David's Blog

A Night To Remember

In the video about the Norwich contra dance with Northern Spy, musician Rick Barrows muses, "Sometimes it's ordinary and sometimes it's magical; you just have to keep showing up." Saturday night was one of those nights we'll all remember. Here's a link to the video footage from that night.

I'd been feeling a little discouraged at our first two dances of the season. Attendance was low, dipping below 100 dancers, and I was remembering many years ago, where we could count on 150 or more. I know that these things run in cycles, for country dancing as a whole and for any individual series. Still, I thought, it would be nice to get some more regular dancers, to re-establish the energy in the hall, to make the dance a more exciting event.

November marks the band's 31st anniversary; we referred to it as the 25th anniversary of the 8th anniversary dance, nomenclature that originated many years ago when the wording on a flyer lost track of which year it was to celebrate. But we were clear this time around: November of 1980 marked the first Northern Spy dance. The anniversary dance always seems to bring out a larger crowd, and I had hunch that it would be a good night. Good? It was a a perfect storm that combined to make it a great one.

Nearby White River Junction was hosting a weekend conference for dance organizers from across the Northeast. The conference organizers had asked us well in advance whether we'd be open to extra dancers and of course we welcomed the idea. We had quoted them a flat rate, and as things turned out, the conference filled to capacity, so we knew some 80 additional dance enthusiasts would be joining us.

Earlier this fall, another piece fell into place. An enthusiastic dancer and developing caller from nearby Dartmouth College mentioned the Norwich dance to a fellow graduate student who, it turned out, chaired the Graduate Students' Social Committee. She in turn thought that this would be a great event to promote. We had no idea how many to expect from that group, but figured that there'd be more new dancers than usual.

It's annoying to finish a walkthrough only to find musicians still discussing what to play. With such a large band—Northern Spy is seven musicians—it's helpful to let them know ahead of time what tunes they might be playing. When our system works well (translation: when I do my job as I should) I create a suggested program a week or so before the dance, along with any tune suggestions. This gives the band's leader time to come up with a set list of material that the band has been working on, and the musicians can rehearse at their regular practice on Tuesday before the dance. With the Dartmouth newcomers in mind, I developed a program that I thought would work, easing them into figures gradually. (Of course, we're all aware that sometimes a planned program has to be thrown away completely or changed a great deal because of the dancers in the hall on a given night.)

A week before the dance, I learned that grad student publicity had gone out late, and there were only a few who had signed up. Hmm... Now it looked like a lot of experienced dancers and fewer beginners. I wrote the band leader, "Well, I may want to make some major adjustments in the program. Stay tuned."

I started thinking about modifications, and then on Tuesday an e-mail arrived from the Mountain School in rural Vershire, Vermont; this independent school offers innovative semester-long programs for high school juniors from other institutions. They were thinking of coming to the dance this weekend. Would that be okay?

Now we were looking at our regular dancers, plus whatever newcomers showed up, plus the extra people coming for the anniversary dance, plus the Dartmouth grad students, plus the conference participants, plus 45 high school students. Back to Plan A!

I told the Mountain School that we'd be delighted to add them to the mix. They've come before to our dance and we've enjoyed the enthusiasm that the kids bring to the mix. It was a fortuitous night, because the conference people, enthusiastic dancers all, would certainly understand the importance of welcoming newcomers. We knew that most of our regular dancers would also help out—the Norwich dance has a reputation for being a friendly crowd—and I asked the school coordinator to encourage the kids to be open to dancing with strangers.

It could not have worked out any better. The hall was packed, somewhere between 200 and 250 people. Many conference participants joined the band on stage, forming a powerful second line. The high schoolers showed up on time for a short introductory session with scores of adults joining in. We covered a few basics—hearing the 8-count phrase in fiddle tunes, allemande left and right, dosido, and a little about swinging—and I gave my usual demonstration about eye contact, alerting them to dancers who might be giving too intense a gaze. And then we were off...

The hall rocked! Students were quickly partnered with more experienced dancers, avoiding the "clot of confusion" that can sometimes form when a large group of newcomers decided to dance together. I had made a change in the program, deciding to start with an even simpler dance, the Family Contra by Seattle caller Sherry Nevins. At a one-night stand, if I do call an honest-goodness contra dance, this is almost always the one I use. For three-quarters of the dance, a potentially confused new dancer is physically connected to the other dancers, minimizing the opportunity for them to go drifting off in the wrong direction.

Dancers responded with gusto, and any jaded dancers in the crowd who might have been disappointed with such a simple dance were caught up in the energy. The band responded to the crowd's enthusiasm, which pushed the crowd to more excitement. It was a thoroughly delightful evening. Here's the program:

Family Contra (Sherry Nevins)
Scout House Reel (Ted Sannella)
MIXER: Train to Boston (Erik Hoffman)
Anne's a Bride Tonight (Dillon Bustin)
Aw Shucks (variation) (Carol Kopp)
Hot Tub Rag/Cottontail Rag (Steve Schnur)
Rock the Cradle, Joe (Ridge Kennedy)

--- dessert break ---

Salty Dog Rag
Walpole Cottage (Pat Shaw)
Silver Anniversary Reel (Jim Kitch)
SQ: Marianne (Dick Leger)
Now We Are Four (Erik Weberg)
Fast Hands (Diane Silver)

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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