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Handing on the Tradition

by Zoë Madonna

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Outside the dance hall (Photo by Zoë Madonna )

The 2014 Ralph Page Legacy Weekend’s Saturday dance was buried in eight inches of wet, heavy snow that started falling at about ten in the morning and did not stop till late evening. Fortunately, the gym of the Memorial Union Building at the University of New Hampshire was heated enough to keep everyone comfortable. The kind of vigorous dancing that makes dancers sweat through their shirts was nowhere to be found at Ralph Page; even after three hours of dancing, I was hardly tired. The tunes were played at a moderate pace, some dances didn’t have partner swings, and one of the staff callers tells me he’s never used a calling card in his life.

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The past into the future (Photo by Zoë Madonna)

The Ralph Page weekend is more of a celebration of social dancing history and tradition than it is a modern “dance weekend.” A loop of David Millstone’s documentaries on Dudley Laufman and the history of contra in New England played in one room, where dancers could rest their feet. Memory books about now-deceased Ralph Page mainstays were laid out on a table. Workshops and dance sessions were themed around the past; a retrospective of mentors (Bob McQuillen, Larry Jennings, Ralph Sweet, Marianne Taylor), a program themed around one of Ralph Page’s Tuesday night dances at the Boston YWCA, and a session of “contras and squares that folks think ‘Dudley doesn’t know.’” “Dudley” is Dudley Laufman, who made immeasurable contributions to getting youth involved in contra dancing in the 1960s. He still plays fiddle and accordion, calling while he plays.

I was there because I’d gotten a calling scholarship, so I was in attendance at Dudley’s workshop on the “dos and don’ts of calling.” He hadn’t come with any dos and don’ts past “don’t ask at the beginning how many people are there for their first time” and “don’t let the band boss you around,” but the other attendees had plenty of questions for him and he had plenty of stories to tell, like the time he and his wife Jacqueline played a gig on a Boston Harbor yacht for a convention of insurance salesmen, during which they had to wear full colonial dress and were  not allowed to speak to their fellow performers or the audience. Dudley is in his 80s and had heart surgery recently, but that isn’t stopping him from calling barn dances. These days, a Dudley set usually consists of a few chestnut contras, some circle dances, a New England style square, and a Sicilian circle or two. Moves that have become commonplace in modern contra, such as the hey for four and gypsy, cannot be found in Dudley’s sets.

Dudley also had plenty of questions for me, whipping around with surprising speed for someone his age every time he remembered something he wanted to ask. “If a bus full of Girl Scouts, no, if a bus full of people with Down’s Syndrome pulls up and everyone comes in, what are you going to call?” I puzzled that question over for a minute before saying I’d call the simplest circle mixer I know. “Would you have them change partners?” asked another caller. I didn’t know what to answer. I still have a long way to go.

The defining moment of Ralph Page for me happened during lunch on the final day. As I was walking through the cafeteria, the jam session that had been playing struck up Money Musk. Two couples set up at one end of the cafeteria aisle and called for a third; I grabbed a partner and we three couples started dancing. No calls were needed. We all knew this dance. By the time my partner and I were waiting at the top, the line was at least twelve couples long. By the time the dance ended, there were at least twenty couples on the line: a good quarter of the people at the weekend, dancing Money Musk in a cafeteria for fifteen minutes with unabashed joy.

The Ralph Page Legacy Weekend was created in 1988 to recognize the contributions that caller Ralph Page (1903-1985) made to contra and New England folk dancing. It’s held the weekend before the third Monday in January (MLK, Jr. Day), at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH and sponsored by the New England Folk Festival Association.

A singer, dancer, musician—and Oberlin junior―Zoë Madonna is interning with CDSS this month.

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