David's Blog

Ernie Spence's Favorites

altI had the great pleasure of participating in a special dance evening on Sunday. Dubbed "Ernie's Favorites," the program honored the memory of the late Ernie Spence (1925–2011), a beloved dancer in the Boston area.

For many years a vice-principal of the Reading, MA, High School, Ernie was a long-time dancer, going back to summers in the late 1940s working at the Sargent Camp in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. He and his wife Joan became enthusiastic dancers, and they started making regular trips from the Boston area on weekends to dance to the calling of Duke Miller at his popular dance series in Fitzwilliam, NH.

In an interview for the "Paid To Eat Ice Cream" video, the Spences recalled, "The phone would start ringing on Monday with kids calling to reserve a space for the weekend." Ernie and Joan would fill up the back of their station wagon with eager students; that's how noted dance musician Peter Barnes and many others got their first exposure to the world of traditional squares and contras.

Ernie was a delight on the dance floor, a smooth and stylish dancer who took gentlemanly care of his partners.

altI remember that on those rare occasions when I'd get to a Boston area dance, I'd ask some terrific young dancer for the next dance, only to find—time and again—that she was already booked, to dance with Ernie. In fact, it seemed that all the hot young women dancers lined up to book dances with him.

altIn his later years, Parkinson's disease forced him to cut back his dancing to just one or two nights a week. Even though his mobility then limited him to a much smaller space on the dance floor, Ernie still was among the best dancers to be found, never at a loss for a partner; I loved watching his graceful carriage, his exquisite timing, the attentive smile bestowed on his partners, and the omnipresent twinkle in his eye.

altOne of the other speakers at the dance recalled a conversation with Ernie, commenting that the vice-principal's role usually called for dealing with kids in disciplinary situations. Ernie replied that all day he was working with kids who had problems of one sort or another, and it was a treat for him to go to a dance where no one has problems.

altThe evening was a benefit for the Parkinson's Foundation and the Concord Scout House was packed. One long wall of the hall was festooned with the matching outfits—dress and shirt in dramatic prints—that Joan Spence had sewn over the years; these were placed in a silent auction to raise additional funds for the Foundation. I was told afterwards afterwards that the event raised $3,640.

One table was filled with a pile of photographs, free for the taking, duplicate copies of the hundreds taken by Ernie over the years; many of his prints and slides and video and audio recordings of Boston area dances are being donated by the family to the Library of Traditional Music and Dance at the University of New Hampshire. He loved to dance, so he rarely stood behind his camcorder; instead, he'd put it on a tripod, press record, and would enjoy himself on the dance floor. His videos are a valuable record of the vibrant Boston scene over several decades.

The dance program consisted mostly of old favorites, compositions that New England dancers have enjoyed for many decades. In fact, the first caller, Nell Wright, took a quick poll after announcing Chorus Jig, and appropriately decided that no walkthrough was necessary. Tod Whittemore did the same, launching right into his square and the whole hall rang out singing the chorus.

In many ways, the program was a delightful recreation of a typical evening from the 1970s, before the contras-only craze took off. (Keep in mind that an evening dance billed as a "contra dance" didn't happen until the mid-1970s.) In the space of two hours of dancing on Sunday night, we enjoyed plenty of couple dances, three squares, five traditional contras one recent contra composition. Beyond that, there was plenty of time for socializing, catching up with friends, and sharing memories.

For the record, here's the program, which was ably coordinated by Sue Rosen:

Chorus Jig, called by Nell Wright
Smoke on the Water, called by Tod Whittemore
Because, Just Because, called by Walter Lenk
Gay Gordons
Hull’s Victory, called by Lisa Greenleaf
Rory O’More, called by Lisa Greenleaf


Salty Dog Rag, sung by Tony Parkes
Nellie Gray, called by Tony Parkes
Trip to Margaree, written and called by Sue Rosen
Road to the Isles
Petronella, called by Steve Zakon-Anderson
Money Musk, called by David Millstone

Here are the musicians who took turns playing the tunes:

Carol Bittenson
Cal Howard
Stuart Kenney
Debby Knight
Walter Lenk
Bob McQuillen
Vince O'Donnell
Bruce Rosen
Henry Yoshimura


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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