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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.

Peter Yarensky, Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, December 2006; a fuller version was on an earlier version of this website. I did some editing and revising for here.


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. Please note that they are intended to be read in order.

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.

Old Grey Goose

Old Grey Goose, Ralph Page Weekend, 2007. Doug Protsik, Smokey McKeen & Carter Newell. Photos of Carter and Smokey from the Patrick Stevens Collection, Milne Special Collections and Archives, UNH Library, used by permission. See the page footer for a complete citation and more information.

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.

The first was 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, but 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 0ld-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, 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 and John 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.

Photo Credit: Photo of Dudley from the Patrick Stevens Collection, 1992-2018, MC 331, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used by permission.

Dudley Laufman
Dudley Laufman, Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, 2007. Credits at bottom.
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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. As things got going, they decided to get together once/month for a combined dance in Bowdoinham, and with that the Maine Country Dance Orchestra was born. They relied on playing with lots of energy and enthusiasm, sometimes multiple button accordions, and everyone taking turns calling, to be able to do the dance with no amplification.

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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. I started going in 1980, and it quickly became my favorite dance. 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!

Origins of some Maine Dance Features:

Rights & Lefts and Balancing

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. 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. Later 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.

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. In those days 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).

Happy Fiddler Dancing
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Lady of the Lake

Maine Fiddle Camp Dancing, 2006

Dancing at Maine Fiddle Camp in the early days (June 2006).

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.

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 even more.

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.]