Ed Larkin dancers head for Tunbridge again

September 10, 2003

By Robin Palmer


TUNBRIDGE - It was a Tunbridge farmer and maple syrup producer, Ed Larkin, who kept the contra dance alive in Vermont back in the late 1800s.

Today, his namesake troupe continues to carry on contra dancing traditions, and this year the Tunbridge World's Fair, which starts Thursday, is honoring the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers with the theme: "Dance your way to the Fair." The troupe is the oldest contra dance organization in the United States, according to fair organizers.

Beginning around 1880, in much of the U.S. the country turned to the more modern square dance. But decades later Larkin was still appearing at balls and kitchen junkets, playing the fiddle and prompting the dancers on their next contra dance moves, says historian Adam Boyce of Williamstown.

The junkets lasted into the following day, with farmers taking a break to do morning chores and then returning to the dances, Boyce says.

After Larkin's death in 1954, others - the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers - carried on his tradition, performing at events and appearing at the famed Tunbridge Fair, where they have long been an annual tradition.

Boyce, who is one of the youngest contra dancers at age 35, says the dancers are an integral part of the fair. "It was nice that we were thought of," he says.

The contra dancers have appeared at the fair since 1933. Larkin had begun teaching a group of young people the dance. A fair organizer, Etta Giles, approached the group members and asked them to perform.

Boyce said they were such a hit that in 1934, they became a part of the fair's entertainment, and the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers were founded "to foster and perpetuate the contra dance."

The contra dance involves two lines with couples facing each other, with couples working up and down the line. Boyce says the name "contra" could come from this opposing motion or perhaps isderived from the French word for country. The Virginia Reel is the most recognized contra dance, says Boyce.

The Ed Larkin dancers dress in period costumes - with the men in tailcoats and top hats and the women in dresses dating from the 1880s to 1900. Many of the women have begun making their own dresses, replicas of the originals that have become too fragile to wear, notes Becky Martin.

Martin, also of Williamstown, and husband Carl began dancing with the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers more than 10 years ago.

Martin says she was a Tunbridge girl who grew up watching the contra dancers at the fair. More recently, "we started going to open houses," says Martin. Held during the winter, the open houses are where current members decide if the new dancers have the right stuff.

New members are voted in. There's about a dozen active couples dancing now and they practice monthly and often perform several times a month.

Martin, now in her 60s, enjoys it.

"You get some exercise. You get something you can do as a couple. We've always had a good time with the group," Martin says. "It's always been kind of a family within itself."

Boyce approached the group much like a young Larkin did - tentatively. Twelve years ago on a cold February night, the 23-year-old Boyce drove to Tunbridge for Ed Larkin Contra Dancers open house. "I almost didn't go. I'd never danced in my life," Boyce says.

He was early, he says. No one else was there, and he left. On his way home, he met a car he recognized - other contra dancers on the way to the open house - and turned back. He's been dancing ever since, and has learned both to prompt and fiddle.

Borrowing the Vermont Lottery's slogan, Boyce calls it "good, clean fun."

Byron, 74, and Bunchie, 71, Angell have been dancing since they met.

"My husband and I met square dancing at the University of Vermont," Bunchie Angell says.

Like the Martins, the Angells of Tunbridge liked to watch the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers at the fair. "It's toe tapping music," Bunchie Angell says.

About seven years ago, the Angells joined the group.

"It's a lot of fun. I have some aches and pains, and I just get there and enjoy it so much," she says.

Of all the group's performances, "the fair is a very special one," she says.

"We get told by many people each year that one of the reasons they come to the fair is to watch the dancing," says Boyce.

The Ed Larkin Contra Dancers perform at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the fair. On Sunday, they dance at 1 and 3 p.m.

The Tunbridge World's Fair, now in its 132nd year and known for its agricultural traditions, is open Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry fees are between $5 and $8.

For more information, including a complete schedule of events, go online at Call the fair office at 889-5555.

Contact Robin Palmer at or 479-0191, ext. 1171.

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This page last updated on October 31, 2006.