New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

Passing On Our Living Tradition


New England Country Dancing: Passing on the Tradition

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 with four tabbed parts. Click on the tabs to move between sections. Here is a brief desription of what is in each tab.

Important note: Much of this section will make more sense if read after the section on Change & Preservation.

  1. 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.
  2. A Some Illustrative Examples & the Behavioral Perspective . Different aspects of the tradition, how they're passed on, and effects on the degree of change, with examples. Also, a discussion of changes in what the dances were actually called.
  3. Modern Contradancing & Western Square Dancing Compared . Modern contradancing, especially the more urban style, is getting increasingly complex. Will it end up imploding for that reason like Western square dancing?
  4. Continuity & Breaks in the Tradition. Some examples, and discussion of the effects of discontinuities on the tradition.

Introduction & Overview

Passing on the Tradition: Introduction & Overview


In the page 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, and much of it will be easier to follow if you read the Change & Preservation section first.

In the first section of the Change & Preservation 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 I danced at that dance over 40 years ago and remember dancing some of the dances I call at those dances.

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.

Examples & Analysis

Some Illustrative Examples & the Behavioral Perspective

In this section we’ll look at some examples of the tradition being passed 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.

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 correctlly 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.

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 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 instructorhas an effect; if the teacher provides feedback mainly with respect to melody, stylistic aspects of playing won’t be learned very much.

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. 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.

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

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. So the feedback is mixed: it's probably effective at teaching someone what's involved with playing for a dance, but there's less feedback on the actual playing. But there's enough to be learned that it's undoubtedly a valuable experience for many musicians.

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.

Modern Contras & Western Squares

Modern Contradancing & Western Square Dancing Compared

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.

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, and 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.

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. Note that modern urban contradancing is another example of something that fills a similar role to biological mutation. As the concerns here illustrate, even mutations that become prevalent can have effects that aren't always beneficial long term.

Back to the article (1993). Dudley has been doing community dances for many years, and often gets very good turnouts. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.