The more I learn about the history of traditional New England dance, the more I realize that most of us would get a rather strange feeling if we went into a dance hall a hundred or so years ago [meaning the 1890s]. On the one hand, they’d be doing many of the same dances we do today, so we’d get an immediate sense of familiarity. On the other hand, the dances would be quite different. This section begins a look at the way New England country dance has changed over time, starting in the 1890s.
Let's suppose we could hop in our time machine and go back to a dance in the 1890s. On the right is a dance brochure from a dance in West Swanzey, NH from 1898. You'll see some similarities but some big differences too. Take partners for Chorus Jig? I guess I can handle it. But wait—it’s a triple-minor dance (every third couple active), the contra corners are done differently; and instead of ending with a balance and swing, they’re balancing twice and then doing a two-hand turn. From what Tony Parkes said at one of his workshops at the 1995 Ralph Page weekend, the swing was probably just becoming accepted at that time (or perhaps a bit later).
Perhaps Hull’s Victory would be next. They’d only turn once around on the outside, and other aspects of the dance would be different. According to Prof. L. H. Elmwell’s 1892 manual, the swing was replaced with a left-hand turn, and other parts were different too. Money Musk might have been the same, but that’s because, according to Ralph Page the change to the modern way of doing it came about 20 years previously in the 1870’s; although Prof. Elmwell’s manual still includes the old phrasing.
In addition to the differences in the figures, there would be other differences as well. The overall plan for the night would be the responsibility of the floor manager; the caller’s role must have been much smaller at that time. But perhaps most interesting, the actual dance style must have been quite different. Not only were the basic figures different, but the variations people did to make the dances fun and interesting, and to fit their personal style and that of the community, all have changed considerably over the years.
Michael McKernan presents evidence in his journal that at some time in the past much of the dancing around here was done with a certain amount of stepping. At the very least, a pattern of one, two, one-two-three (two regular steps and three more steps in the same amount of time) seemed to be prevalent. It also seems very likely that at least some of the dancers had some considerably more elaborate steps that they used for balances and other flourishes, including some like the pigeon wing that apparently only a few gifted dancers could master. The evidence is not altogether definitive, but such a pattern seemed to be prevalent up to the mid-1800’s and even the turn of the century in some locations, by which point it had largely vanished in favor of the walking step currently used by all but the bounciest of beginning dancers.
Some residual has survived nearly to the present in my opinion. For example, at the Francestown dance in the 1980s we would always dance Money Musk after the break. On the forward and back figure there was the glorious sound of everyone balancing together, and you could hear seven discrete steps. When dancing La Bastringue, at many dances throughout the state people used to dance it with a one-two-three, one-two-three stepping pattern similar to that described by Michael McKernon. I remember watching Ernie Spence dance Petronella. He did all the balances, but on the “round to your right” part of the dance he was stepping. Observing 30 years later, it’s rare to hear a fancy balance in any dance, and most people seem to dance La Bastringue with walking step.
If we accept the likelihood that New England traditional dance used to involve a certain amount of stepping that rarely occurs any more, we can think about its implications. For example without stepping the tempo of the music would have to be faster; there would be less to do in the same amount of time. Also, the figures of the dance and the relationship between them would become more important. Anyone who has done any morris dancing will know that the figures are quite simple in most morris dances (e.g. forward and back, do-si-do). The most complex of morris dances is probably simpler than all but the simplest of contradances in terms of the basic figures. But that doesn’t matter; what counts is the foot work and the hand movements.
So, when I take another look at an endless series of (in many cases) apparently dull quadrilles in an old dance manual, I can now think about them differently. We might consider them to be dull but that’s because we wouldn’t be doing them as they were intended. Put in some fancy stepping and you really wouldn’t want a whole lot more complexity in the figures themselves. The dance figures might have been more of a vehicle for the stepping you were doing—which was the real dancing. (This sounds rather similar to what I understand the dancing to be like even now in Cape Breton.) Stepping may have been less prevalent in urban areas where dancing masters were an important force. However, Dudley pointed out [in correspondence about the original article] that in such settings it may have been the occasion of the dance that provided enjoyment as much as the actual dancing itself.
This sort of program was given out at dances. Besides all the information about the dance, musicians, organizers and the actual program of dances, as you can see from the first picture it came with an attached pencil. That was to write in your partners for each dance. As you can see there are some similarities. We still dance most of the contras mentioned — although differently — and we might dance some of the quadrilles but quite possibly not. We dance the waltes, polkas and schottishces — although less frequently than when I started dancing. We certainly don't have a floor manager with aids, and we don't have a committee of introduction. Overall the feel of the dance must have been quite different!
Dance program booklet, West Swanzey NH, Dec. 23, 1898. Brownlow and Dorothea Thompson Collection, 1802-1994, MC 294, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. Used by permission.
Let’s move ahead a number of years to the period of the mid 1940s through the 1970s. Certainly the biggest influence on traditional dance style during much of this period was Ralph Page. He had several sides to him, depending on whether you’re discussing the young Ralph Page or the older Ralph Page. He called in the (at the time) very rural Monadnock region as well as in Boston, and he taught different dances and probably different style in the two places. However, as far as I can tell some of the qualities he considered important were good timing and dancing with a certain smoothness and elegance of style; and he asked his dancers to show respect for the dances themselves. He probably emphasized that more in Boston; and in fact the Boston dancers are still much smoother, which is probably appropriate for a more urban region. [2020 Note: That was written in 1995; I haven’t danced in Boston much since then so I have no idea what the dancing is like there now.]
Ralph had a strong influence on what dances were called for many years, up to the present. He called the old chestnut contras. He wrote quite a few very good contras which were different, but which promoted smooth elegant dancing. He revived many elegant old triple-minor contras (every third couple active) that had largely been lost. He abandoned certain figures (e.g. balances) if he couldn’t get people to dance them as he wanted. Although many of those dances could have been danced in a rowdier fashion with fancy stepping, that’s just not what he taught.
In addition to contras, Ralph was well known as a singing square dance caller. Many of the singing squares that he called are still called today; e.g. Crooked Stovepipe, Darlin Nellie Grey. Some of the dances he called were far from sedate; e.g. the Rout and the Ladies’ Whirligig. In fact Ralph Page tended to call a more rural-style dance when he called in New Hampshire than when he called in Boston. Although others of the time may not have shared all his preferences, certain commonalities are obvious. For example, Duke Miller seemed quite happy to have noisy balances at his dances, and in other ways provided a bridge in style to the current generation of dancers, but there’s no doubt that when appropriate he wanted people to dance with a style and gracefulness and sense of timing that’s fundamentally lacking in many of today’s dancers.
Many of the dances that were popular during this time period are no longer all that popular among many dancers. If you were dancing in the style of that time a figure such as actives going down the center was ideal. It lends itself to showing off your style (and would have earlier when stepping was more common), and allows for the inactives to admire their dancing (or to socialize). Figures done by groups (e.g. forward and back in lines or circles) were also well suited to the time, as people who were used to paying attention to such things could dance such figures together in a way that has been lost since then in many places. Overall dancing was done to music at the same tempo as now (or even a bit faster), but less was done in the same amount of time. After all, how graceful could you be if you were in a rush to complete a figure and go on to the next.
The dance revival of the 1940s and 1950s pretty much came to an end when modern Western square dancing became dominant. Square dance callers started incorporating more and more Western square dance figures. At first this made for some interesting dances which we still dance and consider to be classic squares (e.g. Smoke on the Water). But the influence increased, and the Western square dance figures were growing more complex.
At some point it became necessary to go to classes just to learn all the figures you'd do in a typical square dance. Contras and even traditional squares were no longer done. Over a period of several years this trend continued, resulting in Western club-style square dancing, complete with those outfits it’s famous for, and the use of recorded instead of live music. Although most clubs offer an occasional beginner-level dance to attract new people, most clubs now require at least a year of classes before you dance in a regular set.
As Western square dancing grew to be enormously popular nation-wide and even internationally, public dances done in town halls with live music and dancing that anyone could do became rare or nonexistent in most places. People either started doing Western square dancing, or like the rest of the American public watched their televisions and let others do their living for them. Only in some rural areas of New England (especially the Monadnock region of New Hampshire) and to some extent in Boston did traditional dance continue.
This was likely Ralph Page's interpretation of a traditional dance, and it presumably forms the basis for Ted's Merry-Go-Round which Ted Sannella used to end the New England Folk Festival for many years. Ralph liked smooth and more polished dance styles, but dances like these should certainly dispel any ideas that Ralph Page's dances were sedate.
This is as called by Ralph Page on the 78 RPM recording Ralph Page, Square Dances, Disc 5037-B.
If it's not obvious from the calls, the basic figure is that the lady does the following:
Allemande right with her corner, allemande left her partner
Repeat with opposite and partner, then repeat again with left-hand gent and partner
Most lines of calls represent four beats (four steps, two measures of music).
The dashes represent times when the caller isn't calling; each dash is one beat.
Here is a story from Dave Cousineau, retired bass player for the Lamprey River Band. I remembered him telling me the story a number of years ago and when I was writing this section I asked him to refresh my memory. This is included with his permission.
Dave said, "Actually, my square dancing experience predates my wife by several years. I began sometime in the middle '40s when I was about a dozen years old and growing up in in the Connecticut valley in Western Mass. It is also when I learned the "buzz- step" swing.
"At that time there was a monthly dance in the local community center which consisted of squares and 'round dances. The evening usually comprised two or three squares, some were singing squares, followed by a foxtrot or waltz and then more squares. These were family dances in the truest sense as mom & dad, aunts and uncles and assorted young ’uns were in tow. The music was usually quite simple and was provided by lets say, a piano, clarinet, and trap drum set. What, no fiddles! Go figure.
"Later on, when I was married to Bonnie, I introduced her to square dancing but things had changed and square dancing and become sort of "militarized" and live music was replaced by recorded amplified via what was called a Yak Stack and come-as-you-are attire was replace by costuming. Men wore dress slacks with a sweat towel on their belts and crinoline skirts for women. Additionally, the dances were less vigorous, very short swings and in my opinion sort of phlegmatic. Bummer."
That illustrates how when Western square dancing came in, it really took over to the point that old-time square dancing was nonexistent. As you can see Dave wasn't too impressed with the change in style. I have the feeling that a number of dancers at the Contooook square dance felt rather similarly.
Western square dancing caught on gradually, but then became very popular nationally and very quickly displaced the traditional town hall dances of New England, a described on the previous page. In New Hampshire there was still dancing in Nelson even when nearly all the other traditional dances had stopped.
The near-absence of traditional dancing changed suddenly in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when Dudley Laufman led a revival of the more traditional town hall public dance. Dudley was very strongly influenced by Ralph, and at first there wasn’t a great change as far as I can tell. Greater emphasis was put on the music than had been previously, leading to the glorious live music of the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. Dudley was considerably less controlling than most earlier callers in terms of style and dress and other such issues (even if some modern dancers might feel he didn’t go far enough).
Dudley did dances in Nelson, Peterborough and the rest of the Monadnock region, and throughout much of the rest of the state. In the Seacoast region he had a regular dance at the Durham Grange, later at the Unitarian Fellowship in Durham, and in various other town halls. He had a strong following of younger dancers (often referred to as “Dudley dancers”), including many brought to the dances (and in some cases to the state) by the back to the land movement and related influences. Many of his dancers came in from rural areas, and the dance was an important time for people to see their friends.
The dances reflected the values of the time and the culture from which many of the dancers came. They tended to have an egalitarian spirit that may not have existed to such an extent before. The idea of switching partners became more popular even among established couples, to the point where for a number of years there were only a small number of couples who danced more than one to three dances together in an evening. It was thought that no one should be too good or bad a dancer to dance with anyone else, and there shouldn’t be social class barriers at a dance to keep people from dancing together.
There were sometimes clashes of values between the new dancers and some of the long-time New Hampshire dancers who didn’t necessarily share those values. In Fitzwilliam, where Dudley sometimes called and where Duke Miller did his summer series, there was active monitoring to make sure no one was dancing barefoot. Those who were caught were asked in no uncertain terms to put their shoes on. Interestingly some of the old-timers thought the new dancers were too sedate. The younger dancers didn’t think dancing and drinking went together, whereas the old-timers were more likely to drink, sometimes to the point of getting rowdy and even fighting.
The revival spread throughout New England. Then it spread nationally, often brought to a region by someone who had danced to Dudley and moved away. As there was no contradancing where they moved, people would learn to call and to play the music, and start a local dance.
When I first started dancing, in the Monadnock region (around 1980) you could still see hints of the earlier period. Although dancers were considerably more energetic in their style than Ralph would have liked, they had at the same time a smoothness of style and sense of timing that many modern dancers lack. Even as a relatively immature dancer with little knowledge of historical context and a preference for more energetic dances, I could tell there was something special about dancing Money Musk in Francestown with everyone dancing completely together and on the beat for those (quite noisy) balances as well as for the rest of the dance.
I don’t think I could put more unrelated concepts into one title and have it make sense. One of the important concepts from evolutionary theory is that of mutations: random changes in the DNA that affects characteristics of the organism. Many mutations are harmful to the organism and don't get passed on. Some are relatively neutral but do contribute to genetic variability. Now and then there is a major mutation that at least in the short term facilitates survival to reproduce, and it can become prevalent very fast, often taking over the role of some previous traits.
There is a behavioral equivalent, which is probably related to the concept of creativity. Both the introduction of Western square dancing and Dudley's contradance revival were examples of something very different, new and exciting. Compared to what was prevalent at the time they could be considered mutations. These were successful mutations: both quickly became prevalent. The Becket formation contra is probably another example. Other attempts at radical innovation are less successful. You can probably remember dancing a dance that was very different that never caught on.
In this section we move to the present to look at how all these changes as well as areas of stability in the New England dance tradition have combined to produce the style that characterizes dancing in the present. Of course it's important to mention that the immediate present is characterized by a complete lack of dancing, and it could be several months to a few years before it's safe to dance again. That kind of a break could result in an alteration in dance style and repertoire when it starts up again.
I have been discussing some of the changes in traditional dance over the years. I’d like to finish by looking at some modern adaptations of dances to fit the modern dancers.
So how do we characterize the current dancing? It’s tempting to characterize it in terms of what has been lost; people have always done that, and we probably will do that for the dancing of twenty years from now. Clearly many things have been lost. Stepping is largely lost, and in many place any hints of elegance or gracefulness have been lost. People often laugh when I suggest dancing a dance elegantly; it’s a foreign concept to them. [From 2020: I rarely even suggest such a thing anymore.] There aren’t many dancers who have a good sense of how to fill out the music when dancing figures that can be done more quickly. However, these have been replaced with other qualities that would have gone over the heads of previous dancers just as their preferences are lost on modern dancers.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the most prevalent embellishment was probably the twirl. We put twirls in ladies chains (sometimes up to six or more), do-si-dos (which was previously largely unknown), turning as a couple, and in Maine even on crossing the set during rights and lefts. In my opinion this sort of twirl has become an established part of contradancing and won’t go away for a long time. But at the same time it is less salient as a feature of the 1990’s than it was ten years ago. People simply do it without thinking rather than to prove a point or show off. And it’s relatively rare to see it carried to excess as it was several years ago (although Ted Sannella tells me this is less true in other parts of the country). [From the perspective of 2020, twirls seem in fact to have become a part of the tradition, and at the same time they are overall less common and less overdone than in the 1990s.]
It seems that the most salient feature of modern dancing might be a mixture of complexity and constant movement (think about how that relates to modern Western square dancing). At many modern contradances each dance involves fairly complex, fast-moving figures. There are some callers who call such complex and fast-moving dances that [in 2019 with bad feet] I have to wait until the walk-through is done to decide if I can dance it. When a dance is called that goes at the pace of most dances thirty years earlier, many dancers finish figures very early and stand there not knowing what to do until the next figure is called.
This style isn’t really to my preference as I’ve pointed out before, but it certainly can be fun. We are seeing a shift from a time when it was what you did while dancing (stepping, gracefulness, etc.) that was important to a time in which the figures themselves have become the most important part, and style of dancing (individual or group) less relevant. And there’s no doubt that as a result the best modern dances have more interesting figures than many old ones, or that transitions from one figure to the next are much smoother in many of the modern dances.
I’d like to finish by looking at what happened to the chestnut contras. There is no one answer; in some places they are danced pretty much as always, and in other places they aren’t danced at all.
In the Seacoast area of New Hampshire I put a lot of effort into keeping them as part of the repertoire. I called them, I wrote about them in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter. We have been lucky enough to have the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend in Durham, which tries to keep the older dances and dance styles alive and part of the modern tradition. Ted Sannella asked me to be on the organizing committee as the first of my generation and at the time one of the few New Hampshire dancers to be involved. I considered that to be a major honor. Ted worked hard to make sure the older traditions were respected while at the same time representing newer ways as well. When Ted was no long able to do that I worked hard to preserve that. At least in part as a result of those efforts we’ve continued to dance the chestnuts more in the Seacoast area than perhaps anywhere else, and I think we tend to dance them with better style than in most places, the exception being some of the long-time dancers from the Monadnock region.
But regardless, certain evolutionary trends can be seen nearly everywhere.
Some dances are simply danced differently than they used to be. Back in the mid 1970s Dudley was calling Petronella and a group of dancers decided to have some fun with it. Instead of just the actives dancing the “round to your right and balance” part, they invited the inactives to join in, forming a diamond-shaped group of dancers. They had enough fun that this rapidly spread and became the new way to dance the dance. This would be a discrete change rather than a continuous change in how the dance was done; it changed from actives only during that part of the dane to actives and inactives participating equally. So this change was in effect a mutation, and a very successful one at that.
More recently people started clapping during that part of the dance. There are, of course, other lesser-known variations. For example, with the inactives dancing, if the actives are strong dancers the inactives can go the other way around the diamond. Then the musicians became involved, dropping out for the balances. The Lamprey River Band, after doing that a couple times, sometimes would then drop out for a balance and not come back in, and we’d see how long the dancers would keep dancing.
Other chestnuts changed too over time. In Rory O’More people twirled to change places. In Lamplighter’s Hornpipe we would take hands diagonally with the inactives for the last balance.
But perhaps the most major trend has been to compose new dances that take the distinctive figure of one of the chestnuts and incorporate it into an entirely new dance that is otherwise much more active and fast-moving. These days there are many dancers who are familiar with the distinctive figures of many of the chestnuts, but sadly have never danced the original dance. In my opinioin only a few of the chestnut clones are as much fun as the original dance, and they don't come with the rich history that accompanies the original dance. One can imagine generations of people dancing Petronella or Chorus Jig, but the same isn't true for the many clones of those dances that are danced more frequently.
But to dancers without a knowledge of the history of our tradition, it might seem that the clone, being more active and more complex most of the time, is more fun to dance. Certainly from a behavioral perspective, if the clones have become more popular there must be some factors that select in their favor with the current population of dancers.