They could've danced all night

Tuesday, September 5

BRATTLEBORO -- It was just after 6 a.m., Monday, and Risa McGovern had worn a hole in the layer of duct tape that she had previously applied to her feet.

Everyone at the annual Dawn Dance has his or her own personal secret on how to survive 17 continuous hours of dancing and McGovern's foot wrapping, she said, was one way to make it through the night.

"It's a trick I learned playing soccer," the 17-year-old Ashfield, Mass., resident said as she touched up the weak spots in her duct tape sandal. "It helps prevent blisters."

The Brattleboro Dawn Dance celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. Twice a year, on Labor Day and Memorial Day, contra dancers travel to Brattleboro from around the Northeast to attend the all-night dance. Almost 500 people came through this year.

Bands play thoughout the night at the Gibson-Aiken Center, as the recreation department's gymnasium is transformed into a dance hall.

With an hour to go before Monday's sunrise, shoes lined the ground floor, and a few couples crammed into corners, gently massaging each other's necks.

Once you get beyond learning the steps of the various dances, there are a few rules at the Dawn Dance.

Signs pronouncing: "No sleeping in building," were taped up around the building.

Holly Baldwin of Boston got around that one by stumbling out to her car to nap when she got too pooped to promenade.

It was Baldwin's second Dawn Dance. Along with occasional naps, she said she tries to eat a little bit throughout the evening to sustain her energy.

But as the evening slowly turned to morning, Baldwin said she was not sure if the extreme activity was right for her.

"I'm not having fun," she said, with her back to a wall and sweat beading up across her forehead. "My body is going to feel this the rest of the week."

The Brattleboro Dawn Dance was first held in 1976 as a way to raise money for a new floor at another dance hall.

A local group of dancers was meeting regularly at the Chelsea House in West Brattleboro and as the old wood floor there started giving out, the group dreamed up the idea for the fundraiser.

They doubled the regular admission price from $2 to $4 and scheduled it for Labor Day weekend. More than 200 people showed up and the dance has been held around Brattleboro ever since.

Nils Fredland, an event organizer and a caller at the dance, said the dances have been drawing a younger crowd over the past few years.

The Dawn Dance starts at 2:30 p.m., Sunday with English Country Dancing, which draws the more traditional crowd.

By early Monday morning, while it was still officially contra dancing, from the stage electric guitars improvised with fiddles and accordion. The crowd was made up of mostly people in their mid-20's.

"There have been more and more young kids at the dances around Boston," said Fredland, who has been dancing for about 10 years, and calling at the events since 2000. "That is happening across the country."

The Dawn Dance is one of those events that, for people who dance regularly, has become a sort of annual pilgrimage.

The group does little or no advertising, but the dance sells out almost every year.

"People just know about it," Fredland said. "It has been going for 30 years and it has a mystique."

Jeff Kaufman, 20, goes to college near Philadelphia, but grew up in Medford, Mass. He said the dancing is better in New England, and while he dances once a week during the school year, he tries to go out four nights a week when he is home in Massachusetts.

Kaufman credits his steady caloric intake of bread and Nutella to make it through the night. And lots of fresh clothes.

Kaufman said he changed his shirt eight times and went through four pairs of socks. He said the increase in the number of young people over the past few years happened by word of mouth.

"People have a good time and tell their friends. It's fun," he said.

One of the highlights of the event is when the lights are turned out, just before dawn.

On Monday pink sunlight spilled into the cavernous gym. After a day of rain, the sun peeked under the fleeting storm clouds and a whoop went up from the crowd as the room darkened slightly.

Water bottles of all sizes and shapes stood across the window sills.

The band played on. The couples spun and clogged and slid across the floor. And the room grew brighter.

Christopher Parker, 37, of Westminster, was catching his breath before one of the last dances of the night.

Parker dances regularly. He was sitting down and drinking water. He wore a short, black skirt.

"There are other dances that last 12 hours but there is something about this dance. The all night aspect. It's epic," Parker said.

People staggered out, their eyes red and bleary with exhaustion and bliss.

"You see people they develop relationships over the course of the night. That's one aspect. There is drama here."

The 7 a.m. closing time was drawing near, and with that, Parker put down his water bottle and walked out to find a partner for the final dance.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or (802) 254-2311, ext. 279.

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This page last updated on October 20, 2006.