The Hippo


Jun 2, 2020








The Snow Ball 2015. Amanda Bastoni photo. At left: Concord High School contra dancing in 1947. Royce Riddle photo.

See “Traditional Dance and Music in New Hampshire: 1750-today”

Where: New Hampshire State Library gallery, 20 Park St., Concord
When: On view now through Nov. 25
Admission: Free
Blog: Every week, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts features a regular contra dance on its blog,

Cool contra dances
Exhibition highlights centuries-old New Hampshire tradition

By Kelly Sennott

A little-known fact about New Hampshire: It’s home to one of the hottest contra dance nights in the country.

Every Monday, crowds flock to Nelson — population less than 1,000 according to the last census — for its world-famous dance in a 200-year-old town hall, complete with wooden floors and wooden walls. Musicians play and people dance with soft-soled shoes or no shoes at all, while a caller shouts the moves: “Swing your partner!” “Circle to the left!” “Circle to the right” “With your partner, bounce and swing!”
An even littler-known fact about New Hampshire: You don’t have to go to the Monadnock region on a Monday night to get your contra dance fix. Regular events occur in Concord, Manchester, Londonderry, Milford, Exeter, Dover, Keene, Deerfield, Hancock, Peterborough and other communities.
Making these events more well-known was a primary driver behind the new exhibition “Traditional Dance and Music in New Hampshire: 1750-today,” on view at the New Hampshire State Library now through Nov. 25.
It’s produced by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, along with the Monadnock Folklore Society and the Monadnock Center for History and Culture.
“Some of these dances are literally only advertised by a handwritten sign at the country store,” said Julianne Morse, heritage and traditional arts grants coordinator for the arts council. “I bet there are tons of people … who have no idea there are contra dances in their own communities.”
Show formation
The exhibition contains sketches, cartoons and photos that help illustrate the hundreds-of-years-old New Hampshire dance tradition, with old-fashioned posters decorating the walls and old song books, sheet music, fiddles, accordions and notebook pages scattered on tables and in display cases.
On the show’s opening night, a film about the state’s contra tradition by Randy Miller played in the corner, and two musicians performed in the hallways, accompanied by, every so often, a couple swooping by in dance. One section of the show contained footstep-shaped post-it notes with stories and memories about favorite dances, and another had a dance glossary for contra dance newbies. These were often accompanied by text panels explaining the significance and bios about New Hampshire contra dance legends like Ralph Page, Bob McQuillen, Gene Gowing and Duke Miller.
The show’s primary curators were at the opening, including Lisa Sieverts, secretary of the Monadnock Folklore Society (and co-organizer/caller for Nelson and Peterborough contra dances) and Michelle Stahl, executive director of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. They’d first shown the exhibition at the Monadnock Folklore Society January 2015. Research included delving into old artifacts and newspapers, but the best resources were notebooks kept by Page, a contra dance caller and history nut who, in his time, delved through many old history records himself and hand-wrote the contra dance references down.
“He wrote the exact words of what the newspapers said. It must have taken him hours and hours. He did this over a 30-year period. He was a nut, but I’m really glad he was,” Sieverts said, as a fiddler played a tune and a couple glided by across the floor.
Cool again
While contra dancing has always been “cool” in certain small New Hampshire pockets, it’s become hip again in metropolitan cities in New York and the East Coast.
“There are a lot of teens and college students who are into dancing right now. But that’s a tradition that’s happened over and over again, kids kind of re-discovering contra dancing,” Sieverts said. “That was one of the funny things about researching the exhibit, being able to see the cycle. Like, in the 1870s, this kind of dancing was totally hot. … Just like us, they were saying, ‘Isn’t this funny! We’re doing this thing our grandparents did!’ … I read this in a newspaper, and of course I just laughed and laughed.”
Fun and social
“The good thing about contra dancing is that they teach you,” said Morse, who’s gone to dances across the state with her boyfriend. “They have live music, but they have these dance cards and a caller, who is literally calling out the moves as you’re supposed to do them.”
Before most dances, you’ll be taught the basic steps, which are easy.
“I always say, if you can walk and smile at the same time, you can contra dance. It’s helpful to be able to tell your right hand from your left, but it’s not required,” Sieverts said.
You’re also constantly switching partners, forced to meet new people every few minutes. It’s active and it’s social, which Morse thinks is why it’s become more popular among younger crowds.
“People are looking for fun things to do outside of going to bars,” Morse said. “And here is a really social thing. I usually can’t stop smiling when I go. … It’s a lot of fun. You do get kind of sweaty. It’s a good workout. … And the basic steps aren’t complicated. And if you go to a dance, even if you don’t know anybody, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get asked to dance.”
Plus, there’s the live music.
“We have fiddlers, piano players, banjo players. Live music is so magical. It contains an energy you cannot record when you’re listening to recorded music. It does not feel the same in your body as when you’re listening to a musician who is creating music,” Sieverts said.

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