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Radio Field Trip: Contra Dancing (For the Very First Time)

Rick Ganley for NHPR

Contra dancing is a longstanding New Hampshire tradition, but Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley never actually went to a dance before.

That is, until this week’s Radio Field Trip.

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(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

A crowd of dozens of people fill the tiny town hall in Nelson, New Hampshire. I can tell right away most of the people at tonight’s contra dance are not newcomers like me.

The dancers show off their moves as they weave around each other, skillfully switching partners, and forming intricate sequences across the dance floor.

Linda Sieverts is a caller for the weekly dances.

“We don’t have a post office,” Linda says. “We do not have a general store. We do not have a gas station. But we do have a contra dance every single Monday night of the year.”

Linda has been contra dancing for over 50 years, but she says the tradition here in Nelson began over 200 years ago.

“Starting by about 1850 people were saying, ‘oh isn’t it wonderful we do the dances our grandparents did,’ which is of course what we say now. So there was this nostalgia for the dance really by the time of the second or third generation that was doing it in this region,” Linda says.

Credit Mary McIntyre for NHPR
Linda Seiverts is a long-time contra dancer and caller in Nelson, NH.

And it sure seems like that nostalgia continues today. She tells me some of the dances were choreographed back when that first generation began.

They’ve got names like the chorus jig or the money musk. But no matter the dance, the caller is the one who leads them through. I ask Linda what makes a good caller.

Timing is the most important thing,” she says. “Can you call on the beat of the music so that there’s no ambiguity on the part of the dancers about when to do the next move?”

Fiddler Roger Treat travels 40 minutes from Putney, Vermont every week to play for the dancers. He’s been coming since 1980.

“It’s a good community, you know,” Roger says. “Even if you don’t know everybody’s name, you kind of, sort of know everybody from just coming here week to week.”

Roger says what makes this dance different from others across the state is it welcomes visiting musicians.

“Part of it’s the friendly atmosphere,” Roger says. “New callers will come and musicians when they’re visiting and we’ll let them play, which doesn’t happen at other dances.”

Credit Mary McIntyre for NHPR
Musicians take turns at the piano

I’m actually a bit surprised to see so many young people who are also participating. There’s a good mix of people of different ages on the dance floor.

Twenty-nine-year-old Michelle Russell from Hancock says she used to tag along with her high school friends to different dances around the state. But she didn’t really love it at first.

“I don’t know, I guess coming to Nelson and just really feeling this lively community and other young people who liked to dance too, something just shifted,” Michelle says.

And she’s continued to come back to Nelson for almost a decade now.

“It’s one of the really fun parts of the week to come here, and dance and be surrounded by lively people who are smiling and enjoying themselves.”

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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