The Lure of the Dance
By John Walters
Photos by Chris Becker
When night falls in Nelson, N.H., it falls hard. Itıs dark, really dark. No businesses, no lights on the town square. But once a week on Monday night, the joint is jumping: Dozens of people gather in the Town Hall for a New England contra dance. They are continuing a centuries-old tradition and theyıre having a whole lot of fun.
The 219-year-old Town Hall is nothing fancy. Itıs a big open room with wooden floors, wooden walls, wooden benches, wooden coat pegs all around and a small wooden stage. (If you need to ³knock on wood,² this is a good place to be.) The dance floor measures about 10 x 12 yards; comfortable for this crowd, but during the summer, you sometimes get people waiting outside to take a turn. On this night, itıs about 30 degrees outside but thanks to the dancers, itıs warm enough that some of the windows are open.
At first glance, New England contra dancing looks and sounds like square dancing. ³The main difference is the form of the dance,² says Lisa Sieverts of Nelson. Sheıs a business consultant by day, volunteer organizer of the Nelson dance by night, and a pretty fair dance caller herself. ³In a square dance youıre in a square formation, four couples, eight people. In contra dancing, youıre in long lines. You dance with your neighbors, and then you move on. You end up dancing with everyone in the hall.²
Itıs a great way to make friends ... and then some. ³People have met, started relationships, married, divorced, the whole gamut,² says Sieverts. ³They disappear for a while, then maybe they come back, or just one of em comes back.²
Compared to singles bars, itıs a low-key atmosphere. ³You can come and go, you can dance with anybody. Itıs not like a date, where you spend the whole evening with one person,² says Deb Keller of East Alstead. She ought to know; she married a guy she met through contra dance. Indeed, she married into one of the first families of the scene: Her husband is musician Randy Miller, the brother of ace fiddler and violin maker Rodney Miller.
Rodneyıs not here tonight, but a couple of other living legends are. Peterboroughıs Bob McQuillen takes his turn on piano, as he does every Monday. The fiddler is Harvey Tolman of Nelson. Between them, theyıve been playing music for about a hundred years.
Tolman is a master of Cape Breton fiddle, and is considered one of the best players in the country. But you wonıt hear that from him or much of anything else for that matter. He prefers to let his fiddle do the talking.
McQuillen cut his musical teeth with the Ralph Page Orchestra. Page was the leading dance caller of his day and is widely considered the founding father of modern contra dancing. ³I would go to a dance and bring the tunes home in my head, and see if I could play them on the accordion,² McQuillen recalls. After a while, he asked Page if he could sit in with his squeezebox. ³He said, Bring it next week.ı So I sat in and had the time of my life. At the end of the evening, he said to me, Well, if you would like to be a part of this orchestra, you come next week. Youıre hired.ı²
That was in 1947. Since then, McQuillen has played at thousands of dances, composed more than 1,200 dance tunes, won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Governorıs Arts Award and represented New Hampshire at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Now in his mid-80s, McQuillen is probably the oldest person in the room tonight; the youngest are teenagers. The Nelson dance is one of the only places where you see all ages participating and interacting as equals. ³Thereıs no age barrier,² says 19-year-old Katie Weiss of Spofford. At the moment she is dancing with 23-year-old Jeff Petrovitch, who adds, ³Itıs a really great community. I look around, and I consider all these people my friends.²
Iım starting to think that the world would be a better place if there was more contra dancing. Maybe we can send McQuillen and Tolman to the United Nations.
How long has there been dancing in Nelson? ³Ralph Page said it went back 250 years, and he was dead serious,² says Bob McQuillen. ³That was 50 years ago when he said it.²
Other estimates are a bit more conservative. ³There were documented dances here as early as 1804,² according to Sieverts. ³Probably earlier than that, but thereıs no proof.²
Contra dancing comes and goes: Just when you think itıs dying out, there comes a revival. The Nelson dance has also come and gone. The current incarnation dates to the late 1970s, when a caller named Peter Temple moved to the area. At the time, there were monthly dances in different towns, but he wanted a weekly get-together. ³I thought weıd just do kind of an informal dance,² he recalls. ³I got a couple musicians in the area, and we started in January of 1978.² For a few years it was in Harrisville, before moving to the Nelson Town Hall.
³The idea of doing a short, low-key dance was new,² he says. ³None of the musicians or callers gets paid, people just come in when they want to.²
That informality is on display tonight. Each dance involves a fairly intricate sequence of maneuvers. But if somebody messes up, itıs laughed off, and the dancers get back on track sooner or later, more or less. And people slip in and out in the middle of a dance, to take a breather on one of the benches along the wall.
Thereıs a rotating crew of musicians and callers. The driving force behind tonightıs dance is a bearded, ponytailed man whose voice echoes off the walls, and who occasionally steps into the crowd to rescue dancers gone astray. He turns out to be Don Primrose of Sullivan, who first attended a dance as a preteen in 1965. ³I got thrown out of the first two dances I went to² by none other than Ralph Page, he says. ³I was raising hell, talking. Ralph used to take it pretty serious.²
But Primrose kept coming back, and eventually took to the stage. ³I started calling because there wasnıt a caller one night,² he says. ³I got up there and Bob [McQuillen] was talking to me, and I started calling dances.
³Seven or eight years ago, I made a deal with Bob. The dance was faltering then, and we said weıd be here every Monday night until we died. The deal didnıt seem very fair because Bob is 40-some-odd years older than me, but Iıll carry it through. Iıll be halfway around the world and Iıll get back here for Monday night.²
And sometimes other nights. ³A few years ago, Christmas fell on a Monday and theyıd never danced on a Christmas night,² says Primrose. ³Bob and I decided to do it regardless. After that, we decided to make Christmas an honorary Monday, so we dance every Christmas night.² In 2005 that meant a special dance on Sunday and the usual gathering on Monday.
If thatıs not enough dancing for you, thereıs always the ³Iron Dancer.² Lisa Sieverts explains:
³It happens twice a year, Memorial Day and Labor Day, in multiple locations. You can dance on Thursday in Cambridge, Mass., Friday and Saturday in a number of locations. On Sunday we have dawn dances in Brattleboro, Vt., where we dance from 8 at night until 7 Monday morning. Monday you come here to Nelson. If you do that, you get a certificate and a medal.²
But if youıre not that sold on contra dancing, Sieverts and company will welcome you anytime to this ancient wooden floor in Nelson, N.H. If you need some help, theyıre happy to oblige. If you screw up some of the steps, nobody will mind. Youıll get some good exercise, meet some good people, and who knows as with Deb Keller, it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. NH
For information on contra dance in New Hampshire, we suggest these Web sites:
The Monadnock Folklore Society, www.monadnockfolk.org, for dances in the Monadnock Region, including Nelson.
The Dance Gypsy, www.thedancegypsy.com, a clearinghouse for information on various kinds of public dances.
Dudley Laufman, www.laufman.org. Laufman is one of the all-time great callers and fiddlers.
Great Meadow Music sells contra dance CDs and songbooks at www.greatmeadowmusic.com.
Give it a whirl
Places to Dance
Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend Held annually during Martin Luther King Birthday weekend in January at the University of New Hampshire at Durham. Brings together dancers, musicians, and callers for a bounty of dance, music, discussions and friendship.
Manchester Contra Dance
Manchester Unitarian Church, 669 Union St.
Workshop/lesson 7:30; Dance 8 p.m.11 p.m.
(603) 529-1586; firstname.lastname@example.org
Second Fridays year round
Exeter Contra Dance
First Unitarian Society of Exeter, 12 Elm St.
Workshop/lesson 7:30; Dance 8 p.m.
Price: $6, students $3
Please wear a separate pair of clean-soled, soft-soled shoes.
(603) 679-1915; email@example.com
Second Saturdays year round
Francestown Contra DanceFrancestown Town Hall, Rte. 47 and Rte. 136
Gilmanton Contra Dance
Gilmanton, Academy Building, town offices
8 p.m.11 p.m. Price: $6
Second Saturdays (not in July or August)
Milford Contra Dance
Milford Town Hall
8 p.m. Price: $6 (under 12, $3; under 6, free)
(603) 487-2480; firstname.lastname@example.org
Fourth Fridays year round
Nelson Contra Dance
Nelson Town Hall
8 p.m. Price: $3
(603) 827-3732; email@example.com
Every Monday year round
Conway Contra Dance
Salyardıs Museum, 110 Main St.
7:30 p.m.10:30 p.m. Price: $6, $3 for kids
(603) 383-4589; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
First and third Fridays (not in July or August)
Keene Family Dance
Keene, Heberton Hall, 60 Winter St.
6:30 p.m.9 p.m. Price: free
(603) 352-0157; email@example.com
First Fridays (except JuneOctober)
Wentworth Traditional Square Dance
Wentworth Town Hall, Rte. 25 and East Side Rd.
8 p.m. Price: $7; $4 children
(603) 764-9993; firstname.lastname@example.org
First Fridays (not in July or August)
Windham Contra Dance
Windham Town Hall
8 p.m.11 p.m. Price: $6
Air conditioned. Please bring change of shoes to protect floor.
(603) 487-2480; email@example.com
First Fridays year round
Kingston Contra Dance
Town Hall, 163 Main St.
8:30 p.m.11:30 p.m. Price: $8
Please bring soft-soled shoes to protect the floor. Refreshment pot-luck at the break. Please bring a dish to share.
(603) 770-7988, (603) 772-5355; firstname.lastname@example.org
Fourth Saturdays (not in July or August)
Walpole Contra Dance
Hastings House, Union and Main Sts.
Workshop/lesson 7 p.m; Dance 7:3011 p.m.
Price: $8, $6 students
(802) 257-9234; email@example.com
Third Saturdays year round
Keene Contra Dance
Heberton Hall, 60 Winter St.
8 p.m.11 p.m. Price: $7
(603) 835-7889; firstname.lastname@example.org
Fourth Saturdays year round
Deerfield Country Contra Dance
Deerfield Town Hall, 6 Old Centre Rd.
8 p.m.11 p.m. Price: $7; children $3
(603) 463-7771; email@example.com
First Saturdays (except JuneOctober)
Dover Contra and Square Dance
Dover Town Hall, 288 Central Ave.
8 p.m.10:40 p.m. Price: $7; students $5
Soft-soled shoes only
(603) 664-2513; firstname.lastname@example.org
First Thursdays (year round)
Peterborough Contra Dance
Peterborough Town House, 1 Grove St.
Workshop/lesson 7:30; Dance 8 p.m.11:30 p.m.
(413) 369-4369; email@example.com
First Saturdays (not in August)
Peterborough Snow Ball
Held annually on the weekend after Martin Luther King holiday
Peterborough Town House, 1 Grove St.
Four callers and bands perform for three hours each.
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