Monday, May 19, 2014

Celebrating Contra and Square Dancing

My younger brother sent me an antique photo of the Shattuck Inn in East Jaffrey, N.H. It was interesting to see one of the places where we learned both square and contra dances during the summers.

My earliest dance teacher was Gene Gowing, and I was introduced to him through Harry Holt, his mother and his sister, Diana. Somehow Mrs. Holt became the driver for a bunch of us who wanted to take square dance lessons in the mid-50's.

Mr. Gowing was a dashing looking fellow, charming in every aspect, and determined to take the uninitiated and unskilled and bring them up to his standard of dance performance. There was a correct way to stand, to address your partner, to do an "allemande left," and a right way to manage all the parts of the pattern of the square or the contra. And especially he was particular about the swinging with your partner. Men were not to crush the women too close, women were not to 'hang' on the man. "It's a balancing act," he would say. And in truth, swinging well during a dance does not come easily for many.

I had a huge crush on Harry, one that lasted for decades. But it wasn't just his Hollywood good looks that appealed to me. He was the absolute best dancer I'd ever danced with… whether for squares, contra or ballroom, thanks in large part to Gene, he said. And he can still have that versatile dancing title. If you're still out there, Harry, I have lots to thank you for.

Winter dances were rare, in part because of the snowy, icy weather in New England - hardly conducive to having a car full of teens giggling and jiggling with excitement. So the first summer dances usually began as school was coming to close, right around Memorial Day.

It wasn't until I began driving myself that my weekends were full of dances, starting on Friday nights, usually at the Peterborough Golf Club with Duke Miller calling. (The link features a complete dance he called in August 1965.)  Then Saturdays could be anywhere in the Monadnock Region… Greenfield, Fitzwilliam, Jaffrey, Dublin and Nelson or occasionally, Hancock.

At that point in my life, I was given use of a dark green 1932 Model A Ford and I think I probably put more miles on it in that first summer of driving than the poor old thing had up to that time. But I felt 'vested' in that car since I had helped my father restore her to new glory including genuine Naugahyde tan seats… the only thing that prevented her from winning awards at antique car shows.

With the top down, wind blowing through my hair and ruffling up my brother's carefully slicked down do, we rattled over the back roads, sometimes picking up Miki Shearer or Deanna Edmunds or other pals who wanted to go to a dance. We arrived in time to see the band setting up because I absolutely didn't want to miss one dance. And we stayed until the band played the last note, walking slowly out to the car, savoring the just-created memories of patterns, dance partners and conversations.

"I just love Cheat or Swing," I said to no one in particular. I recalled the very first time I learned the dance at Gene Gowing's instruction, and the very first time Harry surprised me with his swing style. From then on we were often each other's choice as swinging partners. He knew just how to keep his inside foot in place and he was smooth, never pumping his arm up and down in time to the music like so many did.

What made that dance such fun was it allowed you to choose to swing someone other than your partner and was a great way to find out if there were other good dancers to say yes to. In those days it was rare for a woman to ask a man to dance; you just had to wait, or tell your best friend to help you out.

If Harry was all the way across the room in another set, when it came time for the caller to say "balance with your partner, now cheat or swing," we would be off in a flash headed toward each other, whirling madly out-of-set and then dashing back to our partner and our home set, breathless and heady with the simple of joy of it all.

Both Gowing and his compatriot dance caller/teacher, Ralph Page, were instrumental in giving me the appreciation for the dance music of the squares and contras, as well as giving me the skills to dance all my life. Once you have learned how to dance in square or contra form, you can usually remember the patterns and pick it up again - just like riding a bicycle!

I feel more than a little guilty that I didn't write or call either of these gentle men once I'd grown up and left New England. They were phenomenal teachers, each in their own way, and it is a testimony to their efforts that I still recall each of them with great appreciation.

But perhaps it would give them some pleasure to know that I am still dancing squares and contras, still doing Chorus Jig, Money Musk and Petronella, sometimes feeling more than a little nostalgic for the Nelson Town Hall, or Peterborough Golf Club (since changed its name to Monadnock Country Club) or town hall, or the other town halls in Fitzwilliam, Jaffrey and Dublin.

Nelson gradually became one of my favorite places to dance, and Duke Miller, who was more of a Western square dance caller, did not appreciate the rowdy nature of their dancers in his venue of the Peterborough Country Club. However, those of us who danced "Nelson style"were allowed, during Money Musk, to balance (clog) loudly and be generally untrammeled once Duke called out "Nelson style." and after that we were supposed to go back to a more stately dance form.

Duke was a barrel-chested man with a good voice and terrific method of putting the calls to the beat of the music, and his style brought all the 'summer folk' out to dance. Some of his followers were true Western square dancers, meaning they wore the costume of frilly dresses with huge petticoats, black dancing shoes with heels and the men had jeans with large buckles on their belts, western shirts with pearl snaps, a lariat around the neck and a towel for wiping sweaty hands on the right hip at the belt.

Nelson style meant more than a dance step. It was also the sixties-style long cotton patterned dress with short sleeves for women and jeans or shorts for the men with t-shirts or other casual shirt. Many of us like to dance barefoot, too. And it was having Newt and Franny Tolman playing flute and later my mother, Kay Gilbert, playing piano, with Harvey Tolman sawing away on his fiddle until you'd think the strings would just get cut in two. It was a marriage of the musicians and dancers, each playing off the other through the hot summer evening, and if you arrived late, walking through the grass parking lot you could hear the sound of the feet on the dance floor like another instrument accompanying the band.

My last time in the Nelson Town Hall was the most memorable… my older brother, my younger brother, my younger sister and I all went and danced with each other. And we all were such "swingers!" Among my best-saved memories is that evening of dancing Nelson-style, whooping it up as if we knew it was the last time.

The little Black Diamond Community Hall outside of Port Angeles, Washington, has a contra dance on the first Saturday of each month, and Port Townsend's Quimper Hall has squares on the second Saturday through the winter. The Black Diamond group reminds me very much of home. As I recently looked at YouTube videos of dancers from Nelson, N.H., in 1983, I could swear some of those folks must have left their clothes to the 2014 dancers in Washington.

I'll be back in Washington in time to get to another dance on the first Saturday in June...


  1. nice. Recently there was a HUGE day long celebration of Bob McQuillen's life, over a thousand people turned up, I wasn't one of them, because I can't tolerate that number of people, but for weeks in advance there was constant posting on the FB page "remembering Mac", pictures, and tributes from many parts of his life. He's not the last of the older guys to go though, we still have Dudley, and every now and then at a Morris stand, someone comes up and tells me they remember playing with mum. Nelson style indeed. It has morphed into an entirely particular dance form now as the beat has been infused with other influences from musicians bringing their traditions to the playing…..Cape Breton, Swedish, Latin and Jazz….

    1. I'm seeing that on the Olympic Peninsula where there is some confusion when dances are offered and the music is not quite in sync with what I would classify as 'traditional' contra music.

      I cannot go to huge events, either, but I am glad for him that there are so many people honoring his life and work. I am doing it in my own way, I guess.

      Thanks for commenting… and sharing...