New England Music & Dance Traditions: Old-Time Contra & Square Dancing
Local Community Dances

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This is an article about Local Community Dances as they exist throughout New Hamphishire and the other Northern New  England, and how they form the core

Local Community Contra & Square Dances

Peter Yarensky

Last month I wrote about the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, which is one of the biggest and most enjoyable events of the year in this area. This month I thought I’d write about the core of New England contra and square dancing, which keeps the dance scene alive over the years, brings in new dancers, provides us with lots of varied events to attend every weekend, and even in between.

Of course, what I’m talking about is the local community dance. It’s easy to forget about it, ignore it, discount its importance in favor of the big events like the Ralph Page Weekend, the upcoming and also very enjoyable Downeast Country Dance Festival, dance camps, and the larger urban dances. But where would we be without the network of local community dances that we’re so fortunate to have in New England? Flip the page, and ask: what proportion of the dances fall into that category and what proportion are in the category of large modern urban dances, festivals and dance camps? My count, even counting Monday night Nelson only once, was 22 local dances and 3 in the other category.

But not only are there more of them, they also provide us with great variety. Each dance has its own character; and the quality of the dancing (in terms of atmosphere, style, etc., not just ability) differs from dance to dance. Dudley talks about how you used to be able to identify which town someone danced in by the stylistic differences. That’s less true than it used to be, but still somewhat true. No one can dance Money Musk quite like the people who used to dance it in Francestown 25 years ago; and even the same people danced it differently if we were in Greenfield NH or in Nelson. There was something particularly satisfying about everyone balancing forward and back together, making seven discrete, well-defined sounds on the balance. Ralph Page might not have liked it, since he thought a balance shouldn’t make any noise, but we sure had a lot of fun dancing! And of course you could always tell a Tamworth dancer because they would promenade in the Varsouvienne position, with their arms at shoulder height rather than by the waist; and you could tell Maine dancers by the way they took hands on rights and lefts. These distinctions are less clear these days, but regions still have their different styles.

Last month I called in Concord with Teresa, George; Sophie, Neil and Russell Orzechowski; and Liz Faiella. We’d never played in that configuration before, and there were some rough moments, especially since it was the second time I’d used a new sound system. But overall the music sounded really good, and we had a lot of fun, and it appears that the dancers did too.  We even received compliments from Renn Tolman of the Tolman family from Nelson who was there which we consider to be quite an honor. This month Tony Parkes is doing the dance with Old New England. The dance always attracts a friendly group of dancers, and we always dance Chorus Jig. So check it out!

Going a bit into the more rural part of the state, the Gilmanton dance is another very friendly dance in a hall that’s wider than it is long. If it’s crowded, people run the sets the other way which personally I don’t like, but it works. It’s a very nice hall, a very nice dance, and has had some good callers and musicians. After 12 years Lisa is looking for a replacement as an organizer; do you want to be the one to keep it going?

Some dances are rather different. Wentworth and Contoocook (not listed) are old-time square dances of the sort that used to happen up to seventy years ago. We do sets of three squares, and then round dances (waltzes and foxtrots in Contoocook; more polkas in Wentworth). The squares are singing squares of the sort that were done fifty years ago or more throughout New Hampshire. In Contoocook the band is now fiddle, piano, banjo and drums; there used to be electric bass and saxophone as well.

At the West Hopkinton dance in the 1990’s. Photo from Vivian Mitchell, who used to organize the dance for many years.

Coming back to the Seacoast area, we have a variety of dances that should be familiar to most of you. Dover, run by the Lamprey River Band, welcomes sit-in musicians and guest callers. It tends to be more traditionally oriented, and we try to keep it as a social sort of dance despite the large hall that could turn it into a more urban-style dance; I think one of the nicest things about it, and about all the other Seacoast dances is the strong sense of community. Sometimes it can be hard to get people to line up for the next dance because they’re too busy socializing. While some might view that as a problem, I view that as a sign of a successful dance!
Kingston and Deerfield are the other two I’m familiar with, and both share the community atmosphere. Kingston is a continuation of the old Newmarket dance and as such has been going on for over thirty years. Deerfield has tended to be a bit more local in terms of who attends it, but Marianne gets so many good bands and callers that the regular dance crowd would be silly to stay away. Last night Chris Ricciotti called with Burt, Sarah and Bill Z. playing. It was an excellent dance, with a mixture of old-time square dances, old contras and modern contras. It was great fun to dance both the old squares and the triple minors; we did both Money Musk and Sackett’s Harbor in one evening, as well as Dip and Dive to Redwing. And at the end Gale did the last waltz with his cat, who doesn’t seem to mind all the chaos of the dance hall.

Gale waltzing with his cat in Deerfield. Sorry about the blur; all I had was a cameraphone to take the photo.

What a nice evening of dancing!

So all these dances around the state, large and small, give us such a great heritage of music and dancing. They aren’t as professional as a big festival, but that’s not the idea, and they’re probably more fun that way. Their greatness is in providing us with such variety and with such enjoyment every week, year after year; and that they do very well!