The Lawrence Ledger, NJ

Hold the onions (but bring the dance shoes)
By: John Dunphy, Managing Editor

Princeton Country Dancers to present 'Rum & Onions XXVII' Saturday, Oct. 28.

Swing your partner, 'round and 'round.

While those words stereotypically refer to square dancing, they also could mean there's some contra dancing going on.

Last week, in preparation for an article I planned to preview the annual "Rum & Onions" Halloween dance, to be held this year on Saturday, Oct. 28, at Lawrence Intermediate School, I took a trip to one of the Princeton Country Dancers weekly dances at the Suzanne Patterson Center, in Princeton, to see just what all this was about.

It all started with an e-mail.

"Contra dances, New England folk dances similar to the Virginia reel, are lively and easy to learn," wrote dancer Margoleath Berman in her original contact. "At a contra dance, attendance as a couple is not required; traditionally, one switches partners after every dance. As in square dancing, each dance is "called," and the caller starts each new dance with a brief "walk-through" to teach the movements. There are no complicated dance steps to learn and the music is live!"

Sounded good to me.

As I made myself comfortable in the recreation area of the center, PCD member Larry Koplik, of Belle Mead, made himself available to explain some of the history of the dance group and why he's been doing it for more than 20 years.

"It's traditionally American folk dancing," he said, taking a bite of some pasta someone had provided for the group's occasional potlucks that precede the dance. "It's been around since before George Washington's time. He danced contra dancing; it's just something people did."

A single gentleman in the early 1980s, Mr. Koplik said, he was looking to meet people, and a friend said PCD would be a good place to start.

"I was told it was like square dancing, and I loved it from the first time I did it," he said.

And as for that "single" moniker?

"I met my wife dancing," Mr. Koplik said. And he and Sarah Roberts have been together ever since.

So, people can meet people dancing, huh? I was intrigued.

But, what about at "Rum & Onions XXVII" on Saturday? It's a Halloween dance, isn't it? My imagination couldn't get rid of images of a masquerade, where everyone was mysterious, hidden behind a mask. How am I going to meet anyone there?

"The Halloween thing is really secondary," said Barbara Greenberg, of Glenn Avenue, and a member of the Princeton Country Dancers since 1980. "It's fun but the focus is the great, great music and the guest caller."

The Rum & Onions event started in 1981 with 11 people performing live music for the dancers to enjoy. Ms. Greenberg said the organization created the event to have a special band for a "wonderful New England caller who PCD invited to come down and call for us. We rehearsed and put on a great dance," she said.

The whole thing had evolved from a New England folk revival in the 1960s, which brought the centuries old style of dance back to the mainstream. Since, the groups, of which there are hundreds in the United States alone, and the Rum & Onions event, have supported themselves and grown.

"In 1982, the band had 22 musicians. In 1983, we had 33," Ms. Greenberg said. "Since then, the band averages between 35 to 45 musicians, playing fiddles, mandolins, pennywhistles, guitars, etceteras."

Despite Ms. Greenberg's assertion that the dance is really about that the dancing I was still curious about those costumes. I mean, can a person even dance in a costume?

"My favorite was probably the four-armed fiddler," said Sue Dupre, of Federal City Road, and a member of Princeton Country Dancers since 1978, when it hadn't even been organized as a group yet. "He'd arranged an extra pair of arms that moved in tandem with his real pair. Someone once came as a voting booth, complete with a frame that had had curtains hanging from it that would open and close not a very practical costume if you plan to be dancing!"

While costumes are fun, Mr. Koplik said, only about three-fourths of the participants usually come dressed, and many of them tend to be simpler outfits that people can easily dance in.

In the end, "Rum & Onions," much like the worldwide contra dancing movement itself, is really about one thing and one thing only the dancing.

"It's exercise without trying," said Henry Morgenstein, of Michigan, who annually assembles groups from England and the United States for over a week of folk dancing overseas. "It's an international dance community; a terrific community."

So, after all this, I actually did get to meet some new people, Princeton Country Dancer regulars as well as a few fantastic folks from over the pond, stopping in for some socializing and some dancing.

"I love dancing," said Anne James, who runs a museum in Romsey, England. "When you have children, you lose your time to be social. It's very friendly and you don't have to have a partner my husband can't dance."

But I could, or at least I tried to. Through five of the numerous dances offered that night, averaging about 10 minutes each, I swung arms with Ms. James and several others who, thankfully, were understanding of my ineptitude.

All the while, amidst my sweaty swinging, miscues and laughter, everyone was reassuring.

"It's the kind of music that makes you want to dance," said Mr. Koplik. "My wife has said, 'If you can walk and count to eight, you can contra dance.'"

You obviously didn't see me on a few of those numbers last week, did you, Mr. Koplik?

Tickets for "Rum & Onions XXVII," at Lawrence Intermediate School, Eggerts Crossing Road, are $16 for regular admission, $9 for seniors, students with ID and children. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 28, with potluck supper beginning at 6 p.m. and basic exercises for beginners commencing at 7 p.m. For more information on the Princeton Country Dancers and their annual "Rum & Onions" Halloween dance, contact Marge at (609) 924-6763, Steve at (609) 275-7275, e-mail at or visit

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This page last updated on October 31, 2006.