New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

Passing On Our Living Tradition


New England Country Dancing: Passing on the Tradition II

On the second page of this section we look at the comparison that is sometimes made between contradancing and modern western square dancing. We also consider the issues that arise when there are breaks in a tradition.

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 the second part of this section, and likely will make more sense if read after the first part. Click on the tabs to move between sections. Here is a brief description of what is in each tab.

  • The Development of Modern Urban Contradancing. Modern contradancing, especially the more urban style, is getting increasingly complex. Will it end up imploding for that reason like Western square dancing?
  • The Community Dance, Modern Contradancing & Western Square Dancing Compared . We look at some of the varieties of New England country dance and draw some comparisons between them.
  • Continuity & Breaks in the Tradition. Some examples, and discussion of the effects of discontinuities on the tradition.
Modern Contras & Western Squares

The Development of Modern Urban Contradancing

M uch of this section is based on a series of articles I wrote in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, May–August 1993. At the time I had become aware that the Deerfield dance, which was advertised as a community dance, had become the largest dance in the area, with attendance of 90–100. People who had stopped dancing because of young children and were just starting to dance again were going to the Deerfield dance. People were commenting that it was a very friendly dance. It seemed that with the regular contradances featuring increasingly complex dances, this was a phenomenon worth noting.

On the previous page I noted the introduction of Western square dance figures into traditional square dancing, and the eventual dominance of Western square dancing and near disappearance of traditional square and contradancing. During the years preceding the 1993 article, and even more so since then, Western square dance clubs have become much smaller or disappeared, and have tended to have few new dancers joining them. As it takes a year of lessons before being able to dance in a square set, that’s not too surprising.

Marianne Taylor

Marianne Taylor playing piano at the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, 2006. Fiddling next to her is Rod Miller. Photo by Patrick Stevens, used with permission from the UNH Special Collections; complete acknowledgement is in the page footer.

As discussed previously, Dudley Laufman led a contradance revival starting in the late 1960s that resulted in contradancing spreading throughout the country. At first the dances featured a goodly number of the old chestnut contras and New England squares. But over time the dances started to become more complex, reaching the stage where most dances called were equal dances meaning that the actives and the inactives did the same thing; in effect one was always active. Although we continue to dance the traditional dances in New Hampshire, in many places that’s no longer true.

Modern Urban Contradancing. At the more fast-moving urban-style contradances (some of which were starting to appear even in rural areas), a partner swing was required in every contradance. It was progressing toward the requirement that each dance include a swing with the neighbor, as the no-longer-inactive couple was being described. That was forcing the dances into a format in which the partner swing and the neighbor swing were connected by a series of allemandes, half-heys and a couple other figures to get the dancers in place for the next swing. It's also worth mentioning that at many/most modern contradances they only dance modern contras, with a last waltz and perhaps a waltz or polka before the break.

Some people were starting to speculate that contradancing might be heading in the direction of square dancing: increased complexity, figures being done in less time than before, little or no time for inactives to rest. In other words less and less friendly to beginners, and also to older dancers. I cited Dudley Laufman and Tony Parkes as having expressed such ideas; I was still not sure if that was really how things were going.

The modern urban contradance is quite different in many ways from an older style New England country dance. The style of the contradances is quite different, there are fewer if any couples dances, squares or circles, and the atmosphere of the dance is quite different. But from a behavioral point of view the differences clearly came about through a selection process over a period of years. As the cultural context of the dances changed, and the characteristics of the dancers changed, the dancers presumably enjoyed different things, and the selection process would favor different dances and a different dance atmosphere. So to a large extent this likely represents a selection process acting on a set of continuous variables.

There may have been some discrete variables (mutations) involved as well. For example, Larry Jennings once described to me how, in a time period when there was little variety in the dancing, he deliberately set out to create a more modern style of dancing. This was one of the major building blocks of modern contradancing, and could be considered more of a discrete change (a mutation).

There are two things to be learned from this. First, a fairly drastic change can come about as the result of selection of continuous variables, even if it looks like a discrete change. Second, many changes that come about involve a combination of continuous and discrete processes.

Dance Style Comparison

The Community Dance, Modern Contradancing & Western Square Dancing Compared

Let's finish this section by comparing the types of dancing we've been looking at.

Back to the article (1993) with additions. Dudley has been doing community dances for many years, and often gets very good turnouts. Dudley typically does a mixture of whole set dances like the Virginia Reel (progression being the top couple dropping to the bottom), squares, easy contras, etc. The atmosphere is generally relaxed and he doesn't hurry from one dance to another. Teaching is kept to a minimum. The people who come have as good a time as dancers at a contradance. But the two styles of dances are separate with almost no overlap in attendance. Now Marianne has started a regular dance series in Deerfield which is a little closer in style to the other Seacoast dances than Dudley's, but which is clearly intended as a community dance. Until recently, very few contradancers have gone to it, but it is very well attended—better than any other dance in the area. The people who go include many who have never danced before who, mainly through word of mouth, seem to be finding out that this is the one to go to if you're new at it.

In the case of both the Deerfield dance and Dudley's community dances, the difference seems to be that the dances are somewhat simpler, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and there is less demand by other dancers that everything be done just exactly right. Basically, these dances are more in the spirit that the contradance revival tried to bring back originally. It is clear that these sorts of dances are meeting a real community need, probably better than the more usual sorts of public contradances which perhaps no longer meet this need so well.

Modern urban contradancing and western square dancing are both much faster moving, and both involve more complex dances. Although modern contradancing doesn't require lessons, it's hard to dance at a modern contradance if you don't know the figures. Both are less friendly to beginners.

When I call I try to do something in between. My dances tend to be closer to the old-time New England county dance, with a mixture of contras, squares and couples dances. I try to keep it friendly, but like to do at least a couple more complex dances during the course of the evening. My dances are a mixture of chestnuts, singing squares, couples dances, and earlier modern contras.

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Back to 2020. In the intervening years contradancing has gone even further in the direction of being fast-moving and complex. My feeling is that it is not very friendly to beginners much of the time. And being nearly 30 years older now I can say from experience that many callers call dances that I can no longer do, at least without a struggle, and probably never would have wanted to. Some callers have gone far enough in that direction that I don’t go to their dances.

But the split that occurred with Western square dancing hasn’t quiet happened. Everyone is still welcome at a contradance, and there are no classes beyond an occasional beginner’s workshop before a dance.

I think the changes described here illustrate very well the degree to which traditions can change as they are passed along. They also illustrate how there can be a fairly continuous development, or there can be a more dramatic break from earlier tradition. It’s also important to think about the cultural changes that have taken place over the years, both in our society at large and within the contradance community. For example, dancers’ backgrounds have changed from being mostly rural people who often worked hard during the day to more urban and suburban people who often sit at a desk much of the day. Obviously these groups have very different reasons for going to a dance, and thus different expectations.

Continuity & Breaks

Continuity & Breaks in the Tradition

I’ll end this discussion of passing on traditions with the issue of whether a tradition is passed on fairly continuously, or whether there are breaks in the practice and passing on of the tradition. The effects of such breaks are particularly relevant now when we're in the middle of a complete if hopefully not excessively long break in all country dance traditions.

Continuity: A Few Examples. In previous sections I mentioned how when we were doing our dances in Dover I would look out at the dancers and think about how so many of the dances we were doing were called by Phil in that same hall, often to the same tunes, 50–70 years earlier. Now that we’re in the Durham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, I can remember dancing there 40 years ago with Dudley Laufman calling.

I’ve played for Dudley’s dances many times and danced at his dances many more, over a period of more than 40 years. I believe I’ve learned a lot from Dudley, and many aspects of my calling reflect that; although in many ways my style is fairly different, reflecting other influences as well. I danced to Phil Johnson several times, and when I call the Crooked Stovepipe or My Little Girl I always think of Phil calling the dance. I call the dances similarly, but again there are differences reflecting other influences.

I have also had the opportunity to learn from a number of musicians who played for dances going back to the 1940s. I went to soirées at Marcel Robidas’s barn and danced to his fiddling. At the soirées I met and played music with quite a few other excellent musicians of his generation. I played with Milt Appleby a number of times and visited and played tunes with him nearly every weekend for the last several years of his life. And of course I danced to Bob McQuillen’s piano playing many times and played with him several times as well.


I mention all that to illustrate how in New Hampshire we’re lucky to have a relatively continuous tradition. In some parts of the state the dancing has kept up continuously, and the music has been around continuously, although sometimes less visible than others. There have been times when only one or two people were calling and very few musicians were active and very few people were dancing. In many other places there have been much greater discontinuities, with the dancing dying out altogether and being revived by people from elsewhere bringing their own traditions with them.

I think as a result of this continuity there is a greater sense of the tradition and its importance in New Hampshire than in many places. Much of this can probably be attributed to the fact that most dancers have at least danced to some of the older musicians and callers, and many have gotten to know some of them. And certainly most musicians and callers have at least in part learned from people who have been part of the tradition for many years.


The Effects of Breaks in the Tradition. This leads to one final analogy to behavioral psychology and evolution that I think can be helpful in thinking about the role of continuity and breaks in a tradition. Looking at evolution, the genetic material that is passed on from one generation to the next can be considered a random sample of what’s available to be passed on. Random samples are generally representative of the populations from which they were drawn, but only if they are of adequate size. If the size of the population gets too small, the samples often don’t represent the population as accurately.

This gives rise to the phenomenon of genetic drift. If the population shrinks beyond some level, the characteristics of the genetic material passed on may change substantially, even without the action of natural selection. Small samples also tend to have more limited characteristics in their genetic material, which reduces the ability of a species to adapt to a changing environment.

Applying this to country dance, if the number of people in the dance community gets too small, that’s likely to have a few effects. The variety of dances, tunes, and dance skills is likely to decrease as a result. Which dances, tunes and dance skills get passed on will depend on the tastes and abilities of a much smaller group of musicians and dancers, especially when you consider that only part of the dance community is likely to be actively involved with passing things on. Although it's probably not really analogous to genetic drift, a period of time in which the tradition doesn't happen (or, as when I write, can't happen) is likely to have roughly the same effect.

As a result some dances, tunes and skills are likely to be lost, and the ones that remain may have very different characteristics than the original body from which they are drawn. When a revival comes along, the tradition is likely to have changed substantially from what it was.


Even in New Hampshire we have had at least a couple periods in the past seventy-five years when the dancing nearly died out. For a while Ralph Page was nearly the only caller continuing to keep the dancing going. Later on Dudley Laufman was in a similar position. There was very little dancing except in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire and a few other more isolated places. Dudley revived the dancing in New Hampshire, and it later spread to the rest of the country as people moved away and started dances in other places. As a result New England style contradancing took over in places that had previously only danced squares.

But the earlier forms of local music and dance had residual effects, as did local culture. As I understand it in the midwest they dance very fast, consistent with the overall faster tempo of fiddle tunes there. Although contradancing was brought to California by someone who danced to Dudley Laufman, I’ve been told that it is now quite different in style. I know of someone from New Hampshire who was dancing with someone from California who insisted that contradancing was invented out there and was only about ten years old!

As I write we are in a time period in which it's just not reasonable to hold public dances. I would guess that this will last another one to three years. That's enough of a gap that it's entirely possible the music and dance will be noticeably different when it starts ujp again. It will be interesting to see what happens.