G iven that this section includes the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, it seems like I should say something about who Ralph Page was that he deserved his own dance weekend. Here is a quick summary, but so much more could be written about nearly every aspect.
Ralph Page had a long and varied career as a caller, musician and scholar of the dance. Attempting to describe his accomplishments is difficult and a humbling experience. He published the Northern Junket, called squares and contras, taught international folk dancing, and wrote several books about square and contradancing.
He researched, rediscovered and revived a number of what we now consider classic triple-minor contras. The old manuscripts that were his sources, often from around 1800, used a very different vocabulary of dance. The figures were often somewhat different from what we dance today. Ralph Page had to interpret them as well as he could and translate the figures into something that could be danced by dancers of the twentieth century.
Ralph became a full-time professional caller in 1938, calling both contras and squares. He would sing many of his squares and became known as the Singing Caller of New England, and as the Dean of New England Square Dancing. He was very popular in New Hampshire, and had a large and enthusiastic following in the Boston area as well.
He was the founder and first president of the New England Folk Festival Association, which put on the folk festival of the same name starting in 1946 and continuing to the present. It's by far the largest and most varied festival of its kind in New England and has been so for years.
In 1946 he began recording for Moe Asch's Disc label. He went on to record many records of contra and square dance music for Michael and Mary Ann Herman's Folk Dancer record label. He recorded dance tunes both with and without calls, with both his Boston band and his New Hampshire band. During times when live music was hard to come by, many callers used his recordings at dances.
In addition to recording, he also composed a number of excellent tunes such as Rollstone Mountain and McQuillen's Squeezebox and many more. And he was a prolific composer of dances, many of which are still called regularly (e.g. Monadnock Reel, Canadian Breakdown).
In 1949 he began publishing the Northern Junket. It ran for 165 issues until 1984. He did the whole thing by himself, publishing with a mimeograph. It was a magazine of dancing, with calls and commentary and history for many contras and squares as well as sheet music. There was dance commentary that he wrote and that was written by others. He published his own research and interpretations of historic dances here. But it was more than that. He published recipes, editorials and articles on many different topics. As the publisher of the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter for many years I can't even imagine how much time and effort it must have taken to publish such an impressive magazine.
In 1950 he began running dance camps in New Hampshire, which then branched out to Massachusetts, other parts of New England, California and elsewhere, eventually including even England and other countries. He even had his own band in England, the Southerners.
That's just a minimal descripton of what he did in over fifty years of involvement with music and dance. He had a very strong and devoted following of dancers. Many people learned from him (and continue to do so through his books and recordings). There were times when he was nearly the only one keeping the music and dance alive; and later on Dudley Laufman who learned from Ralph was in a similar position. If it weren't for Ralph Page we probably wouldn't be dancing now.
In the next tab we look at how Ralph Page started to call dances, which is in itself an amusing and impressive story.
Starting to Call
Ralph Page's Unexpected Start as a Caller
R alph Page was born in Munsonville, an unincorporated village in the town of Nelson NH, on Jan. 28, 1903. By the time the following events took place he had been playing for dances in various configurations with some of the people involved.
He got his start as a caller quite unexpectedly, and with no chance to prepare. As he tells it in the Northern Junket (Vol. 6, No. 12, 1960), "December 6, 1930, I called my first square dance. It was the first time I had ever tried it and it was done with no time for preparation nor practice."
As he described it, "A half dozen of us young men then living in Munsonville had been meeting two or three times a week to play music together." Included in that group was Newt Tolman, who was important to the musical side of the dance revival led by Dudley Laufman forty years later.
One of the occasional musicians, Harry Frazier, suggested renting the Stoddard Town Hall and running a dance. Harry would be the caller. Although he had never called before, he "loudly proclaimed that there was nothing to it, and that he could call off any dance that anyone would be apt to ask for. We should have known better …"
The night of the dance Harry said he was coming down with laryngitis. "In fact, you never saw a man come down with any disease as fast as Harry Frazier did that night." As they arrived, he said, "You'll have to do the prompting tonight, Ralph, my voice is gone." Ralph responded, "But Harry, I never did it before in my life." Harry said, "Your uncle is a prompter, your mother is a fine dancer, your father is a fiddler and your grandfather was a dancing master, so you can be a prompter."
"And to my dying day I'll never forget my reply to this; 'They might have been horse thieves instead of what you say, but that wouldn't make me one too.' "And that, my friends, was all the preparation I had to become a square dance caller."
The dance didn't go completely smoothly; actually I've seen it described in less charitable language! But the dancers were his friends and he survived it well enough to do another dance in Munsonville a few weeks later. He had practiced in between, and this time at the end "the old-timers crowded up to the stage to shake my hand or hug and and tell me that I'd done a good job." And best of all, his Uncle Wallace Dunn, who was known as the best prompter around (although retired), said "Not bad, Ralph. Come up to the house Sunday, think I can help yer." Needless to say, coming from an old Yankee that qualified as high praise!