19 Grove St. ~ PO Box 58 ~ Peterborough, NH 03458 ~ 603-924-3235 

Saturday, December 5- The Monadnock Center will be closed because of the winter storm!

Please note face masks are required to visit the Monadnock Center. We thank you for doing your part to keep everyone safe and healthy!

Archives Research is now by appointment only. Please contact us at (603) 924-3235 to schedule an appointment.

By January 16, 2015 Read More →

Contra Dancing in the Monadnock Region

IMG_0545As a preface to our exhibit, Gents Bow, Ladies Know How (opening January 24)

Mention contra dancing to someone from around here, and chances are they’ll know what you’re talking about. If they aren’t a dancer or musician, they are probably no more than two degrees separated from one. And if you happen to mention to contra dancers anywhere else in the country that you’re from the Monadnock Region, they’ll look at you with an appreciative glow – “aren’t you lucky!”
The small town of Nelson is generally considered to be the contra dance capital of the world, but all of the towns in the region have had contra dancing figure in their history – a vibrant part of their social and cultural life. And while in Colonial times dancing was popular throughout New England, and remains so in certain pockets, the Monadnock Region has a special claim on having maintained the tradition.
A brief history: In 1651 John Playford, a London bookseller, published The English Dancing Master, a collection of English Country dances and tunes. It was extremely popular, and quickly spread to France, where the dance form, done in lines of couples facing opposite each other, came to be known as “contredanse”.
The tunes came here with the fiddles that travelled with their people to this new land. Like the people who sought new life, adventure, and freedom, the tunes were ready to lend their folk roots to be the foundation of something new.
New communities, eager for diversion and cohesion, found both with the music and dance. French dancing masters roamed the colonial country side, teaching the contredanse, which became contradance. These dances were appealing to the nascent democracy: the dancers were equal, with everyone in the set engaging with everyone else: the farmer, the banker, the blacksmith, the teacher. The dance served the additional function of teaching social graces and nurturing community. And of course, there was the potential for flirtation and courtship –thus ensuring the continuity of the community.
In a typical contra dance, there are alternating active and inactive couples (the actives having a few more moves to go through, depending on the dance). The active couples work their way down the line, and in-actives work their way up, each time through — dancing with a different couple. Swing your partner, do-si-do, allemande, circle up four – some of the dozens of figures that are put together in various configurations to make each dance unique.
The disruption of the Civil War and the introduction of new kinds of music and dance and other social diversions brought a decline in contra dancing. But it remained a part of cultural life particularly in the small rural towns of New England.

People danced wherever they could, but our town halls were often the venue of choice. These halls are simple buildings, but they were designed with a sense of form and balance – like the music and dance that filled them. The New England town hall is the home to democracy at the most basic level – think of town meetings, public hearings, events where people gather to discuss, to debate, arguing sometimes to the point of physical confrontation, all to build and sustain their community. And this is how the dance works, you engage with others, sometimes coming together, sometimes moving apart.

One of the most satisfying moves in contra dancing is the balance, where you grab the hand of someone and pull back – holding your own against the pull of your partner. And, like democracy, if you don’t stand firmly by your conviction, the dance doesn’t work as well. Our town halls have absorbed decades of the dance, the music, and civic engagement, and you can feel it in the walls.

One of the reasons contra dancing remains such a vibrant part of our local culture is that the tradition has been allowed to evolve. In the 1970’s the hippie movement infiltrated the scene, and with them came a freer and more flamboyant style of dancing. The music has also evolved. It can be as simple as a single fiddle accompanied by guitar or piano, or larger ensembles which include flutes, whistles, mandolins, and accordions. Today’s musicians are more apt to be influenced by many other musical forms; it’s not uncommon to hear rock and roll, jazz, or world-music flavors, though there is usually a very solid foundation that provides that unmistakable New England contra dance spirit.

While elsewhere in New England contra dancers are a greying crowd, a typical dance in Peterborough or Nelson is well populated with high school and college kids. Folks of all ages, and from all walks of life, enjoy dancing together. And while it can at first seem intimidating to newcomers, you’ll find if you just jump right in, you’ll be surrounded by friendly encouragement, and before you know it, you’re part of one of New England’s oldest traditions.