This page contains a variety of topics in tabbed parts. Click on the tabs to move between sections. It is my hope that by presenting a selection of articles and stories I've written about New England dance over the years I can give you somewhat of a feel for the dance, how it's changed and how in some ways it remains very similar to the older styles of dancing. Here is a brief desription of what is in each tab.
The first three tabs were written in Fall of 2006 for an earlier version of this website. I don't believe they ever were printed in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter. At the time I wrote: "Every now and then there is a musical event that is particularly enjoyable for one reason or another. As it happens there have been a number of them in the past month or so, and I thought I'd write about them."
The first concerns a dance put on at the Mill Pond Center by the Oyster River Watershed Association last Sunday. It was part of an art show fundraiser, although most of the related activity was on Friday. Sunday was kind of a gloomy day with some rain, and that didn’t help attendance at all. I had hired Russell Orzechowski to play for it, remembering that he would be getting back to UNH about that time. He said he’d be able to provide accompaniment too; it turned out his sister Sophie would be playing piano. When we arrived at the Mill Pond Center, Russell told us that since they were helping him move back to Durham (where he's a student at UNH), in addition Jane and Neil would be there; so for this small dance we ended up with all but one member of the Orzechowski family band! [2020 note: They were subsequently known as the Sugar River Band, now the Sugar River String Band; I’m not sure if they had that name yet in 2006.]
There weren’t enough dancers to dance for a while so we had a jam session, and played all sorts of great tunes. Jane even got out the Dorset Four-Hand Reel, which I don't think I've played in close to 20 years; and we played many others of the old favorites. It was a great time; it’s always fun to play with such good musicians! Sophie was playing April Limber's fiddle and Teresa even got to try it which was a real treat for her. I was being more official as the caller and never got a chance; maybe some other time ... Eventually some dancers showed up, and we did mostly squares because of how many dancers there were, and a couple contras at the end. The dancers had a good time, and certainly enjoyed the music. Overall it was a very enjoyable afternoon, and the music was first class.
A few weeks later we had some fun musical experiences at the Star Hampshire Traditional Dance Weekend. I wrote about other aspects of it in the Newsletter and in another story on this web site. Patrick tried something new this year which was a lot of fun. There's always been interest in dancing on the part of some people from the other conferences that occur at the same time, but that can be problematic for various reasons. Therefore Patrick suggested an All-Island Dance on Saturday. It occurred when we often have a jam session so I suggested starting with a jam and then going into the dance, which is what happened.
Perhaps because of that arrangement there was more participation than usual by staff musicians in the jam session, which turned out to be a great time. It flowed almost seamlessly into the dance. It's just hard to beat playing music with people like Ron Grosslein, Randy Miller, Becky Ashenden and the others who participated; music just doesn't get much better than that! I think they enjoyed it a lot too, as they don't get to play with each other very frequently either.
A couple weeks later we went to the Junket at Dudley's which happens whenever there's a fifth weekend. This time it happened to be on a Friday which is unusual. The dance was fine other than that I was too tired to dance for some reason I can't really remember. But the real highlight was that Dudley had just inherited Dick Richardson's fiddle. Dick Richardson was the fiddler for Ralph Page's New Hampshire Orchestra; he's featured on many of the classic old 78's that used to be used for dancing to records, and there are a couple compilations of his music out on tape and CD - great music! Dudley has even compiled a marvelous book and tape about him; it’s currently available [as of Jan. 2020] from Great Meadow Music and a couple other sources.
So the best thing was that after the dance Dudley let us try Dick Richardson's fiddle. It was quite something to play the fiddle that we've heard on so many recordings over the years, that used to belong to one of the legends of New England fiddling. It really has a very nice sound to it, and it was fun - and inspiring - to play some of the tunes that Dick Richardson might have played on that fiddle up to 100 years ago! Thanks, Dudley!
T here are some strong opinions about some of the music and the dances called at that time. Subsequent years of dancing unfortunately have not changed my opnions very much. The rest is very enthusiastic though.
It’s been a really busy couple weeks for me, so by Saturday evening I was so tired I wasn’t very motivated to leave a perfectly comfortable rocking chair to go out into the cold, and I wasn’t convinced I’d be all that interested in dancing. After all, these days sometimes I go to a dance and the music sounds more like rock and roll than like contradance music: there may be a decent beat (perhaps), but asking for melody and phrasing is apparently too much for some of the people who are trying to be “modern” but don’t quite know how to pull it off. (At least that’s my interpretation; one has to hope such undanceable music isn’t by design!) Furthermore all too many callers are calling dances that, while popular, I personally don’t like. Often they’re based around figures that aren’t particularly contradance figures and in some cases have social implications I find objectionable. Then there are all the chestnut clones that with few exceptions make me wish we were dancing the original dance instead. So it's not always as easy to get motivated to go to a dance as it was ten or twenty years ago when I was younger and had more energy and the music and dances were more consistently to my taste. [2020 Note: See below for some updates to these comments.]
I should have known better! Claire was calling, and Old New England was playing. That meant that the music would be outstanding. It also meant that the selection of dances would be to my liking, since Claire and I have fairly similar taste; hardly a coincidence since we’ve danced in many of the same places over the years and share many of the same influences.
Within five minutes I'd completely forgotten that I had been tired, and I was dancing with energy and enthusiasm. At one point I passed Sarah Dawson in a line and, while I don't remember her wording, she commented that Old New England are still getting better, and I had to agree. Pretty amazing for a band that has roughly a century of experience between them at playing for dancing, that they're still able to get better! But while there are bands that do fancier things with the music, it's hard to imagine anyone playing real old-time traditional New England contradance music any better than they do. Even when they play one of Bob's newly composed tunes, or a French Canadian tune, it sounds like an old-time New England tune. Some of the old classic tunes they played were just marvelous.
The Concord dance has always been an enjoyable dance. It's much more of a community dance than most, drawing from the local and surrounding communities to a large extent. Of course when a band like Old New England plays more people come from further away. There was a good mix of people of various ages and backgrounds. Overall there were a goodly number of people who were fairly experienced, so Claire was able to call some moderately complex dances without too much in the way of teaching, especially later on.
We danced a number of fun dances. I don't remember all of them, but we danced Smoke on the Water before the break. After the break we danced Money Musk and Chorus Jig. Claire said there would be time for one more dance, and Teresa and I were wondering if it could be worth dancing after dancing two such great dances; but Claire called Shadrach's Delight for the last dance, and that was good enough that it was worth dancing one more dance.
Overall between the great music, nice crowd of dancers, and informal atmosphere and good selection of dances that Claire provided, it was one of the more enjoyable dances in recent memory.
2020 Note: I can't really disagree with anything I said in the first paragraph. Many musicians only listen to their contemporaries who play in the same style they do, and aren't aware of the range of styles with which these tunes have been played over the years, and especially aren't aware of most earlier styles. That's too bad as it reduces their ability to play in ways that are probably more appropriate for traditional dancing. Many callers only call dances written within the last ten to twenty years, thus eliminating the hundreds of years of history to the tradition and leaving out some excellent dances.
This was written for an earlier version of this website in November 2006 about the Concord NH November dance. I don't believe it was published in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter.