New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

Passing On Our Living Tradition


New England Country Dancing: Passing on the Tradition I

The New England Country Dance is a living, changing tradition. In the Change & Preservation section I discussed how the tradition had changed and some aspects that remained the same over a period of about 125 years. Here I discuss the passing on of a tradition from one generation to another and why some aspects change more than others in the process of being passed on.

Parts of this section are based on a four-part series of articles I wrote in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, May–August 1993. I did major revision, addition and editing in Spring, 2020.

On This Page

This is another fairly extensive section divided between two pages. Click on the tabs to move between sections. Here is a brief description of what is in each tab.

Important note: Much of the second page of this section will make more sense if read this page.

  • Passing on the Tradition: Introduction & Overview. Overview of topics to be discussed: what it means to pass on a tradition, what is passed on and how, and how much different aspects of the tradition change over time.
  • Direct Passing of Traditions & the Behavioral Perspective. Here we look at situations where the passing of a tradition is done directly and likely in a planned fashion, and consider how this may be viewed from a behavioral perspective.
  • Indirect Passing of Traditions & the Importance of Accuracy. This section looks at how traditions are passed on less directly. It also looks at the issue of accuracy of transmission, and at how the dancing is passed on.

Introduction & Overview

Passing on the Tradition: Introduction & Overview


In the pages on Change & Preservation I looked at aspects of New England country dance and related traditions that changed, and aspects that remained fairly constant over a period of about 125 years, with an emphasis on what’s happened over the past 60–75 years. I covered it as a natural phenomenon (even if one in which I have been heavily involved for over 40 years) from the perspective of a behavioral psychologist, using concepts from behavioral psychology and some related evolutionary concepts.

In this section I want to look more specifically at the phenomenon of passing on the tradition from one generation to another. I use the concept of generation loosely in that I generally include instances of passing on the tradition from someone with reasonably extensive involvement in the tradition to someone who is relatively new to the tradition, even if both are roughly the same age.

I continue to use concepts like selection, variability and reinforcement, so some of it will be easier to follow if you read the Change & Preservation I page first.

In the first section of the Change & Preservation I page I gave a couple examples that are relevant here. I mentioned how when I called in Dover I would think about how 40-75 years earlier there were dances in the same hall. I knew some of the callers and musicians who did those dances, and I thought about how we did some of the same dances in the same hall to the same tunes up to 75 years later. When we do the Durham dance the connection is even stronger because many of the dances that I call I remember dancing at that dance over 40 years ago.

There was a lot going on in both settings, but one thing they shared is that in both cases the country dance tradition was being passed on from one generation to another. Let's start with the most obvious question: what does it mean to pass on a tradition? There are a number of aspects to it, and various ways of categorizing what happens. In the next section we will look at some of these issues.

What Aspects of a Tradition are Passed On & How

Earlier I’ve used a couple examples involving the passing of traditions from one generation to another. There was a lot going on in both settings, but one thing they shared is that in both cases the country dance tradition was being passed on from one generation to another. Let's start with the most obvious question: what does it mean to pass on a tradition? There are a number of aspects to it, and various ways of categorizing what happens. To (hopefully) make this easier to read I will use a pseudo-outline form to present the material of this section.

What is being passed on? I think there are two basic classes of information being passed on, although they are probably dependent on each other. Note: There are other ways of categorizing this but as a behavioral psychologist this seems most useful for my purposes.

  • First of all there is a set of skills being passed on. In the case of country dance there would be calling skills (e.g. repertoire, calling style, teaching techniques), playing skills (including skills with one's instrument, stylistic skills and repertoire), and dance skills (e.g. technique, style, etc.). But there’s more.
  • There is generally information passed on as well. We also would be concerned with the folk traditions of country dance and the stories that enrich the tradition. Being part of the New England tradition I find it important to know about people like Ralph Page, Duke Miller, Dudley Laufman, Ted Sannella, Tod Whittemore and others who have shaped our tradition. I also think it's important to know about regional traditions like calling Darling Nelly Grey as the last dance in the Monadnock region, but My Little Girl in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire and Lady of the Lake in Maine.

How is the tradition passed on? In addition to what is passed on, the details of how the transmission occurs can be important.

  • Was it done through a direct interaction between a teacher and a learner?
  • Qualities of the teacher are important: how well does the teacher teach, and how well does the teacher know the tradition?
  • Was it an interaction involving many people such as a class or a dance?
  • Was the teaching deliberate and planned out or did it happen in a less planned fashion such as learning dances from dancing them many times? It may have been deliberate on the part of the learner but not the teacher, as when someone writes down dances while waiting out at the bottom of a contra line.
  • Another question might be how well what's passed on in a teaching situation reflects how things actually work in a real dance situation.
Bob McQuillen

Bob McQuillen playing at the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend. The Weekend has been important in passing along the New England dance tradition, and Bob has been a key part of it since the beginning. Photo by Patrick Stevens, used with permission of UNH Special Collections. See page footer for a complete acknowledgement.

Degree of Change. There are certainly plenty of examples of traditions being passed on with very little change over long periods of time. Other aspects of a tradition may be passed on incompletely or with less accuracy, so that after a while there are changes that might make it nearly unrecognizable to someone of a previous generation.

  • It's worth keeping in mind that what seems like an important, often very annoying change to someone of an older generation of the country dance tradition may seem minor or even be taken for granted to someone from a younger generation. I was once playing piano in a small jam session during the break of a dance, probably in the 1990s. Afterwards Bob McQuillen came up to me and expressed his strong preference for Crooked Stovepipe to be played without the A chord that nearly everyone plays these days. It’s so much a part of my experience with the tune that it wouldn’t have occurred to me not to play it. Listening to some of the recordings I have of the tune, the oldest recording I have with the A chord is from a Duke Miller dance in 1981. Bob was playing accordion, and Peter Barnes (now Kate) was playing piano. It's not hard to guess whose idea it probably was to use the A chord.
  • On the other hand, there are also changes that may seem major to someone of the younger generation that are minor or even imperceptible to members of an older generation. I would guess this to be true especially when looking at things that have already changed a lot; subsequent changes may be hard to notice if it's all very different. How many generations have said about many styles of music liked/played by their children, "It all sounds the same to me."

In the next section we'll look at some of the variables that affect how much a tradition changes when it's passed on, and look at how they can be accounted for at least in part by the type of feedback (reinforcement and punishment) given for different aspects of the tradition and different ways of passing it on.

Direct Transmission

Direct Passing of Traditions & the Behavioral Perspective

In this section we’ll look at some examples of the tradition being passed directly from one generation to another. I’ll try to relate it to the material in the last section which looked at what aspects of a tradition are passed on and how. I will use the behavioral approach to try to explain at least some of the differences we see in how much a tradition changes depending on what is passed on and how.

Individual, Generational & Cultural Factors. These factors can be very influential in the passing on of a tradition. For example, callers tend to be much less directive about style now than fifty years ago. Dancers may have been influenced by other, often newer, forms of music and dancing that are popular now or within the past few decades. Now musicians are more likely to learn from recordings and sheet music whereas it used to be that learning from another fiddler would have been much more common. These aren't necessarily inexplicable through behavioral principles, but the explanations would be considerably more complex and I don't think this is the place to try to do it.

The following examples vary in how directly and explicitly the tradition is being passed on, and we’ll look at differences between calling, playing music and dancing in how traditions are passed on.

Maine Fiddle Camp Evening Dance, 2016

At the evening dance at Maine Fiddle Camp the band contains at least as many campers as staff. The experience of playing for a dance is a great way to learn the music and the traditions connected with it.

The Written Tradition. Information that is written down is likely to be passed on relatively unchanged because it’s right there for reference. Thus, fiddle tunes written down a few hundred years ago are often played with only minor melodic changes over that time. For those with good reading skills there is immediate feedback available when learning from written music. A good sight reader should see that a phrase was played correctly or incorrectly. This sets up a selection process in the form of reinforcement for playing the phrase correctly or punishment for playing it incorrectly.

But written notation doesn’t give us all that much information (feedback) about the style of playing, ornamentation, melodic variation and many other aspects of the music that affect the overall sound. So a fiddler from as recently as fifty years ago might find the way a tune is played now to be quite foreign. Also important, not all fiddlers read music, and many fiddlers who do prefer to learn in part or entirely by ear. That can result in changes being introduced to a tune that's widely available in written form. And finally, even those who learn from written music may play a tune differently out of personal preference.

Direct & Planned Passing of Traditions. Direct passing of information from one person to another gives lots of opportunity for feedback, so it’s likely that aspects of the tradition will be passed on with relatively little change. This is most true if done on a one-to-one basis but is also true in many group settings.

Let’s start with some examples of very direct, deliberate transmission of aspects of the tradition from one generation to another. Note that some of them involve transfer between people of the same generation with differing degrees of expertise/experience. For most purposes there’s no important difference here other than issues related to generational differences.

The Music & Dance Camp Setting. One of the most structured and well-planned examples of passing on a tradition is what happens at music and dance camps. Besides the obvious purpose of going to have fun, there will generally be classes during the day, and campers often play for the evening dance as part (or even most) of the band.

Classes often involve teaching tunes, technique and ornamentation. During the class the teacher generally listens carefully to what campers are doing, and even in a fairly large class a good teacher can hear that someone is making a mistake or not quite getting an ornament, even if it’s not clear who. That allows an opportunity to clarify the problem area. There are plenty of opportunities to ask questions which again allows for correcting errors and misunderstandings. From a behavioral perspective this means there is fairly extensive feedback which acts as reinforcement (selects) for doing what was taught and sometimes as punishment for doing something different. The tradition is probably passed on fairly accurately here due to the feedback, but with a few possible exceptions which have mostly been mentioned previously. The personal style of the individual will affect one’s playing. How well the teacher knows the tradition and knows how to teach will have an effect. What aspect of the music gets the attention of the instructor has an effect; if the teacher provides feedback mainly with respect to melody, stylistic aspects of playing won’t be learned very much.

The Camp vs. the Town Hall Dance. One final issue applies in particular to the camp environment. It can be rather different from a regular dance setting so what is taught sometimes doesn’t reflect real-world music and dance all that well. A potential result of this is changing and even distorting a tradition. For example, if many people learn to call in a camp setting where people often like, expect and can dance very complex dances, that could lead to an influx of callers who prefer to call more than usually complex dances. On the musical side of things, especially in advanced classes many teachers take advantage of campers' abilities to teach very complex and difficult tunes. While many campers like to learn these tunes, they're often not tunes that are optimal as dance tunes, but that's not always made clear.

Going to the Dance

One interesting change over the years has been in how we describe the dances we attend. Dudley talks about how when he started dancing, people would just say they were “going to the dance”. There weren’t many other kinds of dancing in existence yet, especially in rural New Hampshire, so there was no need to be specific. There was a dance in the local town hall or grange hall. Chances are pretty good that in New Hampshire they danced a mixture of squares, contras, the Virginia Reel, waltzes, polkas and other round dances.

Later on other kinds of dancing came into existence or became more popular, and it was necessary to make a distinction. Now you would have said you were going to a square dance, as opposed to a rock and roll dance or whatever else. They still danced contras, squares and couples dances, although the balance between them varying with location and over time. In Maine they generally danced contras whereas in western Massachusetts they dance a lot of singing squares.

More recently people have been saying they were going to the contradance. In correspondence with David Millstone I learned that the use of the word “contradance” to describe an evening of dancing appears to have originated with Larry Jennings in connection with dances leading up to the start of the NEFFA Contra series from 1973 to 1975. It’s certainly possible that it was used informally in that context before that. When I started dancing in the late 1970s people were emphatic that they were doing contradancing because square dancing brought up associations with Western square dancing and their dress styles. Nevertheless, we still danced contras, squares, waltzes, polkas and other round dances (now called couples dances). Overall it appears the name of the dance has changed more than the composition of the dances.

Indirect Transmission

Indirect Passing of Traditions & the Importance of Accuracy

The previous section looked at situations in which the passing of traditions was done directly and often in a planned fashion. Here we look at settings in which traditions are passed on less directly and in a less planned fashion. We also consider the issue ow important it is to pass on the tradition accurately (unchanged). And finally we look at how the dancing is passed on.

Less Direct Transfer. My own experience learning to call and much of my experience learning to play involved less direct and less explicit teaching. I learned a lot about calling from Phil Johnson, Dudley Laufman and Tod Whittemore. Let’s look at how I learned from Phil. Most of it came from listening to him call and dancing to his calling years before I started calling, and later trying to call the dance myself. I was never a student of his and he rarely explicitly tried to teach me. As I describe in the page about Phil (Dancing in the 1940s and 1950s), I learned a lot from him in a couple conversations about dancing. But those weren’t explicitly teaching sessions.

Here there was much less opportunity for reinforcement. There were others around who had danced to Phil more than I had and could give me feedback, but again it was indirect and less accurate than if I’d received feedback from Phil. So there was much more room for error in transmission. Having heard recordings of him calling, I know that my calling of the two dances I learned the most about from dancing to Phil (My Little Girl and Crooked Stovepipe) bears at least a recognizable resemblance to how he called it.

Sit-in Musicians, Wentworth

The Wentworth square dance always welcomed sit-in musicians. Of all the people on stage, only the caller and a couple musicians were hired; the rest were sitting in. Not only is it lots of fun, but it's one of the best ways to learn to play for dances.

Sitting in With the Band. Another situation with relatively little feedback which is important is playing for a dance as a sit-in musician. This could be at a public dance if the band allows sit-in musicians, or it could be at a music and dance camp where the band for the evening dance often allows sit-in musicians. For example, at Maine Fiddle Camp there are often more sit-in musicians than there are staff musicians. Playing at a jam session is often similarly useful. Generally at a dance the band/staff musicians are busy playing for the dance and don't have much opportunity to give feedback on how a sit-in musician is doing. There's lots of other feedback inherent in the situation. We can get some feedback about how we’re doing by listening to ourselves play and by whether or not we’re able to keep up with the music; but it’s pretty crude.

Learning tunes in such settings often results in not getting all the details of a tune, and possibly in making up something to fill in the gaps. On the other hand, the experience of playing in that setting helps musicians learn many aspects of what it means to be a dance musician. In addition to the playing aspect there are things like choosing tunes, being ready when the caller wants the band to start playing, and more.

This raises the issue that there may be many things to be learned in a particular setting. Some of them may produce feedback which facilitates effective or accurate learning, whereas other skills my be learned less effectively or accurately in the same setting. Thus, the sit-in experience is likely to be very useful for learning general dance musicianship skills, but much less so for accurate learning of a tune. Depending on what an individual values, this could result in some people saying that sitting in with the band is a very useful experience while others might say it's less useful.

Reinforcement for Accuracy of Transmission. Passing on a tradition unchanged matters for some aspects of the tradition more than for others. As it's a living tradition, it's beneficial to allow for changes to occur in many settings. There is likely to be more reinforcement for learning accurately when it matters to the people passing it on. For example, if a caller were to teach a figure as half rights and lefts when it's supposed to be half ladies chain, that would leave the gents on the wrong side of the set for the next figure. In cases like that, depending on the details the error is likely to be discovered either during the walkthrough or as soon as dancing starts when the dance just doesn’t work. The feedback is immediate and fairly strong, and the caller is likely to correct the problem before calling the dance again.

Other errors are less critical and may not be discovered for years. The dance Broken Sixpence starts with three do-si-dos: with the one below, two gents, and two ladies. I learned it from someone who reversed the two gents do-si-do and the two ladies do-si-do. That has no significant effect on the dance, and it was years before I realized what was going on. In a musical example, if you learn the ornamentation to a tune incorrectly/differently, or don’t learn it at all, it makes some difference to the way your fiddling sounds, but it’s still going to work just fine. If a story is told in a music class there’s very little consequence to remembering or forgetting it, so it often isn’t remembered, or is remembered partially or even incorrectly.

Passing on the Dancing. The passing on of actual dancing is interesting because it always involves some explicit teaching by the caller, but also a lot of learning by observation of other dancers who aren’t trying to teach, and sometimes teaching by other dancers. New dancers have to learn the figures of a dance and how they fit together. They have to learn some basic technique (e.g. how to swing, how not to bounce), and they have to learn something about dance style in order to dance well and not stick out as beginners. So a lot of the teaching is fairly informal and less systematic than with learning to call or play music. Therefore it's perhaps not surprising that dance styles change substantially over time, and also vary considerably from one community to another. Dudley Laufman has commented that in the days when people didn't get around quite as much you could tell what town people were from by observing their dance styles. That's much less true now, but there are still very pronounced regional differences in dance style.

In the next section we’ll look at some of the changes that have occurred in dancing and dance culture over the years, and at some of the variables responsible for those changes.

Useful Classes from Site Styles

Other Useful Information

Useful Typinator Abbreviations

  • Links:
  • Markup link: .<link
  • HTML Link: .<a
  • .<rec = <img src= [Macro here] align="center" alt= [Description Here] />
  • .<res = <img src= [Macro here] alt= [Description Here] />
  • Others:
  • .ul and ./ul = begin, end unordered list
  • .ol and ./ol = begin, end ordered list
  • .li and ./li = begin, end list item
  • .<x = enter begin code, text, same end code with automatic "/"
  • .<2x = enter begin code, text, different end code with automatic "/"
  • .<BI = beginning and ending Bold Italic
  • .<p = beginning and ending of paragraph text


  • To open a link in a new tab or window, use target="_blank"
    • For example: <a href= [URL path in double quotes] target="_blank">RPLW Syllabus, 1988 (PDF)

Relative URLs

  • Sample Directory
    • Home
      • RPDLW
      • Living Trad
        • Passing On
        • Evolving

Relative URL assumes the first part of the URL is the same as the current location so only put path or URL relative to where you are in the folder structure

  • To get back to the root folder use slash (/)
    • To link to Home from any page: <a href="/" [end bracket] Home </a & ">"
  • If the link is in the same directory as the page from which it's being linked, just give the name of the page being linked to:
    • To link to Passing on Traditions from Evolving Chestnuts: <a href="passing-on-tradition-I/"> Passing On I</a>

  • If the link is in a subdirectory of the page from which it's being linked, give just the name of the page being linked to:
    • To link to Petronella from Evolving Chestnuts: <a href="petronella/"> Petronella</a>

  • If the link is in a higher directory than the page from which it's being linked, use "../" which means go up a directory:
    • To link to Living Tradition from Evolving Chestnuts: <a href="../dance/"> Dance </a>
    • To link to RPDLW from Evolving Chestnuts: <a href="../../ralph-page-dance-legacy-weekend/"> RPDLW</a>

  • If the link is at the same level under a different directory than the page from which it's being linked, use "../" and the name of the directory:
    • To link to RPDLW from Passing on Living Tradition: <a href="../ralph-page-dance-legacy-weekend/"> RPDLW</a>