Monday, February 9, 2015

Gents Bow, Ladies Know How: Guest Blog Post by Gordon Peery, Monadnock Center for History and Culture

The following is a guest blog post from Gordon Peery at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. This is an excerpt of the original post appearing on their website.

Now on view at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture, the exhibit, Gents Bow, Ladies Know How 

Mention contra dancing to someone from around here (the Monadnock region), and chances are they’ll know what you’re talking about. If they aren’t a dancer or musician, they are probably no more than two degrees separated from one. And if you happen to mention to contra dancers anywhere else in the country that you’re from the Monadnock Region, they’ll look at you with an appreciative glow – “aren’t you lucky!”
The small town of Nelson is generally considered to be the contra dance capital of the world, but all of the towns in the region have had contra dancing figure in their history – a vibrant part of their social and cultural life. And while in Colonial times dancing was popular throughout New England, and remains so in certain pockets, the Monadnock Region has a special claim on having maintained the tradition.

A brief history: In 1651 John Playford, a London bookseller, published The English Dancing Master, a collection of English Country dances and tunes. It was extremely popular, and quickly spread to France, where the dance form, done in lines of couples facing opposite each other, came to be known as “contredanse”.

The tunes came here with the fiddles that traveled with their people to this new land. Like the people who sought new life, adventure, and freedom, the tunes were ready to lend their folk roots to be the foundation of something new. New communities, eager for diversion and cohesion, found both with the music and dance. French dancing masters roamed the colonial country side, teaching the contredanse, which became contradance. These dances were appealing to the nascent democracy: the dancers were equal, with everyone in the set engaging with everyone else: the farmer, the banker, the blacksmith, the teacher. The dance served the additional function of teaching social graces and nurturing community. The disruption of the Civil War and the introduction of new kinds of music and dance and other social diversions brought a decline in contra dancing. But it remained a part of cultural life particularly in the small rural towns of New England.

People danced wherever they could, but our town halls were often the venue of choice. These halls are simple buildings, but they were designed with a sense of form and balance – like the music and dance that filled them. Our town halls have absorbed decades of the dance, the music, and civic engagement, and you can feel it in the walls.

While elsewhere in New England contra dancers are a greying crowd, a typical dance in Peterborough or Nelson is well populated with high school and college kids. Folks of all ages, and from all walks of life, enjoy dancing together. And while it can at first seem intimidating to newcomers, you’ll find if you just jump right in, you’ll be surrounded by friendly encouragement, and before you know it, you’re part of one of New England’s oldest traditions.

Photos from top to bottom: Randy Miller and Deb K. presenting a musical history lecture on one of Sharon, NH's fiddling families from the early 1900's; installation view of Gents Bow, Ladies Know How; share your dance memories at the exhibit; a recent contra dance held in Peterborough, NH photo courtesy Carol Ansel.

The exhibit Gents Bow, Ladies Know How was a collaboration between the Monadnock Folklore Society and the Monadock Center for History and Culture. It is supported in part by a General Project Grant for Community Engagement from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts

Monday, February 2, 2015

Apprenticeship Spotlight: Weaving on a New England Barn Frame Loom

Weaving on a New England Barn Frame Loom
Master Artist: Craig Evans, Brookfield
Apprentice: Diane Howes, Danville
Community Presentation: Craig and Diane will be completing much of their weaving during public hours at the NH Farm Museum, Milton. Exact date and times TBA.

American colonists purchased most of their cloth and fabrics directly from England through the late 1700’s. As the spirit of independence spread through the colonies, people began to grow flax for making linen and raised sheep for the production of wool. Weaving and processing of these fibers become a staple of New England communities and have since been part of the social and economic heritage in both mills and domestic lives.

“For every six or seven houses [in New England] with spinning wheels, there’d be one loom, so if you did a survey of inventories, which a number of historians have done, they seem to always come up someplace in that range. So what would happen is neighboring farms, rather than having a weaver in their household, they would come over and barter. They would bring their own hand-spun and they would barter for the labor of the domestic weaver in that house.”- Craig Evans, Master Artist, Barn Frame Loom Weaving

Evans and Howes are both accomplished weavers and will bring their years of experience to focus on domestic utilitarian textiles for the home popular from 1780 to 1820. They will weave on a large "barn frame loom"  that is assembled with similar construction techniques as timber frame barns. The team will work at the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton on a crib size wool coverlet, yardage of a linen and wool blended fabric called “linsey-woolsey” and four harness linen table mats and runners.

“My skill is in reading the old patterns and knowing how to work with them and… weave them on a traditional loom… Do what they did two hundred years ago. That’s what I find so exciting, … the continuation of a tradition that was carried over from the old country to this country. I found myself teaching very much the way Norman Kennedy taught me, which was, you might say, unequivocal, meaning that there’s a way to do it and it’s not up for reinterpretation. This is the traditional way that has been done for hundreds of years and this is how we do it.”- Craig Evans, Master Artists, New England Barn Frame Loom Weaving.
Craig Evans 


In 2014-2015 the NH State Council on the Arts awarded Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grants to 7 Master and Apprentice teams. Apprenticeship grants help communities preserve their cultural heritage through traditional crafts, music, and dance so that future generations can continue to benefit from them. Nearly every state in the US has an apprenticeship program that is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. To view all 2014-1015 grant recipients visit