The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 3, 2004


Fluid, facile feet on Fridays: Carlisle's Contra Dance

That's Dianne Plantamuro and Richard Ketchen taking a whirl around Union Hall at a Friday night contra dance. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

On nine Friday evenings during the year, the First Religious Society's Union Hall plays host to a joyfully noisy bunch of merrymakers who don't shout, sing, quaff wassail, or behave in a disorganized manner. At 6:30 p.m., everyone tucks into a potluck supper: parents and children, young and old share each other's home cooking and enjoy each other's company. By 8:00 p.m. the dinner is cleared, the floor is swept, and the band is warming up. A few couples might be dancing to the warmup tunes, and everyone is chatting or choosing a partner. Then a voice rings out: "Form your lines!"

That's the voice of the caller, or dance leader, who is ultimately responsible for everything that happens next. Partners face each other in two long lines, the "contra," extending down the room. The caller walks everyone through the maneuvers of the dance without specific music, and when he or she is satisfied that the dancers can respond to all the prompts, or calls, the band strikes up the tune of the dance and everyone moves through its patterns, following the caller's directions. Carlisle's own version of a New England Square and Contra Dance has begun.

Carlisle's dance features sociability and live music

A couple of things make Carlisle's contra dance evenings remarkable. One is that they all begin with potluck suppers, so there is a distinct and intentional social tone to the dance. Although many of Carlisle's participants have been dancing for a long time and are adept at the intricacies of this type of dance, the atmosphere is friendly and forgiving, so that newcomers and "children of all ages" can come and participate without fear of making mistakes or knocking down a line of dancers like dominoes. Some folks even sit out some dances to chat or just to listen to the music of the band. Most people dance with a different partner for each dance just to get to know the other participants or to help everyone learn the techniques.

Another characteristic is that the music is always live. According to dancer Molly Sorrows, live music is "very New England," and is "expected here." Instrumentalist Bruce Rosen says that the core of Carlisle's band has "four longtime musicians: Debby Knight [and] David Titus on fiddle, Walter Lenk on the mando-cello, and me on piano. We are often joined by sit-in musicians" as well. All of this makes for evenings reminiscent of those in early American rural communities, where a group of neighbors and friends would get together in a barn for a "social," to dance to the music of local or itinerant musicians and consume food and drink that everyone had contributed. Dancer Anne Ketchen says that Carlisle's dance "spans all generations and has an old-fashioned feel."

Contra dance has a long history

American contra dancing itself is a descendant of British country dancing, European country and court dancing, and French Canadian folk dancing. In this country, some of the early music associated with contra dance celebrated victory in the war of 1812. Some of the familiar square dances at Carlisle's dance evenings date back to the French "quadrille," danced, like ours, in square sets of four couples. According to Bruce Rosen, contra dance music is "mostly jigs and reels, and are either traditional tunes or modern tunes in a more or less traditional style. The music comes from a variety of places: England, Ireland, Scotland, French and Maritime Canada, [and] the American 'old time' tradition." In its earliest days, there were no regularly scheduled dances. Dancing masters and musicians traveled itinerantly and spread the latest dances among farming communities.

Carlisle's dance group is over 30 years old

Jack O'Connor on the banjo has played with the gang on many Friday nights. (From the photo file of Ellen Huber)
Carlisle's contra dance group began in the early 1970s when resident Jack O'Connor invited Dudley Laufman to start the group. Originally from Arlington, Laufman resided (and still does) in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and was instrumental in beginning and continuing the revival of contra dancing in New England. He built a following of what O'Connor calls "hippies, folkies, and back-to-the-landers" who came with him out of New Hampshire to the Carlisle dances. "In those first few years," O'Connor says, "the hall was packed. Callers trained there and then went off to start their own dances." In the meantime, Dudley Laufman became "something of a living history monument in New Hampshire." In the last 30 years, O'Connor says, square and contra dance has had periods of swelling and ebbing popularity, but in recent years, it has "exploded so people have expanded outward." There has been a "general groundswell" of the dance forms, notably in "western Massachusetts towns like Greenfield and Brattleboro, with summer camps" sprouting up as well. There are dances close by in Concord, Berlin, Westford and Groton, to name a few. At this time, Carlisle's dance has become popular with families, and Sorrows says that it's now attracting high school students. O'Connor, Lenk, and Knight began to take on more of the organizational responsibilities in the early 1980s as Laufman moved on to other locations, and principal callers included Tony Parkes and Lenk. Currently, Rosen's wife Sue does most of the calling, and he helps with organizational tasks. Dudley Laufman returns each year to call the December dance.

Dance on December 10

The December dance is the most popular one of the year, and it includes what longtime Carlisle dancer Ellen Huber laughingly calls "the dreaded ribbon dance." Laufman, who is a traditional caller, never fails to include this "simple" dance, wherein the two members of a couple hold a 12-inch ribbon between them. Tradition demands that the youngest participants of the evening's festivities hand out the ribbons. In addition, Laufman holds a short but lively singalong at the December dance. This year he will be joined in his calling duties by Lenk.

Contra dance sparks romance and musical employment

Many of Carlisle's most enthusiastic dancers happened upon the form by lucky chance. O'Connor says that his parents took him to a dance in Bradford, New Hampshire when he was a child. Inspired by the musicians, he taught himself to play the mandolin, banjo, and percussion, and since 1977 has been playing with a band called Yankee Ingenuity. Dancer and church liaison Huber says that O'Connor played for the Carlisle dances until recently. Sorrows first came to Carlisle's dances with her parents, Don and Susan Emmons, and continued to dance "a lot in high school, and in Concord on Monday nights."

That's Molly DeGuglielmo, some years ago, handing out ribbons to Laura and Emma Canina for the traditional "dreaded ribbon dance" at the Christmas contra dance in Union Hall. (From the photo file of Ellen Huber)

Contra dance can also be an agent of Cupid himself. Huber declares that her first date with her husband was folk dancing in Cambridge, and this led to a long association with folk and contra dancing, not to mention with Ernie Huber. Anne Ketchen says she met her husband Richard while contra dancing. She had joined a Cambridge Adult Education class in playing the Appalachian dulcimer and followed that instrument to the New England Folk Festival in Natick. She saw a contra dance for the first time two years later at a folk event in Brookline and was immediately "hooked." She joined the Concord dance group, where she and Richard met once or twice a week before dancing into each other's lives for good. Huber adds that contra dance can lead as well to a lifelong passion for or profession in, music. Tommy Rourke, who grew up on Craigie Circle, she says, "came to the dances as a high school student and went on to become a piano craftsman. He lived in Ireland for eleven years where he tuned, worked on all sorts of pianos, danced a lot and played the fiddle. Jenny Brandhorst, who also started as a youngster in the Carlisle dance, has gone on to become a folk singer."

All are welcome to dance

All these dancers and musicians agree that Carlisle's New England Square and Contra Dance is rousing, energetic, and great for all ages. Upcoming potluck supper dances this year will beheld in Union Hall on December 10 with Dudley and Jacqueline Laufman and Walter Lenk, and in 2005 on January 14, February 11, March 11, May 13, and June 10 with Sue Rosen calling. Music for all dances is provided by Debby Knight, David Titus, Bruce Rosen, and Walter Lenk. Everyone is welcome, and information is available from Bruce Rosen at 1-617-965-0542

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito