NH Seacoast Online
January 11, 2007
photo caption: Musicians and callers at a previous year's Ralph Page Legacy Weekend. Courtesy photo Patrick Stevens
Stepping out in style
By Jeanné McCartin
It's an unusual weekend," says Patrick Stevens of Portsmouth. "It focuses on the older roots of contra dance."
The word "roots" is bantered around a lot these days in relation to music; not often in reference to dance. But starting Jan. 12, hundreds of folks will be talking about it, demonstrating it, and doing it at more than 20 dance events at the annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend at the University of New Hampshire's Memorial Union Building in Durham.
The event is named after a man credited with keeping the dance alive during the years it fell into disfavor. It happened after World War II, with the advent of television, says Stevens, the legacy weekend chairman. Until then folks would get together at community dances to square dance, polka, schottisches, waltz or, as Stevens puts it, good old-fashioned "New England community dance."
"It developed over 200, 300 years ago. It flourished in the community and grange halls "† with music that came over from England, Scotland and Ireland, with choreography that originally came from those places and then evolved. I'm sure there were fox trots and other pop dances between the wars."
But by the 1960s nearly every home had a TV and it nearly killed the community dance.
"The story goes in 1963 they scheduled a dance near Franconia Notch and nobody showed up. It was the night the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan." It's said, by the mid 1960s, there were only two callers left in the entire Northeast, if not the nation, says Stevens. It was Ralph Page, who is credited with rekindling interest in New England country dance and Dudley Laufman, a man he mentored, who also contributed to the art form's revival. A renewed interest on the part of "the so-called hippies" along with the two New Hampshire men's efforts kept the community dance alive, Stevens says.
This year's event, named after one of those two die-hards, will honor the second, Dudley Laufman. The Canterbury, N.H., man being honored has been calling, and playing fiddle for more than a half century.
"On Saturday there's a retrospective and the debut of a film "† by David Millstone, (a caller himself) on Laufman."
There will be a two-track program throughout most the event. Along with the dances there are workshops on calling and music by the bands, Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, Old Grey Goose and Bob McQuillen, Vince O'Donnell and Laurie Andres, and the callers Carol Ormand and Tony Parkes. The Laufman retrospective film and dance are on Saturday. On Sunday there's an informal jam session. Meals are available for those who pre-register.
Stevens, who runs an annual weekend dance event on Star Island, says he's a newbie at the art. He's only been at it since '89.
"Many of the people I dance with have been dancing since they were 7. I'm 53. There are many in this area who have been doing it since they were a kid "† We have 5 year olds and 90 year olds. It's always been a family thing."
His own immediate family had its start at a dance. Stevens met his wife, Penny Reynolds, at a Cambridge event in 1994, "and we still do a lot of dancing."
He doesn't imply folks will find their life's partner at a soirée. But he does say it's an "incredibly positive thing" people should consider getting involved with.
"What's so positive about it? Moving together, the eye contact. The wonderful live music. The whole is greater then the sum of the parts. You come together to be together."
"There's so much that's individual in society today. This is an antidote to that. To television, selfishness "† all that stuff. It creates social capital."
When he started dancing there were a lot of younger people at events. Today, depending on where you go, it's the same. Locally, a bit less so then places like Peterborough and North Yarmouth, Maine, to name a few of the numerous dance spots, he says. But while there are fewer youngsters locally, they are there.
Suzanne Hearn, 14, a student at Dover High School, doesn't remember life before contra. Fact is, there wasn't any. "I was an infant. My parents would (wear) me in a swing when they were dancing. I've been dancing ever since."
Generally the entire family, brother Eben, 20, and sister Molly, 16, Suzanne and her parents attend a monthly dance in Dover. They're still in the deciding-stage regarding the Durham event, which they attended last year, and Suzanne hopes will happen again.
"I really enjoyed it. I like the fact that it's dancing all through the weekend, not one dance and it's over till the next month," says Hearn. "There's so much about (contra dancing) that's fun. We always look forward to the first Thursday of the month, when we can go downtown Dover and dance."
Currently the local dance attracts an older population, but it doesn't bother Suzanne. "It's not about the age "† It's the dance."
When asked what it is she likes, how she would explain her interest in contra dancing to a peer, Hearn pauses before responding. "I guess I'd just explain what it's like, what happens there and what the dances are like ... the kind of music. It really depends on what kind of person they are "† if they're someone willing to explore, to try something different. If they're open to dances that's not the school dance, they'd probably like it."
If you've never been, that's not a reason to stay away, says Stevens. "As a rank beginner you should be able to step in and enjoy the dance. There are no lessons. The way it works is the caller does a walk-through before each dance, then you're off and running as the music and partner pull you along. "Tradition is, you just jump into the fray."
WHAT RALPH PAGE DANCE LEGACY WEEKEND
WHERE Memorial Union Building (MUB), University of New Hampshire, Durham
WHEN Jan. 12, 13 and 14, Friday at 7:30 p.m. through Sunday till 4 p.m.
COST $75 in advance, $80 at the door, $50 first timer, in advance only. Meals are extra. CONTACT brochure at neffa.org/rplw.html. For information about contra dancing, visit www.contradancelinks.com.
Return to the articles section of the contradancelinks.com web site.