David's Blog

It's Fun to Hunt: The Enchanted Wood

Ralph Page kept a regular column in his Northern Junket magazine in which he shared tidbits that he unearthed in his research into newspapers in the 1800s. I share his fascination with the roots of our contemporary dances, so have borrowed his "It's Fun To Hunt" title to describe a few of my own forays into the past.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, caller Tony Parkes did a lot of audio recording at dances. Many of his recordings were recently digitized by Jon Thunberg, a volunteer working with the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Dance and Music, part of Special Collections at the UNH library in Durham. Wearing my multiple hats as dance historian and coordinator of the Square Dance History Project (SDHP), I received from Jon a DVD data disk with 1.8 GB of mp3 audio files and a spreadsheet listing available information about each tape.

Tony and I have talked for years about his writing an article on "Great Callers" that we would use as the foundation for an exhibit in the SDHP. I created a grid listing the callers we'd include, and checked off appropriate columns when we acquired video, audio, or photographs of each person. Several callers had no audio checked off, but Tony was certain that he had live recordings for them.

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Many years ago, our local Revels North mounted a Scandinavian-themed show that featured Norwegian dancing. In one particularly lovely moment, a male dancer led two women, one in each hand, through a Telespringar. I watched, entranced, as the dancers formed a kaleidoscope of motion, whirling, spinning, twirling, weaving in and around and over and under, a seamlessly turning flow set to lovely music.

"I want to do that!" I thought, and I made several attempts, including local weekend workshops led by Karin Brennesvik, a famed Norwegian dance instructor. I remember well the first session, where we spent the first twenty minutes just walking around the Tracy Hall floor in time to the music.

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How Complicated Does This Need to Be?

I've written elsewhere about the push toward ever-more-complex choreography on the contra and square dance floor. The short story is that the number of figures one might expect to meet today in a few nights of dancing has nearly doubled from the early 1970s when I started. Some of the push comes from those avid dancers whom Ralph Sweet, writing in the 1960s and referring to ardent modern Western square dancers, dubbed the "overactive 10%." That's a whole separate discussion, but some of the responsibility certainly falls on the shoulders of callers, present company included.

We callers spend so much time with dances, looking through our ever-growing stack of cards, that we're hyper-alert to a new wrinkle: "Ooh, this is different. It'll be fun!" And so we introduce a different figure, in much the same way that MWSD callers of an earlier generation created such a vast complex of dance moves that CALLERLAB was created to bring order to chaos.

The last few summers, I've had some opportunities to counter that trend.

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All You Ever Need To Know About Relationships Can Be Learned in a Dance Class

This list comes from a group that's far removed from the country dance world—"bop" is an inclusive term for related couple dances including swing, lindy, jitterbug, and shag—but it's fascinating how so many of the guidelines offered here apply to contras, squares, or English country dance.

Published by American Bop Association in November, 2003 Newsletter

  1. Lead her GENTLY and she’ll follow you anywhere. (For every ACTION there is an equal and opposite REACTION.)

  2. Never CRITICIZE YOUR DANCE PARTNER. The only person you can even consider fixing is YOU. (The person who is responsible for making the adjustment is the one who knows an adjustment is needed.)

  3. A lead is an INDICATION of some desired direction. (It’s a SUGGESTION, not DEMAND.)

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A Night to Remember

Wow! What an evening THAT was!

Northern Spy finished our monthly series with a gala 35th anniversary party on November 14, 2015. Tracy Hall was packed on Saturday night, as a large crowd turned out to celebrate the end of our dances. Included in the mix were eight former members of the band, and many, many dancers from years gone by. Spurred in part by the great publicity given the event by the Valley News, we also had a good number of beginners present.

The evening started with a potluck supper attended by more than 75 people, with entertainment provided by the Revels Teens from Revels North. Dancing began promptly at 7:30 PM, half an hour earlier to make it possible a) to squeeze more dances into the evening and b) to have plenty of time for the dessert break. (Yum! Thanks for all who brought goodies.)

We should have thought of taking a photo at the peak of the evening, but we didn't until after the break, by which point the crowd had thinned out a great deal. Still, here are some of the folks who remained, with others cleaning up the food downstairs.    Download hi-res - 2483 x 1845 pixels - 3.6 MB image here.

Group photo 2

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!

Thank you, everyone, for making the evening such an uplifting experience. Saturday night's program included a number of dances written by Ted Sannella, since that month marked the 20th anniversary of his death. Dances marked with an asterisk are shown in this video sampler from the evening. Here's what we danced:

Scout House Reel (Ted Sannella, contra)
To Turn a Phrase (Bob Isaacs, contra)
Ted's Solo Mixer (Ted Sannella, scatter mixer)
* Ted's Triplet #3 (Ted Sannella, triplet)
Young at Heart (Steve Zakon-Anderson, contra, written on the occasion of Bob McQuillen's 63rd birthday)
* Deep in the Heart of Texas (from the calling of Ralph Sweet, singing square)
* Whatchagonnado? (Erik Weberg, contra)
* Scatter Threesome (Ted Sannella, mixer)
Birdie in the Cage and Seven Hands Round (square, traditional)
Rock the Cradle Joe (Ridge Kennedy)

-- break --

Ramsay Chase (Joseph Pimentel, contra)
* Fiddleheads (Ted Sannella, contra)
* The Devil's Backbone (William Watson, 4 face 4)
Chorus Jig (traditional, contra)

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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