New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

Passing On Our Living Tradition


From the Past & To the Future

In this section I consider how involvement with country dance leads to experiencing history as something real and personal rather than just something we read about in books, and I look at several people who have passed on the tradition, often altering it in various ways as they did.

Much of this section is based on articles written for the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, and in preparation for an interview about contradancing.

In This Section & On This Page

  • On This Page: This page looks at how country dance involvement can lead to experiencing history directly rather than as an abstract read about in a book. It then looks at how various people play a role in passing on the traditions and at the same time changing them in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
  • Phil Johnson, Square Dance Caller. Phil Johnson was a square dance caller from Lebanon ME who called quite a bit in the Seacoast area. I learned a goodly amount about dancing 50-75 years ago in Dover and surrounding towns from Phil.
  • The New England Tradition: Change & Preservation. A tabbed page with seven sections, this page looks at how some aspects of the New England dance tradition are very stable whereas others change considerably. I use concepts from behavioral psychology and evolutionary theory to talk about how and why, and look at dancing during several time periods to see the changes more clearly.
    • Evolving Chestnuts. A look at some of the chestnuts that have changed in fairly substantial ways, and how those changes affect the dance.
  • Passing on the Tradition. Here we look at some of the ways in which the traditions are passed on, and factors which affect how much different aspects of the tradition change over time. There is also a comparison of modern urban contradancing with Western square dancing and a look at how the two have evolved differently, and the section concludes with looking at the effects of breaks in the tradition.

Experiencing History: Looking at People Passing on & Modifying the Dance Traditions

For more than 25 years the Lamprey River Band did a monthly dance in the Dover City Hall. I would often look out at the dance floor and think about how if we could go back to the dance hall of about 1945 to 1955 we might have seen musicians playing many of the same tunes that we played there, dancers dancing many of the dances we still dance today to callers using very similar calls and very similar calling styles; and in some cases people would be dancing dances to the same tunes we use for them today.

One reason I have always enjoyed contra and square dancing is the way it gives us a direct connection with our history. It’s not something you read about in a book; rather, it’s something we experience personally on a regular basis. It’s a living tradition: we can look at how it’s changed over the years, as well as aspects that have remained fairly constant. We can also watch it continue to develop.

This is especially true dancing in New Hampshire, where there is such a long tradition of country dance. In Nelson the sense of history can be even greater; there is a largely unbroken dance tradition in the Nelson Town Hall going back over 200 years.

It’s certainly been more popular at some times than at others, and has had periods of fading out to the point where there are discontinuities in the tradition. But these breaks have never been complete; there are always people who used to be actively involved who stopped doing it due to lack of public interest. But when interest picks up again they’re still here, and they give us continuity with the past.

Newt Tolman was a flute player from Nelson, and he used to play for town dances in the early 1900s. There was a period in which the dancing was considerably less popular in the mid 1900s. I remember reading a comment by Newt Tolman to the effect that he never thought he’d hear the old fiddle tunes played by a country dance orchestra again until he became part of the revival led by Dudley Laufman and the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra in the 1970s.

Newt was far from the only one to experience that. Don Roy is an outstanding fiddler from Gorham Maine who has been on staff at Maine Fiddle Camp for years. He learned from his uncle Lucien Mathieu, and they used to play together as part of the Maine French Fiddlers. One year Don tried to get Lucien to go to Fiddle Camp. Lucien was skeptical — he didn’t think anyone would be interested in hearing him play. Well, he got to camp, and there were over 300 fiddlers there of all ages, and he was received with great enthusiasm. After that he didn’t miss a year of camp as long as his health allowed him to go.

I didn’t know Newt, but I was lucky enough to get to know Lucien, to play with him in jam sessions, and even to take some classes from him at Fiddle Camp. It was an amazing experience to be learning from the person who taught Don so much, and who had played for dances and soirées since before I was born.

I’ve been lucky enough to know, dance to, play music with and learn from several others who helped bring continuity to the tradition. There’s Bob McQuillen, Milt Appleby, Marcel Robidas, Phil Johnson, George Hodgson, Ralph Page, Harold Luce and Dudley Laufman (who is still very much alive and active in the dance), and undoubtedly others. In this section we’ll look in more detail at a couple of the old-time musicians and callers who helped to pass on the older traditions, and we’ll look at how they may have changed the traditions as they passed them on.