October 8, 2020 – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic
More than 50 years ago, the noted New England caller and dance historian Ralph Page started sharing information he had gleaned from searching through old newspapers and other journals. In more than a dozen articles in his Northern Junket magazine, Page described dance events ranging from public events to small family gatherings, all presented under the headline “It’s Fun To Hunt.” In recent years, others have found new ways to collect the history of different forms of country dancing. I’d like to share some examples and encourage readers to start their own quests.
1. The Contra Diaspora
Aware of how much information has disappeared about our dance heritage from early decades of the twentieth century, I wanted to ensure that my own generation’s contra dance experiences would not be lost. I am certain that a future historian of social dance will want to write a history of this dramatic expansion of a dance form, so I started collecting information in a straightforward way: sending out requests for stories to people I knew or found online. (I sometimes joked with my correspondents that I was collecting these tales “before we all end up in the Alzheimer’s unit.”) I basically asked three questions: “How did contra dancing come to your community, who were the responsible individuals, and how did they first encounter contras?”
The response was gratifying. People shared volumes of information, sometimes a detailed history of their own local organization, sometimes a lengthy account—one more than 20 pages in length!—of their personal dance history. I frequently received multiple responses from a particular city or region, and each response led to more contacts. Electronic communication made this task much easier; in essence, I was collecting oral histories without having to transcribe. After five years, the collection reached some 400,000 words, or 800 pages single-spaced. Copies were given to CDSS and to the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Music and Dance.
2. New England Contradance Renaissance
For the previous project, I made a conscious decision to omit the greater Boston area; it was such a hotbed of contra dancing that I feared it would be too complicated to unravel. Fortunately, Walter Lenk took up that challenge. Walter has been a dancer, caller, and musician in the area, and in 2013 he set about recording stories. Walter writes, “When I started going to dances in the Boston area in the Summer of 1978, the local square and contra dance scene was undergoing a wild growing phase.” He recorded 19 interviews with callers, musicians, and dancers who were involved in that revival; the recordings were transcribed by Chrissy Fowler with financial assistance from Country Dance Society, Boston Centre. The audio files and transcriptions are now in the collection of the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Music and Dance, and Boston Centre will share the items on its website.
3. Contra Pulse
We know that the musicians are a vital part of a successful dance; indeed, the prominence of musicians has only increased in recent decades. Based on a series of interviews with contra musicians, Julie Vallimont’s Contra Pulse project asks, “Where does contra music come from? Why does it sound the way it does? How has it changed over time?” Julie emphasizes that she is not trying to write a history of contra music; instead, she’s interested in capturing a moment when very traditional styles can still be found along with newer approaches. “That’s why we’re calling it Contra Pulse,” she explains; these are snapshots of what’s taking place right now. Working with her producer, Ben Williams, she consciously decides to include both veterans of the contra scene as well as younger players. Contra Pulse is available across all podcast platforms, with new episodes released every other Tuesday; programs can also be heard (with written transcriptions) on the CDSS website.
4. Bob Brundage Square Dance Interviews
Bob Brundage was a Connecticut square dance caller who lived through the boom years of the modern square dance movement. Based in Connecticut, Bob traveled nationally; he called once at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum (Omaha) to 800 squares, an indication of just how popular these dances were. After retiring to Albuquerque, starting in the mid-1990s Bob recorded interviews with prominent callers; he began with the living members of the Sets in Order Hall of Fame. Over the next ten years, he interviewed some 125 individuals, usually over the telephone; the list includes some of the greatest names in the modern square dance movement as well as a small number of callers of contras and traditional squares. The audio files and transcriptions (each 15-25 pages, created by Gardner Patton) are available on the website of the Square Dance Foundation of New England.
5. 5 Things Inside the Dancing Mind of…
The Pasadena-based Historical Tea and Dance Society already had experience with a “tea talk” led by Bruce Hamilton, followed by English country dancing. The group loved that format, and over time similar ones were held, including one with Graham Christian in February, 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person dancing in March, leader Darlene Hamilton thought, “What can we do on Tuesday night to keep our community together?” She invited Graham back to make an online presentation, and the project took off. Darlene explained, “The 5 Things idea just came to me, maybe because CNN has a daily 5 Things. I’m visual, so organizing things that way works for me.” Each presenter creates a list of 5 Things that serves as an organizing device for the hour-long presentation, mostly centered on English dance. This is followed by several sessions with Darlene and her colleague, Lindsay Verbil, to rehearse and work out technical details for photographs, audio clips, and video files. The presentations are recorded and stored on the Facebook page and the YouTube channel of the Historical Tea and Dance Society; Colin Hume maintains an Index of all the 5 Things programs. To provide longer-term access, CDSS is also planning to archive the programs.
I’ve highlighted above five projects from the worlds of contra dance, square dance, and English country dance. Here are some other ideas just waiting for the right person—this could be you!—to start collecting stories:
- If you’re a dancer in your 20s or 30s, it’ll be easy for you to find someone who has been dancing since before you were born. Get in touch—even in pandemic times you can communicate via e-mail or phone or video conference. You’ll find that people like to share their dance history. The more you learn, the more questions you’ll have. First rule of interviewing: after someone responds, leave some quiet time. Chances are they’ll fill the silence with more stories.
- How did English country dance come to your community? How did those key individuals in turn become familiar with the dance form? Why does Swarthmore College keep appearing? How did English country dance get to the Philadelphia suburbs (Rose Valley) in the 1920s from Alabama?
- Think of the young musicians and callers and organizers you know. Many decades from now, when one receives the Lifetime Contribution Award from CDSS, won’t it be wonderful to have available an interview with them when they were relatively new to this activity?
- Youth Dance Weekend (Vermont) was founded in 2006, and it in turn sparked the creation of Youth Traditional Song Weekend. The leadership of both events has changed often over the years, but it’s easy to connect with the key individuals. Let’s document in their words why each event was created, how it has developed, and what the challenges are in starting a new event.
- Techno contras became an innovation in the contra world starting around 2008, at the Whipperstompers Weekend and YDW. It’s unclear how long this form will last, but it’s worth documenting the birth and growth of the phenomenon.
- Perhaps the strongest development in the country dance world in the last decade has been the spread of revival square dances, series that attract an enthusiastic group of new dancers. Just as Sandy Bradley sparked interest in traditional western squares in the early 1980s, folks inspired by the late Bill Martin promote lively, simple dances drawing on southern Appalachian old-time figures and music. Let’s trace the spread of this dance movement that draws on deep roots.
- Morris? Garland? Longsword? Rapper? Molly? I don’t know enough even to pose the questions, but I’m certain there are tales waiting to be collected.
We dance today in the footsteps of those before us. Learning how you fit into this history is personally satisfying and the information you gather strengthens our collective community. Think about how you can share with others and how to preserve what you’ve learned. Some archives to consider:
- CDSS itself might want a copy of your findings: contact Ben Williams to discuss your project. You could also submit a longer article to CD+S Online.
- If your focus is local, consider your local historical society.
- The New Hampshire Library of Traditional Music & Dance has the world’s finest collection of materials related to New England dance. It houses the personal collections of Ralph Page, Ted Sannella, and many others.
- The Southern Folklife Collection in Chapel Hill focuses on “vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South.”
- The emphasis of the Dance Archive at the University of Denver is on the American West; it is the home of the Lloyd Shaw Foundation archives and the vast personal collection of Bob Osgood.