This is a fairly extensive section with seven tabbed parts. Click on the tabs to move between sections. Here is a brief desription of what is in each tab. There is also another page linked to this one called Evolving Chestnuts. It looks at a few of the chestnuts that have changed, some within recent memory, and at how those changes have affected the dances.
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.
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.
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 mayor 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.
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.
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 n 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). But that doesn’t matter; what counts is the foot work and the hand movements. The most complex of morris dances is probably simpler than all but the simplest of contradances in terms of the basic figures.
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. [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. 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 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 friend from western Massachussetts told me how he and his wife stopped dancing with a very healthy dance community in place, and came back a few years and discovered all the dances they knew were gone, displaced by club-stsyle Western square dancing. In New Hampshire there was still dancing in Nelson even when nearly all the other 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.
From his An Elegant Collection of Contras and Squares, Lloyd Shaw Foundation, 1984.
This is Ralph Page's version of the dance, and probably reflects how it was called for many years. I woulldn't be surprised if there were some variation in the timing.
Couples 1, 4, 7, etc. active. Do not cross over. Numbers represent beats (steps).
This is a fairly standard modern version of the dance with one exception. Following the left hand turn the actives hold on to the inactives to balance four in line diagonally. Usually they just do a balance with their partners. I may have learned this variation from David Kaynor but I don't remember for sure.
Couples 1, 3, 5, etc. active. Do not cross over. Numbers represent beats (steps).
The dance was originally a triple minor (every three couples active), and in fact you dance with both of the inactive couples. The modern dance is a duple minor (every other couple active), so the actives dance with the other couple in their group of four and with the next inactive below. This gives the dance a very different feel.
In A1 in each group of 6 the actives cross, lady in the lead, to go below, ending up facing out between the second and third couple. After the right-hand turn the actives end up in the same place, again facing out. In the modern version of the dance the cross below is to where the next active couiple was before they did their cross below. In the balances it's usual to balance toward the person you'll be doing the turn with; Ralph Page used a balance forward and back rather than side to side.
In A2 after the double balance the actives turn the left hand person by the left to meet their partner in the center. In the modern version you keep holding on to the inactive and make a diagonal line of four for a balance. In the older version you go right into the down the center figure.
In B1 the actives go down the center, turn as a couple, and come back to cast off with couple #2. In the modern version the actives come all the way back to the couple they were dancing with (originally the couple below them). This is further than expected, so you have to leave enough time to come all the way back.
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. 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 may never have danced the original dance.