danced mainly the squares, some people danced mainly the round dances, some danced all; but even they used the tables during the intermission.

Emerson Hill Tables

The tables at the sides of the hall were important to the dance. Upon arrive people would claim a space at the tables and use it every time they wanted a seat (unless socializing with others of course). People on one side of the hall danced mostly squares, while people on the other side danced mostly the round dances.

The dance would generally start with a series of round dances (mostly waltzes and foxtrots), which kept up until there was a proper group for square dancing. Following that, it alternated between a set of squares and a set of three waltzes or foxtrots. Often there was a set of polkas either before or after the break. Sometimes, especially in earlier years, there was a set of swing and country line dances.

Although previously squares were done in sets of three, George generally did sets of two squares because his dances were pretty active and most dancers were ready for a break after two. Before each set of squares the band would play a tune to call on the dancers. Often it was Soldier's Joy, Turkey in the Straw or the Irish Washerwoman, and often it was just one A part.

At some point George would announce, "There will now be a short intermission". That was a time for socializing, and generally one or more people had brought something to eat (usually sweet). After a while the dance would start up again, usually with round dances. The dances always ended with Smile a While and Now is the Hour, which George would sing, following which he would say “Goodnight, and if you’re driving, be sure you have a car!” [Note: Sue Hunt has pointed out that it's really Till We Meet Again, and the words are "Smile the while", but it was more often called by its incorrect title — possibly because Now is the Hour has the words "till we meet again" in it as well.

In the next page we look at dance programs from Frank Fortune and from George Hodgson. I also include tabs on the repertoire of both callers based on additional sources that I describe in those tabs. Unfortunately I can’t find any recordings of complete dances called by Bobby Boynton, but if I do I will add them to this section. In general his repertoire was strongly based on that of Frank Fortune.

Note: I’ve tried to format these tables to be reasonably legible on most screens, but they are much easier to see to compare on a tablet or a computer where they can be presented side by side.