Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dancing my way to History

When I was a teenager I attended several contra dances with my parents’ friends, but that was a long time ago. Since moving back to New Hampshire in March of last year, I’d been attempting to get to a contra dance, now I’ve been to 2.

For those of you who do not know, a contra dance is a line dance, but not the country western type. It is a bit like a square dance, but without the funny clothes. It is a bit like English country dancing, but totally based in New England. These pages do a better job than I at explaining it: Wikipedia, YouTube Videos.

Contra dancing interests me at this point in my life for the same reasons it did as a teenager: dancing is fun and it is a cool thing to do in the evenings; but it also interests me for its regional and historical significance.

Celebrating Regionalism
Since college I’ve lived in Massachusetts mostly, but last winter we bought a house in New Hampshire. It was not a big move geographically, but it felt big since we were buying a house, in another state, and in the state where I grew up. As part of the whole “settling down” thing I feel like I should get more involved locally but I have very little desire to attend any school board meetings, and making friends in a new region is a slow process. As part of the process I decided to look up local contra dances since I remember it as one of the fun local winter activities. Besides, contra dance attendees are friendly, local folks, who are a little quirky, just like me.

When I mentioned to my mother that I was looking for a contra dance for Stephen and I to attend she talked to a contra dancing friend who highly recommended the dance out in Nelson, NH. She said it was very authentic and a good place for beginners. I looked at a map and thought: Nelson is in south western NH and I live in south-central NH, how far away could it be? It turns out it is over an hour away, up twisty country roads, long past cell phone service, where cable television fears to tread. Stephen and I drove there on the second Saturday of December (Nelson’s weekend dances happen on the second Saturday) not long after a snow storm. The roads were still icy, and it was dark dark while we were driving since the dance started at 8 and the sun had gone down at 4:30.

The GPS drove us past the hall once, but on the way back we found the building, attached to the town library, all lit up with a few folks just going in. The hall is a quirky little hall, where the floor slopes away towards one corner, so folks all night end up dancing downhill and everyone ends up squished into the bottom corner. The band was doing a sound check as we arrived, it was two younger men on a guitar and a fiddle that had no problem filling the hall with music. We got there early and got to chat with some of the organizers, then got a quick lesson in the basic steps by the night’s caller.

The way contra dances work is that there is a series of steps that make up all of the dances. These include a lot of swinging one’s partner, things like do-si-dos, and moves to change places up and down the line. At the beginning of the dance the caller will explain which steps this dance will need, in their proper order so folks can walk the pattern once. Then once the music starts the caller will call out the moves just before you do them, so half way through swinging your partner the caller will say, “now hold hands and circle round” so the dancers remember what comes next. It all started coming back to me as we started dancing, and Stephen had very little problem catching on because we’ve both danced English country dances, which are the grandparents of contra dancing. Besides, all the other dancers were happy to steer us around to make sure we ended up in the right place if we ever messed up on a step.

The most fun thing about the dance was definitely the people that we met. There were folks of all ages and dancing ability, everyone was super friendly, and interested in us since we were new and also friendly. If ever there was someone sitting out a dance because they did not have a partner, someone, probably a complete stranger, was sure to ask them to dance the next round. Everyone was that concerned abut keeping everyone involved and having fun.

What I had failed to mention to anyone at the start of the dance, was that I had had pretty bad allergies in the morning so I had taken a strong decongestant. By 8 in the evening I was still all fuzzy headed and having trouble focusing. Needless to say all the spins and swings made me incredibly dizzy, so I had to sit out every other dance just to get my bearings back. But Stephen was having fun dancing with new people and the dances were fun to watch even if I had to sit out. We did not stay too late, and I was incredibly miserable and car sick the whole ride home, but it was totally worth it.

The Connection
Why is this entry in a blog on Living History? Because contra dancing is a grand tradition that goes back to the founding of the United States. The hall in Nelson had hosted similar dances since the early 1800s, and similar dances had been danced in Nelson since before it was a town. Technically this falls more under a living tradition that living history, but to me it is the connection to the past that is important. That there is a dedicated group of folks, that there are tons of these groups all over New England, who keep an old-fashioned type of dancing alive, and make it their own, is magical to me. The folks I talked to were all aware of their participation in a longstanding tradition, and of that tradition’s place in the history of their region.

This past Friday Stephen and I participated in a “contra” dance even closer to its historical roots. A Massachusetts rev war reenactment group holds a 12th night celebration at an old tavern and inn. The festivities include a 12th night cake, a flag ceremony, a crowning of the king and queen, and tons of dancing. It is open to the public, we got there through a friend of a friend and could not pass up the opportunity to both gussie up our colonial outfits and do some more contra dancing.

The inn was fantastic, all the rooms were restored beautifully, and the hall just fit everyone in. The dancing was an older style, somewhere in between the English country dancing we did at faires and the modern contra dancing we’d experienced last month. The dances were still done in lines, and there were a few swings and do-si-dos but there was more variety of moves, and the dances were all slower in tempo than at the contra dance. I was glad that there were 6 of us there who knew each other so we could switch up partners, since this group seemed a little less inclined to ask strangers to dance.

Everyone was still friendly, and Stephen ran into some friends he had not seen in well over 10 years. It was different dancing in big skirts and restrictive tops. The dances that I sat out I spent a lot of time watching the different styles of colonial footwear spin past. One of the most striking parts to me was knowing that this reenactment group had been celebrating in this hall for the past 40 years; so there was triple history: the history of12th night dances in the American Colonies, the history of the inn, and the history of the reenactment unit itself. I am glad we were able to make new connections there too.

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