The Communal Charms of Contra Dancing

A new generation takes to the dance floor

Jim Lang (in the tartan) swings Marisa “Mars” Barnabeo at a recent dance at Nelson Town Hall.

“I’m totally new to contra dance,” I tell Tom, the nice man in his 60s who had just driven more than 200 miles back from New York to Nelson to attend this dance. A few moments ago he asked me to dance, and now we’re lined up with about 15 other couples. He’s holding my right hand with his left and has his right hand on my back, in a dance position I haven’t been in since my wedding day. “That’s OK!” he reassures me. “I mean, you know the basics, right? Swing? Do-si-do?”

“Um, no, that means nothing to me,” I reply sheepishly.

It’s Monday night in Nelson, and I’ve just driven through the rain for two hours to get here. Located in Cheshire County and celebrating its 250th anniversary of settlement this year, Nelson has yet to register “Nelson Town Hall” on Google Maps, so I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to find the hall in the dark. But while the entire town was otherwise pitch black, the one building that was glowing orange through its windows and bustling with people this Monday night in late May was the one I needed: the 19th-century Town Hall.

Which is how I found myself standing across from (hence the “contra”) Tom, one couple of several standing in two long lines. The caller, another man around retirement age, stands on the stage at the front of the room, accompanied by a pianist and fiddle player. He announces a combination of moves, using words that are totally unfamiliar to me — “bow, balance, right hand star, cast-off, swing …” — by way of instruction. Within a couple minutes, the acoustic music — a quick, repetitive folksy tune — fills the room as everyone begins moving at once.

Before I know it, Tom is swinging me in circles to the hypnotic music, which likely has French Canadian, Irish and Scottish influences, and may have been adjusted for dance by emphasizing the beat. But we only dance for a few seconds until it’s time to dance the next steps with the couple next to us. Soon I “cast off” from the group and partner with another man dancing next to us, before returning to Tom and repeating the pattern again with new people. In this way Tom and I make our way up the lines, all the dancers following the same configuration. By the second or third repetition, I’ve memorized the pattern and, full of adrenaline, am smiling rather maniacally. All the elements in the room — dozens of dancers I’ve never met before, music and caller — are in complete sync.

As someone who had never heard of contra dancing before researching this article, it feels unbelievable that people are regularly doing this — dancing some of the same configurations, to the same tunes, in the same building, as people did 150 years ago. The ties to American history are undeniable. One dance that’s still being done? “Hull’s Victory,” which was written to commemorate the USS Constitution’s naval victory over Britain’s Guerriere in the War of 1812.

“It was the first American naval victory in the War of 1812. The newspapers were hard up for good news. When the hull defeated a ship that was much larger than it was, it was a huge sensation,” says David Millstone, a Lebanon-based caller who has researched and written about the history of contra for decades and has been dancing since he moved to New Hampshire in 1970s. “When you dance some of the older dances, in New York in particular, you’re often doing so in a hall where that dance has been done for 200 years. I like to think that the little dust motes floating around still have vibrations of all the people who have danced to it and listened to that tune in the same hall, going through the figures.”

Several people interviewed for this story described contra dancing as what you would see in a Jane Austen film. That might be more accurate if Jane Austen’s characters danced barefoot, wore Fitbits and moved so vigorously they had to stop to dry their face off with a towel or change their clothes. And if they cared less about class. While Jane Austen’s characters are typically nobility and spend much of their time concerned with status, this dance feels uniquely egalitarian.

Of course, there certainly are similarities, and not just the movements of the dance itself. Like in a Jane Austen story, you could certainly see the potential for matchmaking. And indeed, contras have served as a kind of singles market for finding a mate throughout history. “Today if you went to any dance and asked how many people met their spouse at a dance, you’d find at least one couple at every dance,” says Millstone. “Typical contra dances are now smoke-, drug- and alcohol-free, so it’s a sort of crunchy granola alternative for people who don’t want to hang out in the bar or club scene necessarily. And the number of people who have met their spouse at a dance is legion.”

And that’s not necessarily just for heterosexual couples, either. There’s a whole movement now to gender-free dancing, according to Millstone, where traditional roles are blurred. In cities like San Francisco and Boston, fans organize dances for the LGBT community.

“Every 30 seconds you’re holding someone else in your arms, swinging, interacting, and it’s safe,” says Millstone. “It’s an opportunity to be physically connected to someone, you’re smiling a lot, making eye contact with people, and every so often along the way you might meet someone interesting. And that might turn into a spark that turns into something more.”

But while it’s true that contra dancing is a cousin of Austen’s English country dancing and has its roots in 18th-century England, the people in this room more likely associate it with 20th-century New Hampshire.

From left, Samuel Foucher, Perrin Ellsworth-Heller, Roger Treat and Lloyd Carr provide the tunes at a recent Nelson dance

Contra in New England

Bob McQuillen, a prolific composer of contra music from the 1940s on who received a National Heritage Fellowship, once referred to Nelson as the “contra dance capital of the world.” That’s a catchphrase that several Nelson dancers mentioned to me with pride. But while Nelson may have a colorful contra history dating back 200 years, it’s not necessarily the birthplace of the form.

What is clear is that contra is a descendant or cousin of English country dancing, according to Millstone. The first book that described English country dances was John Playford’s “The English Country Dancing Master,” published in 1651.

“The first Playford’s had a lot of variations, including four-couple, three-couple and two-couple dances, and what they called ‘long ways for as many as will,’ meaning long lines with men on one side and women on the other,” Millstone says. “The long lines dances were about a third of the repertoire in the first Playford. By the early 1700s, 98 percent of dances were ‘long ways for as many as will.’ Those became the dances that the colonists from England brought to America.”

Like other art, dance is impossible to separate from political events. By the time of the American Revolution, what started as English country dance had started to become less English. When America was allied with the French during the War of 1812, dance began picking up French influences, which would later evolve into quadrilles and squares. In New England, new 19th-century mills brought French Canadian workers and, with them, their styles of dance.

“By the 1800s, something that we could call distinctly contra begins to develop in New Hampshire,” says Millstone. “Political candidates in the late 1800s who wanted to garner favor with voters would host dances. Towns like Nelson and Francestown in the Monadnock Region have a long dancing tradition dating well back into [the] 1800s.”

Since his first dance as a New Hampshire boy in 1948, Dudley Laufman has achieved legendary status as a contra and barn dance caller and musician. In 2009 he was made a National Heritage Fellow. His role as the link between contra’s roots and contemporary branches is so universally accepted that contra events are sometimes called “Dudley dances.”

Dudley Dances

Dudley Laufman has been contra dancing since he moved to Fremont in the mid-20th century to work on a dairy farm, the owners of which hosted dances. Considered a living institution among the contra dance community, Laufman recalls that, when he started, dances were simply called kitchen junkets.

“Back in the day when people didn’t have town halls, they danced in their homes. The neighbors and relatives and friends would come in, maybe 20 people packed into the long, narrow living room, which was at one time the kitchen,” he says.

At the dances on the dairy farm where Laufman worked, it was a community affair. John, the farm’s owner, played the fiddle, while a neighbor played the piano and John’s wife, Betty, called the dances.

“I was 15 or 16 years old and I just loved it,” he says. At his first dance, he says, “There was a fire in the fireplace, rosin-y sound on the fiddle, smell of the woodsmoke and firelight gleaming on the girls’ hair — and I was hooked for the rest of my life.”

Laufman attended dances called by Ralph Page, a key figure in New England contra dance who called at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 and called in Boston regularly throughout the 1940s. In the ’60s and ’70s, Laufman would become one of contra’s most important advocates, and is often credited with helping popularize and spread dances to other parts of the country.

“Dance is always a reflection of what’s going on in society. In Nelson in the 1940s, men would put on a white shirt and tie and coat and go out dancing. That changed dramatically by the 1960s,” says Millstone. “Socially, the hippies and the back-to-the-landers, made up of young people who were rejecting mainstream American values and looking for an alternative culture, moved to communes and started farming. So, a huge number of people are suddenly picking apples and farming in southern New Hampshire and Vermont.” The youngsters discovered local dances and start showing up in droves to what people dubbed “Dudley Dances.”

“A lot of back-to-the-landers had their politics. They flocked to the dances because it was different from rock ‘n’ roll. You could touch your partner — it was more of a community involvement,” says Laufman. “And a lot of those same people would go on peace marches and grow their own food and things like that. They were making a statement, and dancing was part of it.”

Millstone says that by the ’60s, Page’s style of calling was less popular. “You’d go to Ralph and stand around while he gave you a talk about the history of the dance and how he wanted you to do it, and you were young and horny and just wanted to dance!” says Millstone. “Dudley had a laissez-faire attitude toward the dancing. He was charismatic with extraordinary appeal. One woman said he walked into the hall and it felt as though he was bringing wool and woodsmoke with him. He embodied country living. He was a back-to-the-lander. He was a poet, he was handsome, he had numerous affairs with women. He surrounded himself with large numbers of musicians.”

When his dancers, many of whom were students from Boston or New York who came to New Hampshire for the outdoors, moved away or went back home, they often took contra with them. According to Millstone, there is a direct link between Dudley and the start of dances in such states as California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Montana, Missouri, Texas and more.

By the 1970s, Millstone says, the term “contra” — a derivative of contredanses, the French term for English country dances — dominates the lexicon. This may have been a way to differentiate from Western square dances, which contra dancers thought of as, well, square.

Contra Today

Today, it feels as if some of the dancers, like Dudley’s countercultural crowds in the ’60s and ’70s, are still using contra to express their own alternative values.

On my Monday night in Nelson, I was shocked at how many young people were in attendance. Though about half were seasoned dancers with decades of experience, half of the 50 dancers or so were in their 30s or younger. There was a very wholesome-seeming group of 19-year-olds from Keene who attended contras in high school and were back for the summer. There was a group of 20-somethings sporting dreads, tattoos and purple hair, who, in an urban environment, might be considered hipsters. I danced two dances with Owen, a 22-year-old who wore a Scottish kilt and referred to himself as a third-generation contra dancer.

Johanna Spaeder, a 28-year-old who volunteers at a mindfulness retreat in Keene and grew up doing contra in Alaska, started attending the Nelson dances when she moved to Alstead earlier this year. She says contras are a great place to get to know folks. “It’s a fun way to connect with people, and it can be really subtle. You don’t even have to say anything the whole dance — you can just have a really enjoyable connection,” she says. On the night I visited, she had brought a group of friends and first-timers in their 20s and 30s, including Garret from California, who was intimidated about joining in at first, but eventually found himself out on the dance floor.

Fallon Smith, a 13-year-old from Nelson, was the youngest person at the dance. She went to her first dance when she was 7 and fell in love with the music. Now she regularly attends dances by herself, socializing with all kinds of people and teaching first-timers, most of whom are older than she is, how to dance. “If you contra dance in one place for a while, you become part of the family,” she said.

With all the young dancers, is there a possibility we are seeing an upswing in contra’s popularity? Liz Faiella, a 27-year-old Northwood resident and fiddler who plays at dances with her brother, thinks so. Ten years ago, she attended the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend at the University of New Hampshire, a weekend-long contra dance festival. She says at this year’s festival — the event’s 30th anniversary — there were more young people in attendance.

“There’s a resurgence in interest in folk culture in general happening right now, especially with music,” Faiella says. “People are drawn to the sense of history and tradition and a local flavor. People are interested in the idea of keeping things local, and, for a lot of people, it’s all integrated. Sustainability, agriculture, food and local dancing.”

And while there have been closures or reductions in frequency of local dances around New England due to lack of participants, there are certainly robust contra communities in other places around the country, including states as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and California. Closer to home, young New Yorkers have been flocking to dances in Brooklyn. Contra has even made its way abroad and back to the UK, where it’s distinct from traditional English country dancing.

Laufman, who is credited with the revival of contra in the ’70s, says that, if we are seeing another revival of sorts, it may come at the expense of many of New England’s traditions. “The dances are faster and more complicated. Ralph Page used to do complicated dances, and he could because people knew the dances. And if they didn’t, they just got hauled along anyway. It wasn’t a workshop.” Today it’s a workshop, he says. “They teach each dance before they do it. That’s not my cup of tea. The dances are too convoluted.”

Some dances have gotten so fast that, in cities around the country, organizations host what they refer to as “hot dances,” which include dance moves from swing and other faster genres. To some, that means contra may be losing some of the romance of decades past. “Traditionally, people were dancing for social reasons. Nowadays, some people dance as an alternative to going to the gym,” says Millstone. “If you were a farmer or mill worker in New Hampshire in the ’20s and ’30s, you didn’t need to go to a dance for exercise.”

Laufman blames technology for the changes. “There’s no down time. There used to be inactive and active couples, with inactives not having anything to do for part of the dance,” he says. “And the computer lot can’t stand that.”

He prefers the simpler dances that were accessible to everyone, old and young, urban and rural, farmers, truck drivers and preps weekending from Boston. “Whether they were drunks, preppies or kids, they all got a chance to dance,” he says.

Others think the old and new can coexist. “Some people will be concerned with preserving the dancing from the 1700s, but there can also be these more updated kinds of dances that move with different musical trends,” Faiella, who fell in love with contra after attending Dudley and Jacqueline Laufman’s dances as a child, says. “I think it’s great as long as we also keep that really strong old tradition alive.” And it’s no secret that contra has been evolving for hundreds of years.

At 86, Laufman says he rarely dances anymore. But there’s still one favorite he’ll dance to. “If they do ‘Money Musk,’ I’ll do it,” he says. “It was a Scottish dance that the Yankees sped up a little bit with a wild tune. Back in the day it used to be the first dance they did after intervention. But it’s a great dance — there’s nothing like it.”

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