Dancing in New England

After the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) conference in Boston (April 11-14, 2012), Nick and I stayed in New England another four days to check out the dance scene. We went to the Jamaica Plain (JP) gender-free contra dance on April 14th. We rented a car and drove to New Hampshire to see the Square Dance Foundation of New England and the Nelson Monday Night contra dance on April 16th. The last dance event we attended was MIT Tech Squares on April 17th. In between the dances, we had time to see friends and do sight-seeing. We flew back to Phoenix on the 18th.

Jamaica Plain Gender-Free Contra Dance

Before the gender-free contra dance, we met Clark and Miriam Baker at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. I first met Clark when I was doing surveys as part of my fieldwork. He emailed me information for my book, and later I contacted him about being an editor for my content about Modern Western Square Dance. Clark and Miriam square danced at MIT in the ’70s, Clark’s been active in CALLERLAB for a long time, and he calls for Modern Western Square Dance at the Challenge level. When Clark and Miriam were in Phoenix for the Desert Valley Squares’ fly-in (a weekend-long mini square dance convention), I had the privilege of hanging out with them at the event and the after-party. I was really happy that we’d be able to hang out with them again in Boston.

Clark and Miriam also contra dance, so we carpooled with them to the JP gender-free contra dance, with caller Tony Parkes and band Gypsy Minor. Gender-free contra dance (sometimes called “gender role-free”) means that anyone can dance in any position regardless of their own gender. Sometimes people in the traditional male dance position (to the left of the partner when standing side-by-side) wear an elastic armband, in which case the caller refers to the dancers as “bands” or “bare arms.” Even at regular contra dances that are not specified to be gender-free, the number of women usually outnumber the men and some women choose to dance the traditional male position. These women may wear neckties or another object to signify to other dancers their position in the set. This way, if a woman approaches another woman for a swing (turning together in a closed dance position), there is less confusion. It is less common for men to dance in the traditional female dance position, but it happens in contras. Some men also wear skirts or kilts, which keep them cool and are fun when spinning.

We stayed at the dance for about 1.5 hours (through the break), and I danced both the traditional male and female positions. We mostly did contras (sets of long parallel lines for any number of couples), but we also did a traditional square dance (sets of four couples) and a waltz. Usually, square dances are done in a “tip” consisting of two or three full dances where the dancers stay on the floor the entire time, with short breaks between the dances. Some contra dance communities strongly oppose traditional square-set dances and request that callers not do them. When Nick and I had lunch with Parkes the previous afternoon, he mentioned that the JP group did not put limitations on what he could call and he was happy to throw in traditional squares for variety. But at the dance, Parkes also paid close attention to the dancers; fewer people got up to do the square than the contras, and he resumed contras after one traditional square. Thus, people who wanted to do contras did not sit out for too long.

At the break, Parkes made an announcement about my book, Folk Dancing, and also mentioned the recently released second edition of his book, Contra Dance Calling: A Basic Text. In addition to being a highly respected caller, Parkes is an professional proofreader. His book is excellent quality; I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about contra dance calling and choreography.

Nick and I had brunch with our friend Elif in Somerville on Sunday and then went sightseeing near the ocean. We had dinner at the No Name seafood restaurant, per the Bakers’ recommendation. It was one of the best dining experiences we’ve had. We ate fantastic seafood chowder with a fried seafood platter and fresh steamed green beans. My chardonnay was local and perfectly complemented the food. Furthermore, it happened to be Orthodox Easter, and our waiter happened to be Greek, so he was in a very jovial mood. He came out with an extra glass of wine and said, “Who’s driving?” I said, “Neither of us.” He handed me the wine glass, “On the house. Happy Easter!” Nick was wearing a military shirt with a Latin logo, and the waiter inquired whether Nick knew Latin. Nick didn’t, but he mentioned that his dad was a professor of ancient Roman civilization. The waiter was thrilled, because he had an advanced degree in classic literature. He told Nick, “Tell your father he has a secret admirer.”

Square Dance Foundation of New England

Monday was the Boston Marathon. The temperature was over 90 degrees. We rented a car from Enterprise and drove to the University of New Hampshire in Manchester, about an hour away. We went to the Square Dance Foundation of New England, housed at the university in a brick building (formerly a mill) along a river. Dick Severance welcomed us at the door and gave a tour of the archives. There was a Hall of Fame with photos of notable callers; display cases filled with awards, pins, badges, and rare first-edition books; an assortment of Modern Western Square Dance attire arranged by decade; shelves with square dance books, magazines, and club newsletters; and even more shelves with club scrapbooks and photo albums, personal collections of newspaper articles about square dancing, and caller note services (notes that the nation’s leading callers circulated nationwide to spread information when recreational Western Square Dance was beginning to take off). One of the most unique items was an enormous square dance photograph that use to hang in a local post office and was wrinkled during a fire. A smaller room in the back had drawers of records and tapes. A side room had file cabinets for miscellaneous materials, organized by donors’ names, and a large box filled with poster displays shown at the National Square Dance Convention.

I wanted to know more about the development of recreational square dancing in the 1940s and 1950s, so I spent some of the afternoon browsing early copies of the magazine “Sets in Order.” I was happy to learn that these magazines soon would be digitized and accessible online. A couple hours later, Jim Mayo stopped by to meet us. Mayo is the author of Step by Step Through Modern Square Dance History (2003), a Square Dance Foundation of New England board member, and the first chairperson of CALLERLAB. Mayo’s book is the most comprehensive history of the Modern Western Square Dance movement, covering all facets of the dance form: how the choreography changed over time, the square dance club structure, the growth and decline in membership, etc. Many people mentioned his book when I was doing my fieldwork.

I thought Severance and Mayo had a realistic notion about what was happening in the square dance world. They noted that the tangible archive system was becoming obsolete and that the way to preserve materials would have to be digital. I also appreciated their perspective that square dance history includes a wide variety of square dance forms, not just Modern Western Square Dance. We talked about David Millstone’s Square Dance History project, which launched in November 2011 with a special square dance weekend in Brasstown, North Carolina that brought together different types of square dance callers. Millstone is collaborating with the Square Dance Foundation of New England and other organizations to create a comprehensive Web site to document square dance history, and part of his project is digitizing old dance films from personal collections. We said goodbye to Mayo around 3:00, and a little while later Severance, Nick, and I grabbed some food at Blake’s, a local diner. Then Severance dropped us off at our rental car and Nick and I continued onto Nelson, New Hampshire for the contra dance.

The Monday Night Dance in Nelson, NH

The Nelson contra dance on Monday night is said to be the oldest continuous contra dance in the country. All experienced contra dancers have heard about it. The dance gained its reputation in the contra dance community for its traditional, small-town feel and for having hosted some of the nation’s best musicians and callers, including the legendary Ralph Page and Dudley Laufman.

The Nelson dance takes place in a small white town hall that is easy to miss. For us, the street address wasn’t on the GPS. We drove through the entire town without ever stopping for a stop sign or stop light. The street names were painted on wooden pillars. Houses were set back from the road, drowned in trees and the sounds of singing frogs from nearby marshes. After we drove past the only parking lot in town, I suggested that we probably missed the town hall and that we should turn around. We went back and pulled into the small lot. Indeed, there was the town hall, next to a church. No one had arrived yet, so we consulted the GPS for nearby food. We went to a small grocery store in Hancock, NH where an orange cat with a kinked neck let himself inside, marked his scent along the freezer doors, followed a man to the check-out and then perched contently on a wooden stool. Nick bought a case of local beer, and then we went next door to Fiddleheads in search of food. The ham and cheese croissants were two or three days old, so I opted for a quiche. Nick got a burrito. They were edible, but nothing special. We grabbed two brownies for the two-hour drive back to Boston. The teenage boy cashier noticed my purse: “Is that Vera Bradley? My mom collects those.” Thanks for making me feel old, kid.

We arrived at the dance just before 8 p.m. Gnats swarmed our car. Teenagers played Frisbee on a grass lawn and waiting for the dance to start. The town hall had a stage for the band and caller, a wooden floor, benches, windows, good lighting, and no air conditioning. There were about 50 people, including a baby and a young girl (a neighbor of one of the dancers). Don Primrose was the organizer and caller for the first half of the dance. We left our $3/person donation in an open fiddle case, next to a stack of cookies that one of the dancer had brought.

When we arrived, Bob McQuillen was playing the piano as three young boys looked on. I had interviewed McQuillen in 2009 in Jerome, Arizona. McQuillen started playing accordion for dances after attending the New England Folk Festival in the late 1940s, where he saw Ralph Page calling with some fiddlers. He’s written thousands of dance tunes and notates them in a unique way (A, B, C) versus musical notation. McQuillen explains his tune-writing process and involvement in contra dancing in general in the documentary Paid to Eat Ice Cream, by David Millstone.

The dances at Nelson were easy to learn. I don’t recall a lot of instruction beforehand, and I’m fairly certain that we jumped into at least one of the dances without any run-through. The dances structurally felt more old-timey than most other contras I’ve experienced. Primrose called dances for active and inactive couples, where the active couples swung in the middle of the set as the inactives looked on until they reached the end of the set, turned around, and then became active couples. I sensed strong rapport among the dancers. They seemed to understand most people’s abilities and approached me respectfully as a newcomer, carefully gauging through body language whether to walk or fly in a swing, whether to gently turn an allemande or add an extra push and spin. The dances picked up momentum as the evening progressed. For one dance, the musicians used a tune for which the dancers, without any prompting, cheerfully chimed in, “La, la, la,” etc. during the refrain. Primrose reported that the practice originated from a fiddling mishap that entailed some broken strings, if I remember correctly. During the break, everyone sat on the floor or the benches and Primrose led the announcements. There also was a game where the first person who moved was in charge of bringing snacks to the next dance.

MIT Tech Squares

On April 17th, Nick and I met Clark Baker and his daughter Laura at MIT for the weekly Tech Squares dance. We ate in the Student Center, and then Clark gave us a tour of the campus. He showed us the Stata Center and recalled what it was like in the 1970s, when he was a graduate student and created the first square dance choreography program. We returned to the Student Center around 7 p.m. for Early Rounds, an hour of round dancing before squares. The dancing took place on a large floor in the center of the long rectangular room. We arranged ourselves on a small plateau with table and chairs, about five steps higher than the dance floor, behind the caller. A regular-size staircase led to a second level with a balcony that wrapped around the entire room, providing an aerial view of the dance floor. A few students studied on either level, and a young woman wearing headphones practiced a belly dance routine on a far corner of the dance floor. At 8:00, the round dance cuer, Phil Gatchell, gave the stage to the caller, Ted Lizotte. The square dance portion was well-attended, a mixture of adults and MIT students who take square dancing for university credit. The session began with about 6 squares (48 dancers), and at least another 6 squares joined within the hour. After several dances (to pop and country music, from what I recall), Lizotte spent a few minutes breaking down the call Acey-Deucey. Whenever he said the term, the dancers responded with a “quack.” Clark made an announcement about my book during the break, and several dancers sat down to chat with us. The conversation felt very academic, appropriate for MIT. I learned that one woman was a co-founder of the MIT round dance club in the 1960s, and another woman was the dance chairperson for NEFFA in 2012. I thanked them for supporting the dance world, and they returned the compliment. Shortly before 10 pm, Clark and Laura took us back to our hosts in Somerville. The New England Book Tour was full of rich experiences, interesting people, and ended on a very good note.

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May 29, 2012. Book Tour.

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