New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

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Petronella

Another classic New England contradance that has evolved over time.

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Of course it was originally Scottish; the first stage of evolution in this country was to become a thoroughly New England dance. Here we look at some of the more recent changes.

  • Petronella. An overview of the changes to both the dance and the music used for the dance.
  • Petronella Transcriptions. Two transcriptions of the dance: one as called by Ralph Page's Uncle Wallace, probably around the 1930s; and the second as called by Dudley Laufman on the first Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra record.
  • The Modern Petronella. A transcription of the dance as generally danced today, and a discussion of the side-effects of some of the changes in the dance.
Petronella

Petronella

The way that Petronella is danced has changed significantly at least three times during that the past 50 years or so. The opening figure is the most complex part of the dance. To start the dance the active gent in four steps turns over his right shoulder (clockwise) to end up below his starting position, in the center of the set facing up. At the same time the active lady turns similarly to end facing down in the middle of the set, roughly between the starting positions of the first couple. A common call for this figure is "round to your right".

Once in position the actives then balance to their partner. Then the figure “round to your right and you balance” is repeated three more times, with the actives going a quarter of the way around each time, to end up roughly opposite where they started for the second time, and by the fourth time back on their own sides.

Now, the first fork in the dance begins here. Ralph Page said (Northern Junket, Vol. 10 No. 2, 1970 and An Elegant Collection of Contras and Squares, 1984) that the closer you got to Vermont the more likely they were to reverse the order and dance it as “balance and turn a quarter”.

The contradance revival in the early 1970s brought about further changes in the dance. Dudley Laufman talks about the actives taking hands during the balance, and even twirling under their joined arch. I have seen that done myself. Then one night a set of dancers got the inactives to join them, making a diamond for the balance. The inactives would go around the diamond with the actives. This became very popular quite quickly. When I started dancing in the late 1970s we would sometimes start with just the actives dancing, and then part way through the caller would tell the actives to join in. Some dancers still preferred not to invite the inactives to join them. Within a few years it was nearly always danced with the inactives participating. Dudley refers to that version of the dance as Citronella.

Ernie & Joan Spence

Ernie & Joan Spence. Ernie was responsible for many people starting to dance. He was an excellent dancer himself, and danced an excellent Petronella. He was stepping most of the time he wasn't doing the balance. It was a joy to watch him dance. Photo by Patrick Stevens, used by permission from UNH Special Collections; see footer for details.

The last major change took place in the 1990s. People started to clap in each “round to your right”. There were two claps in the second half of the figure. ""Round to your right" takes up two measures, or 4 beats. If you count those beats as one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, the claps are on "and-four". That also caught on quite rapidly, although there are still quite a few people (including me) who dislike it. It appears to be somewhat less pervasive than at first, but is still fairly common.

After the four times through that figure the actives go down the center and back, cast off, and the final figure is rights and lefts. These figures have remained unchanged.

There have also been changes in the music used for the dance. It comes from the Scottish dance of the same name, done to the tune of the same name. In the Northern Junket Ralph Page wrote, “Neither did we ever dance it to the tune named "Petronella". All of the good fiddlers knew that particular time and most of them heartily disliked it. We dancers went one step further — we despised it! The commonest tune in southwestern New Hampshire to do the dance to was "Girl I Left Behind Me", with "Finnegan’s Wake” a close second. The nearer you got to Vermont the surer you were to dancing "Pat'nella" to this tune.” The tune he presented is what we now call Green Mountain Petronella. Although Dudley used Petronella on the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra recording, he has said many times that those tunes were often used, and named some others as well.

Petronella Transcriptions

Petronella Transcriptions

Here are some transcriptions to accompany the discussion of Petronella.

The first one, on the left, is as called by Ralph Page's Uncle Wallace at kitchen junkets, as described in the Northern Junket, Vol. 10 No. 2, 1970.

The next transcription is from the calling of Dudley Laufman from a Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra record. These are the actual calls for the dance. In the first half of the dance the calls are pretty much together with the figures. In the second half the calls get ahead of the figures. I'll show the phrasing of the dance in the next section.

Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, Farm & Wilderness Records, FW3, 1972, Dudley Laufman calling.


Petronella

Duple Minor; Couples 1, 3, 5 etc. are active

Proper dance, do not cross over


Ralph Page, Northern Junket, as called by Uncle Wallace

A1

Balance partner

4

Around to the right and

4

Balance again

4

Around to the right and

4

A2

Balance again

4

Around to the right and

4

Balance again

4

Around to the right to place

4

B1

Down the center with partner

8

Same way back, cast off

8

B2

Right and left four

16



Petronella

Duple Minor; Couples 1, 3, 5 etc. are active

Proper dance, do not cross over


Dudley Laufman calling with the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra

A1

Now go round to the right and you balance        — — — —

4

Now go round to your right and you balance once again

4

A2

Now go round to your right and you balance to your partner

4

And go round to your right and you balance once again

4

B1

Now go down the center with your own, and you bring her right back home

8

— —        And you cast off, and you right and left right over

8

B2

And you right, left, left, right, over and go back again

8

— — — —        — — — —

8


Modern Version

The Modern Petronella

The last version is the modern version as it is called today. It's not one of the more frequently called chestnuts, most likely because it doesn't have a swing which is considered essential by many modern dancers.


Petronella

Duple Minor; Couples 1, 3, 5 etc. are active

Proper dance, do not cross over


Modern Version ("Citronella")

A1

Round to your right and balance in a circle

8

Round to your right and balance in a circle

8

A2

Round to your right and balance in a circle

8

Round to your right and balance in a circle

8

B1

Down the center, turn single

8

Come back, cast off proper

8

B2

Rights and lefts

16


The phrasing is the same as in the older version that Dudley called. The major difference is that the inactives join in by default for the "round to your right and balance" portion of the dance. Frequently the "round to your right" is accompanied by two claps which occur in the second half of the figure; see the first tab of the Petronella page for the details of timing. I don't like the clapping because I don't like the sound in the context of the dance; but also because people who clap are often late to take hands for the next balance, which can disrupt the flow of the dance.

Side Effects of Changes in the Dance

Often changes in how a dance is danced will affect other aspects of how the dance is danced. Th modern Petronella is a good example of that. It used to be that many good dancers would try to do a different style of balance each time through the dance. If you're in a set of 8-10 couples, as might have been expected at many new Hampshire town halls, that would mean 8-10 styles of balance before you're inactive and don't have to come up with another way of balancing.

But if you're dancing Citronella, now you suddenly have to come up with 16–20 ways of balancing assuming the caller runs the dance until original actives are back to the top. Even the best of dancers would find that to be a challenge.

As a result, the tradition of doing a different balance each time through the dance has largely disappeared by now.

About the NH Country Dance Website, Dance Portion

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Edited & Published by Peter Yarensky. I am a dancer, caller and dance musician from the Seacoast region of New Hampshire. I play fiddle, piano and hammered dulcimer. I call contras and squares with the Lamprey River Band and am available to call with others. I particularly enjoy calling for beginners due to the wonderful enthusiasm they exhibit. Contact. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if you find any errors, typos, omissions, or about music and/or dance in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire. Email: peter dot yarensky at unh dot edu or peterynh at icloud dot com (usual substitutions apply).

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Sources

Website Photos. All photos were taken by Peter Yarensky (website editor and writer of most of the contents) unless otherwise noted. All photos are used with permission.

There are a number of items, used by permission, from the Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA. These include:

  • Photos taken by Patrick Stevens. These are now part of the Patrick Stevens Collection, 1992-2018, MC 331.
  • Dance program booklet, West Swanzey NH, Dec. 23, 1898. Brownlow and Dorothea Thompson Collection, 1802-1994, MC 294.

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