On January 18th large fluffy flakes of snow floated lazily to blanket Dover, NH while inside UNH’s ballroom over 100 people swung, balanced, and cornered to the dance calls of Dudley Laufman. Doug Plummer pointed his camera out the window, and said, “Now there’s the story. That’s why I’ve come to New England …this is what contra dancing is.” Plummer produces an annual contra dance calendar and had traveled from Seattle, WA to UNH to participate in the 27th annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend. He feels he can really understand the attraction of why so many people have gathered to dance on snowy afternoons like this one for decades across New England, when he comes to this annual gathering. The weekend presents traditional New England contra and square dancing, modern dances, and was started in 1988 as a tribute to the contributions of dance caller Ralph Page who according to the RPDL website, “…almost single handedly kept contra dancing alive in the United States when many had abandoned their local dances for that new invention, the television. The (weekend) also honors those who have followed in Page’s footsteps and created their own music, dances, and styles.”
There were over 20 jam sessions, history presentations, and specialized workshops for contra dancers, musicians, and callers led by the weekend’s “faculty”. One of the official callers for the weekend was another figure synonymous with contra dancing, Dudley Laufman. A National Heritage Fellowship recipient, Laufman told stories in between calling dances of playing music with Ralph Page and his contributions to the musical tradition.
The Montreal band Maivish led a workshop on the nuances of playing music for a dance as opposed to performing for only a listening audience. Maivish’s Jaige Trudel on fiddle, Adam Broome on guitar, and Matthew Olwell on blackwood flute and clogging “foot percussion” led workshop participants through exploring variations in harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic choices depending on the type of dance being called. Gathered in a circle musicians picked up the song by ear, a fiddler slowly plucked notes with her fingers, a woman bent closely over her concertina, and a young flautist eagerly performed phrases stating, “I’ve never actually played for a dance before.” Maivish encouraged participants to take cues from the caller and dancers on the tempo, how much intonation or staccato should be articulated, and when to open up and elaborate within a melody or harmony.
The Ralph Page weekend happens annually on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, and is open to contra and square dance enthusiasts and those who just want to find out what all the fun is about.
For more information about contra and square dancing in New England visit the following resources:
· The Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend website.
· UNH has many online digital resources for NE music and dance, including all 14 volumes of a contra dance journal, Northern Junkett, produced by Ralph Page
· A calendar of dances happening across NH.