Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Live Free and Dance, Blog Salon week 6: Evolving Traditions

What is one thing that remains constant in the world? Change.

There is a long tradition of contra dancing in New Hampshire and like many traditions, things change. Today, you can swing and pulse at techno contras under black lights to loud electronic renditions of traditional music. You can attend hot contras that spin dancers so fast that it rivals the toughest gym workouts. And most likely, the dance that you attend will be run a little differently than the dance that took place in your town 20, 30, or 50 years ago.

 Techno Contra in Peterborough, NH. Organized by Monadnock Folklore Society.

New generations of community members want to partake in local traditions, but also want to evolve practices so they are fun and relevant among friends. There's a balance between wanting to participate in activities of our parents and grandparents, and helping to shape a new form of community entertainment.

Most dances in New Hampshire have seen attendance highs and lows with organizers changing hands every few years. Eighteen dances are featured on the NH Folklife website, all with their own unique history and place within the cultural fabric of their communities. Some dances have been taking place regularly for over 100 years, some have just started up when a neighboring town dance failed to attract an audience. The stories of these dances, and the stories of eighteen New Hampshire communities can be found on the Folklife website through interviews Elizabeth Faiella conducted with local dance organizers in the spring of 2015.

After 35 years Northern Spy, an Upper Valley contra dance band has decided to stop being the lead organizer for contras at Tracy Hall in Norwich, VT. David Millstone, Northern Spy's dance caller,  recently wrote on his blog,

"Last spring, when Cuckoo's Nest announced the end of its dances and when Northern Spy decided that it, too, was tired or organizing its own series, we were concerned that this might spell the end of Norwich dances. As we had hoped, though, many community members stepped forward and the dancing will go forward. There's now a new website promoting dances on 2nd and 4th Saturdays, as well as an active Facebook page. The organizers are interested in presenting a mix of programs, some featuring local musicians and callers and some the bigger-name traveling bands and callers. I'll still be calling locally from time to time, including some summer dances at the Pavilion, and the various musicians from Northern Spy may appear in different configurations. In the meantime, support your local dances!"

Video highlights of Northern Spy's 35th anniversary party at Tracy Hall in Norwich, VT. 
November 14, 2015.

The tradition of social dancing in NH has been vibrant since the colonial era with different styles of dancing coming into fashion. In the mid 1800s English Country Dancing was popular, the first 4 decades of the 20th century fancied square dancing with young couples courting each other at dances. Contra dancing has only been the social dance flavor of choice since the 1960s. Styles change, musicians add slight variations to tunes, venues rotate. The dance goes on.

The Live Free and Dance Blog Salon is published weekly from October 12- November 25, 2015. Each week a different NH Traditional Dance will be highlighted. The Blog Salon is in conjunction with the exhibit: Traditional Dance in New Hampshire 1750-present, at the NH State Library.  To read more about traditional dances across the state, visit the NH Folklife website.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Live Free and Dance, Blog Salon week 5: Manchester

Researched and written by Elizabeth Faiella

Location: Mill-A-Round Dance Center in the historic Waumbec Mill, 250 Commercial Street
Schedule: 8:00 p.m., beginner lesson at 7:30 p.m., third Friday of every month
Cost: $8, students $5, under age 12 free
Current organizer: Paul Lizotte

Many community social dances are held in old town halls, but in Manchester, things are a little different: the dance is held in an old, refurbished mill building, one of the historic buildings in Manchester’s Amoskeag Mill complex. “Here, with the warm brick and worn wooden floors, it just has a feeling of New Hampshire,” says organizer Paul Lizotte. “Town halls are synonymous with New Hampshire, but also the mill buildings.”

            The Manchester or “Mill City” contra dance was founded by Chris Weiler in about 2005. Weiler was a caller, looking to call more regularly. He approached the owner of the Mill-A-Round Dance Center about the possibility of starting a dance there. The owner agreed, and the dance has been held there ever since. The Dance Center is home to classes in other forms of dance such as square dancing, Zumba, and line dancing.
            For the next four years, Chris Weiler called the dances with a different band every month, including a number of Boston-based contra dance musicians. Then, in 2009, Weiler was planning a move and expected to give up the dance. He mentioned this to fiddler Paul Lizotte, who was playing in one of the visiting bands. Lizotte decided to take over organizing the dance, and set up a new system, modeled on the band Yankee Ingenuity’s dances at the Concord Scout House in Concord, Massachusetts: a house band, with a guest musician each month. He also hires a different caller each month, mostly people from the New Hampshire and local New England area, such as callers Lisa Sieverts and David Millstone.
            The house band is called JumpStart, and over the years has included Paul Lizotte, fiddle; Victor Troll, piano; Ray Salvo and Nancy Fiske, clarinet; and Gene Albert, bass. The band plays a mix of Quebecois, Irish, and old-time music. Their goal is to be a mix between a traditional-sounding band and one of the more modern, so-called “hot” bands. The musicians of JumpStart, Lizotte says, “love melody but love to improvise, and adapt, and play harmonies…. We like to play off each other.” Lizotte says the band strives for a danceable driving beat, plus an element of surprise: “When people are listening to a tune eight times through, there’s got to be something in it that’s compelling, or something in it that gives that little shock of surprise.”

            Lizotte says that the guest musician and house band arrangement lends a novelty to the band’s sound each month. “When we have fresh faces, fresh instruments, fresh interpretations, it keeps the band on its toes and also gives some variety for the dancers,” he says. There’s a financial benefit as well—the resident band plays for free, which leaves enough money to pay the guest musician and the caller. Plus, having a house band makes scheduling easier: Lizotte just has to find one musician, rather than a whole band, and if the musician has to cancel for some reason, there is still a full band available to play.
“One of the great things for me has been the opportunity to play with really fine musicians,” says Lizotte. Guest musicians have included members of the Orzechowski family, Rodney Miller, and Randy Miller, among others.
A mix of modern and more traditional dances are called. Because a different caller leads the dance each month, the dance program differs from month to month.
             About 30-60 people come to the Mill City dance from month to month. The dance is intergenerational, drawing dancers of all ages. Recently, more young people have been attending the dances, including some AmeriCorps members in the area for the summer, and groups of college kids. Lizotte says that young people are discovering contradancing as they’ve “suddenly found that this is so retro that it’s cool.”
“Dances should be community dances, especially in New Hampshire,” says Lizotte. He says that the dance has built up a strong community of attendees over the years, who come to the dance for its welcoming environment and to visit with friends. “Sometimes we have to tear them away from the break because they’re having so much fun interacting with the people they come here to meet,” Lizotte says.
            At the same time, it’s a dance that welcomes beginners, and Lizotte says the more experienced dancers in Manchester try to convey the fact that contra dancing is accessible and fun at any level. Some of the dancers wear “Dance Angel” name tags. “If you’re a designated Dance Angel, then you are in charge of taking care of new dancers,” says Lizotte. Dance Angels dance with new dancers—and prevent them from dancing exclusively with each other—to guide them through the dances and help them learn the basic steps. The dance has a beginners’ session at 7:30, and easier dances are usually called earlier in the night. There’s a break for refreshments partway through the dance. “In the second half, we let it rip,” says Lizotte.
            The Dance Center, in a mill building near downtown Manchester, has its original wood floor, now refinished, with brick walls and a high ceiling. “For a traditional dance, it has a traditional setting,” Lizotte says.
            The Manchester dance used to feature a “dance medley,” in which a series of callers each call a dance four or five times through, before passing the microphone on to the next caller, who calls a different dance. Contra dance medleys have no pre-dance walk-through, and so they require a more experienced crowd of dancers.
            To Lizotte, contra dancing is a “tradition that still has some spark and pizazz.” He says it has always been about community, and that’s still true today, although the tradition is evolving. “People are carefully finding their way—how to make it relevant, how to make it exciting, without losing track of the community spirit at the heart of contra dancing. You dance with everybody and you’re strongly encouraged to dance with other people, so it’s community building.”
And although contra dance music varies from dance to dance, Lizotte says that the common repertoire is another thing that brings contra dancers together. “It’s a community of tunes…. People hear these tunes, and they may be modern tunes, but they’ve heard them before, and there’s this recognition.”

Source: Paul Lizotte, interview by Elizabeth Faiella, June 2015.
The Live Free and Dance Blog Salon is published weekly from October 12- November 25, 2015. Each week a different NH Traditional Dance will be highlighted. The Blog Salon is in conjunction with the exhibit: Traditional Dance in New Hampshire 1750-present, at the NH State Library.  To read more about traditional dances across the state, visit the NH Folklife website.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Live Free and Dance Blog Salon week 4: Dover, NH

Dover, NH Contradance

Researched and written by Elizabeth Faiella, July 2015

Location: Dover City Hall, 288 Central Ave, Dover, NH
Schedule: 8-10:30 p.m., first Thursday of each month except July and August
Cost: $7, $5 students
Website: none
Current organizer: Peter Yarensky
Contact information: (603) 664-2513,

 The first iteration of the Dover dance was going strong at the Dover City Hall in the 1940s and 1950s. Caller Phil Johnson led the dances, along with fellow callers Mal Hayden and Guy Mann, and the band played without a sound system. The dances drew a crowd that filled the large hall on a regular basis.

The dance program consisted of three squares and a contradance, repeating that pattern until near the break, when dancers would do folk dances such as Road to the Isles and the Boston Two-Step. After the break, the pattern would repeat. Among the dances commonly called in Dover were traditional contras such as Lady Walpole’s Reel, Lady of the Lake, Sackett’s Harbor, Petronella, Hull’s Victory, and Money Musk; and singing squares including My Little Girl, Marching Through Georgia, Crooked Stovepipe, and Darling Nelly Gray. Some of these dances, which Johnson taught current dance organizer Peter Yarensky, are still called in Dover.
The current Dover dance originated with the Lamprey River Band, which in turn began as a jam session in the 1980s. A group of musicians, who had been playing together weekly, organized a dance in August, 1983 to benefit the Newmarket Town Hall, where the main contradance in the Seacoast Area was. “And we had such a good time that we decided that maybe we should keep going,” says Yarensky, current dance organizer and member of the band.
The original band members were Peter Yarensky, Steve Panish, Sarah Hydorn, Sarah Mason, Dave Cousineau, and Rick MacAulay, among others. Modeled after the Canterbury Orchestra and the Maine Country Dance Orchestra, the band played mostly common repertoire New England tunes.
The band got hired for a few more dances, and “with considerable discussion,” the musicians chose to call themselves the Lamprey River Band. The band practiced weekly at the Durham Children’s Center. “Since it was a daycare center, most of the chairs were quite low, so there we were, all sitting there practicing on chairs that were two feet off the ground,” says Yarensky. In 1985, Yarensky and fellow band member Sarah Mason decided to learn to call dances.
            The band members soon decided to make their band practice into an open jam session once a month, and then Yarensky suggested that they turn their open jam session into an open dance where anybody would be welcome to come play music or call.
            The first dance was in October 1986 in the Madbury Town Hall. Admission was $2. The dance took place Thursday nights so as to avoid interfering with other dances in the area. It gradually grew, with more and more sit-in musicians and guest callers, until it became the largest dance in the area.
            The dance relocated for a while to St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Dover, before moving across the street to its current location, Dover City Hall, in the early 1990s. Pianist and contradance organizer Marianne Taylor played piano with the Lamprey River Band for years. Dancer Paul Kanaly, who used to dance to the calling of contradance legend Ralph Page, danced in Dover until he was in his 90s. Caller Chrissy Fowler, now a well-known New England contradance caller, began her career in Dover as a guest caller.
            Over the years, Yarensky says, there have been some lean times for the Dover dance, especially in the late 1990s. “We had a period of two or three years when it was only occasionally that we would make money,” he says. “Sometimes we made four or five dollars apiece if we were lucky. And sometimes we would lose $20-$50 in an evening.”
            But these days, the dance draws a considerable crowd. The atmosphere is friendly, with some time between dances for dancers to talk and mingle. Though for a while there was a mid-evening break, it was eliminated when the hall required the dance to end earlier so as to clear the hall by 11 p.m. The age range and experience level of dancers in Dover is diverse, and University of New Hampshire college students often attend. Beginners are welcome.
            The Lamprey River Band now includes Peter Yarensky, calling and hammered dulcimer; Sarah Mason, calling and penny whistle; Sarah Hydorn, flute and penny whistle; Steve Panish, fiddle; and Burt Feintuch, fiddle. The band is joined frequently by Bill Zecker, piano. Music includes traditional tunes from the New England, Irish, and old-time Southern traditions.
Yarensky and Mason usually call at the beginning and end of the evening, but they invite guest callers to call dances throughout the night. Because guest callers are welcome, many different types of dances are called in Dover. Yarensky tends to call more traditional contras, or “chestnuts,” and singing squares, while Mason usually calls dances that are more modern.
The guest calling tradition has caused the Dover dance to become a gathering place for many local dance organizers and callers. Sometimes nationally known callers who are planning tours in the area will come by and call a dance or two.
            Every month, the evening begins with a dance called Lady Walpole’s Reel, danced to a tune titled Fireman’s Reel. The band also plays the tune Road to Boston at some point during the evening—just to exasperate one of the band members, says Yarensky. “Sarah Mason at one point said that she was tired of that tune, so Burt [Feintuch] decided to make sure he was going to make sure to play it every time, usually as a surprise sometime later in the evening.”
            When the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured New Hampshire in 1999, the Lamprey River Band was invited to play on a the Smithsonian Folkways Recording created in honor the occasion. The recording is titled Choose Your Partners: Contra Dance and Square Dance Music of New Hampshire.
Source: Peter Yarensky and Emeline Dehn-Reynolds, interview by Elizabeth Faiella, April 2015

The Live Free and Dance Blog Salon is published weekly from October 12- November 25, 2015. Each week a different NH Traditional Dance will be highlighted. The Blog Salon is in conjunction with the exhibit: Traditional Dance in New Hampshire 1750-present, at the NH State Library.  To read more about traditional dances across the state, visit the NH Folklife website.