The series of articles underlying this page was originally inspired by the 1995 Ralph Page Legacy Weekend in Durham NH and by the journal Contra and Square Dance History published by Michael McKernon quarterly during 1995 and 1996.
I’ve been thinking about some of the changes in New England traditional dance over they years, and trying to fit together various observations and bits of knowledge and speculation I’ve encountered over the years.
Before getting any further into this topic, I need to establish several points. The first few deal with my approach to the topic.
Having said that, here are some broad observations about New England country dance.
From September 1992 to February 2019 the Lamprey River Band played a monthly dance in the Dover City Hall. Nearly every time we did a dance I would spend at least a few minutes looking out at the dancers and thinking about how many years earlier, in the 1940s and 1950s, there were also monthly dances in that hall. They were called by people like Phil Johnson, Mal Hayden, Ralph Page and Guy Mann. I knew Phil for years and met Guy Mann’s wife after he died; she came to the dance to see if I wanted any of his square dance materials, and we picked them up at their apartment in Dover. The musicians for the dance included Marcel Robidas, Milt Appleby and Joe Pomerleau, all friends I’ve played music with many times, and others I heard about from them. The dancers I’m less sure about, but I believe Paul Kanaly used to dance there and maybe others.
I would think about how they did many of the same dances we do now, often to the same tunes we use for them today, and called by some of the people who were my role models for learning to call. Suddenly history isn’t something you read about in a book; I was experiencing and participating in history myself!
The Dover dance isn’t happening any more, but we’re doing the dance in the Durham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. When I first started dancing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dudley Laufman did a monthly dance there which I attended. So it was pretty amazing when Dudley showed up and called a couple dances at our first dance in the hall. And now I think about how I call some of the same dances there that Dudley called 40 years ago, again often to the same tunes. The big difference is that I was actually there, and remember him calling those dances that I am now calling in the same hall to the same tunes.
Think about some of the older dances you have danced. Some of them are clearly among the most fun dances around. In my opinion a list of such contras would include Chorus Jig, Hull’s Victory, Sackett’s Harbor, British Sorrow, Lady of the Lake, Money Musk, and actually quite a number of others. However, if you look through a book of dances from say 100 to 125 years ago [1995 reference], you’ll probably find many other dances that appear at best to be worth doing out of historical curiosity. And I say this as someone who overall is probably much more fond of the older dances than many. Even most of the older dances that are popular now once were done differently. Nearly all the old favorite dance were done in ways most modern dancers would consider less exciting.
In fact, sometimes I have wondered why dancing was ever all that popular given the obviously boring qualities of a number of older dances. If that’s what they did a hundred or two hundred years ago, it seems like they couldn’t have had that much fun. A look in dance books from a century ago produces a long list of plain quadrilles that, at least on paper, often seem rather uninspired. But yet, the kind of dancing we do was historically considerably more popular than it is now. In past years many more towns had their own dances, generally weekly rather than monthly. In the middle of rural New Hampshire, the Bradford dance attracted hundreds of dancers every weekend for decades.
One might attribute that to the slower pace of life, or to the dancers being less sophisticated. But consider the fact that contradancing appealed to people like George Washington, whose favorite dance was the Virginia Reel which is now considered boring by many dancers. No one could consider George Washington a simple rural person of simple taste who led a dull life.
In the next section I will present some concepts that may appear to be questionably relevant but I think say something about what’s going on.
In this section I’ll try to provide a way to look at how some aspects of a tradition get passed on with great precision and others end up changing substantially over time. As I said in the previous section, I will use some concepts from my field of behavioral psychology and some related evolutionary concepts to organize my ideas.
Presumably everyone is at least familiar with the concept of natural selection in the context of evolution of species. There are two main concepts.
The classic example is the finches of the Galapagos Islands (sometimes known as Darwin’s Finches). The Galapagos Islands are over 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Being isolated, it’s much harder for a species to find its way out there. So when at some point long ago some finches made their way to the islands, there were a variety of habitats available. Different habitats contained different food sources. Thus, in each environment different characteristics were beneficial for survival and reproduction.
Finches in some settings found crunchy seeds and arthropods; in other settings there were insects to be found hiding in the foliage. The first setting selected for finches with beaks capable of crunching their food (finches 1–3); the second selected for long thin beaks capable of reaching for hidden insects (finch 4). Obviously this is a simplified explanation, but it should do for now.
The principle of natural selection is generally applied to generational changes in a characteristic. But a very similar concept is used by behavioral psychologists to talk about changes in an individual’s behavior over time.
Applying this to contradancing, if a dance caller calls a new dance and it’s received well, he/she will probably call it again. If the dance produces less favorable outcomes (lack of enthusiasm while dancing, lack of applause, etc.), the caller likely won’t call the dance as much in the future. (In behavioral terms the first outcome is an example of reinforcement, and the second is punishment.) You may notice that this is pure selection; I’ve left out the role of behavioral variability here; we’ll get to that later.
I should think all callers have called a dance for the first time to an enthusiastic bunch of dancers, and all dancers have had the experience of dancing a dance for the first time and loving it. Chances are that everyone in the traditional dance community has had the experience of calling/dancing a dance for the first time and being less than impressed.
The selectioin process, together with behavioral variability (discussed in the next tab), affects all aspects of the dance. The figures and their timing have changed over the years as a result of selection processes. The choice of tunes and the style of playing tunes is changing continuously as the result of selection. And the style in which the figres are danced changes over time as the result of selection.
On the Evolving Chestnuts page I look at how several of the well known chestnuts have changed over the years as a result of the combination of behavioral variability and selection.
Before we go on, let’s consider the quality of dances. Some dances are just so much fun to dance and call. For example, Chorus Jig, Rory O’More, Shadrach’s Delight, and many others would fit this category. But if you consider the total number of dances, very few are in that category. Many more are OK but not great, or even not very good. Suppose we took a large sample of dances that might be called at a contradance and rated each one. We might come up with something like what’s in the top panel of the graph below.
If a caller were to start calling from that pool of dances, some would get better responses than others, which would act as reinforcement for calling the more fun dances and punishment for calling the more boring dances. But quite a few dances would be somewhere in the middle as shown: not inspirational, but not all that bad. They probably wouldn’t produce very strong feedback one way or another, so a caller might keep calling them, but maybe not all that frequently.
This feedback produces a selection process very similar to that of natural selection, and after a while the caller would end up calling the popular dances more frequently and the unpopular dances less frequently. This would produce a pattern more like what’s shown in the bottom panel of the graph.
This process of selection of behavior through its consequences (reinforcement and punishment) is an important determinant of our behavior, and has shaped the dance selections of every caller who has called for dancers.
Here’s the brief digression. The well-known chestnut contras are generally really good and creative. There are a whole ton of modern dances that seem to consist of swing the one below (the progression), do some generic figure, and swing your partner. Not terrible but not inspirational; and a whole evening of them can seem rather boring. Are people less creative or less skilled in composing dances now? Probably not. Rather, the older dances have already been through the selection process, and mostly the best ones are still called. Selection has had less chance to act on more modern dances, so many of the lower quality dances are still being called. I’d guess the older ones seem more creative because they represent the best of dance composition over many years of varying stylistic preferences, whereas the modern dances would tend to reflect a much narrower set of influences.
In the previous section I showed a graph of the hypothetical quality of dances based on a large sample of available dances (top panel) I show a preponderance of mediocre dances and a smaller number of really good ones, which is probably accurate. Behavioral selection alone can account for the disappearance of most mediocre dances from the repertoire as described in the previous section (bottom panel). There are so many good ones that why dance the mediocre ones. You’ve likely experienced that yourself if you’ve been dancing for a while: new dances come along and are called a fair amount at first, but then gradually fade into obscurity.
But things are more complicated than that. In reading an article in Michael McKernan’s journal, some ideas I’ve had for a while started to solidify. As any dancer should be able to understand, the dance as written is really only the basic framework of the dance as actually danced. There are at least three aspects to this, each of which is subject to considerable variability.
Let's start with the music. The written music for most dance tunes is only a framework around which musicians, each with an individual style, build variations and harmonies to fill it out. Compare a dance tune played by a good fiddler who knows the tradition well with the same tune played by someone who is unfamiliar with the tune and the tradition and is reading the music out of a book. Even if the person has excellent reading skills the difference will be obvious. How the tune is played can have a profound effect on how the dancers dance.
The second aspect would be the caller. Some callers read from their cards; some callers don't use cards because they know the dances and don't need them. Some callers are more relaxed, move differently, have a showy style or a more low-key style; callers differ in many ways. The same person could differ substantially depending on outside factors. How the caller calls the dance also has a profound effect on the dancers.
Then there are the dancers themselves. In addition to responding to the music and the calling, different dancers have different styles. If someone were to add in some dance moves that weren’t part of the dance, that might make even a boring dance suddenly be fun.
All of these differences would be examples of behavioral variability. For the dancers, that variability could take the form of minor improvisation, or it could take the form of fairly radical changes to a dance. Of course, variability doesn’t always make something better. Many of us have had the experience of trying something new that just didn’t work. Probably most of us have experienced the results of someone else trying something new that disrupted the dance, sometimes badly. Likewise I've heard music played with very unclear phrasing, no distinguishable rhythm and even without clear melody. But sometimes several factors come together and produce an evenng of outstanding music and dance.
There are undoubtedly many ways in which the variability of behavior can be classified. I'd like to mention one important way in which behavioral variability can be discussed. Some changes in behavior are along a continuum. It occurs in greater or lesser degrees. For example, the quality of dances, as used on the page about selection, varies continuously. It can be broken down into categories as i did, but those are arbitrary. Other examples involve changes of a more discrete (as opposed to continuous) nature. There are real categories rather than just taking a continuous variable and making up arbitrary categories. For example, in Petronella, the change from only the actives dancing to everyone dancing in the "round to your right and balance" part of the dance is a discrete change: it's either one or the other. These discrete changes are very much analogous to the evolutionary concept of a mutation. As in biology, some mutations are successful (as with the dance Petronella), but there are many things that people try that just don't catch on.
I’ve mentioned that some of the older dances, especially those found in older dance manuals and not danced frequently these days, appear not to be very interesting. Some of them probably were danced a few times and then dropped out of the repertoire. But some appear in a number of dance manuals so likely were fairly widely danced. So let’s think about how people fill out dances to make them more fun and interesting, to the point where they continue dancing them sometimes for generations.