by Mary Wesley, CDSS Education Associate
This year was the third time I have attended the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend—for me it seems to be turning into something of a pilgrimage. It is difficult to put into words what it feels like to be at this unique event and why I plan to keep coming back. I was two years old when Ralph Page, the “dean of contra dance callers,” died in 1985. I never met him or danced to his calls. So what does this weekend that bears his name hold for me?
The tagline for Ralph Page is “The Essence of the Past Driving the Spirit of the Future.” Parts of the weekend are about glancing backward in time: you will dance more “chestnuts” than you might be used to, see a greater variety of dance forms than appear at most regular contra dances these days and every year there is a “Retrospective Session” explicitly dedicated to honoring past callers, musicians and traditions. But this weekend is not about preservation. Nothing here is under glass. It’s not about how we used to dance, it’s about dancing together now!
Mixed in with chestnuts, triplets, triple-minors and squares are plenty of zesty, modern dances. This year Nils Fredland ran a session called “New New England Dances” featuring all recent dance compositions from New England choreographers set to tunes by Old New England. At this weekend we remember that for every new dance and tune that comes along, there’s one that came before it. People connect the dots between past and present by telling stories, watching old video footage, sharing memories, and folks old and young talking about “how it was” and “how it is now” and what they think of it all. As a result, the dance floor at Ralph Page is full of people who know themselves to be part of a living tradition. I think it makes for some of the richest dancing you’ll find anywhere.
Perhaps one of the nicest illustrations of the “past driving the spirit of the future” this year was the spontaneous Money Musk “moment” that broke out in the cafeteria just after Sunday lunch. Like most dance weekends, jamming abounds at Ralph Page. That afternoon as people were finishing their sandwiches and resting their feet a familiar tune floated through the air. The musicians had hardly played it one time through when a group of five or six excited people (mostly callers) came running over, pushed tables and chairs aside, took hands-six and started dancing Money Musk. More and more furniture was shoved out of the way as the set extended far past the salad bar. We must have danced for at least twenty minutes—maybe longer. It was extraordinary.
My favorite part of the experience was chatting with the (indefatigable!) musicians afterward. Many of them were under twenty years old and said they were quite surprised to see so many people stand up to dance Money Musk. In recent years there has been quite a push to bring back this centuries-old dance, “this most famous of all New England dances” as Ralph Page called it, and in some ways it’s becoming a bit of a cult classic. In the “old days” the dance would most often be done without a walkthrough and even without calls, probably in someone’s small, farmhouse kitchen. Substitute the UNH cafeteria and call it a “flash mob” and it’s almost the same thing—certainly the same tune. Now those young fiddlers and all those who danced or watched the dance have a memory of something that they created and were part of. They carry on the legacy, from the past into the future.
Everyone who is part of any community dance, contra or square dance event is carrying on the legacy and I think there are so many ways to do it and they are all important. I keep coming back to the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend because it feels so good to gather with so many people who care about this mission. It is a place where I always feel like I have something to learn as well as something to contribute. Twenty years from now I have no doubt I will be dancing at a retrospective session that will look back at something that is happening right now—something that is being created from pieces of the past and present. I’ll be there. Will you?
Some CDSS staff and board members were at the weekend; for earlier posts, see Part 1, by David Smukler; Part 2, by Pat MacPherson; Part 3, by Rima Dael. Thanks to all for sharing their experiences at this marvelous event.