The Town Hall Swings (Boston Globe, May 4th, 1969)

 

Alan Dean was clearing out his mother’s house in Chelmsford, MA when he came across an old Boston Sunday Globe article about the Nelson contra  dance. Alan’s girlfriend, Jenn Richardson, is a regular dancer in Nelson, and the date of the article is the day she was born. The Boston Sunday Globe, May 4th, 1969
The Town Hall Swings
by Molly Levin

Nelson, NH — About once a month the Spartan old Town Hall here 
really jumps. It is, as far as we know, the only place in the state 
where country dancing in the contra style of the English, Scotch and 
Irish is carried on regularly.

Contra dancing is different from square dancing. The dancers form 
long lines, partners facing each other, and the patterns start with 
the head couple and go through the entire line, with active and non-
active couples, and much promenading up and down the middle. The 
dancers do use many of the same basic steps that are used in the 
square dance — the do-si-do, allemande, balance, swing, etc. But in 
Nelson the customers know the patterns so well that the caller, with 
a little preliminary instruction, sings the changes at the beat they 
are being made. You can’t be caught napping.

The present caller, Dudley Laufman, has been at it off and on since 
1952, and mostly on since 1956, but you’d never know he could be that 
old. He learned to call, he says, while he was at an agricultural 
schol in Walpole, Mass and apparently liked the country life well 
enough to settle in Canterbury, NH, where after working hours in a 
publishing firm, he is poet, caller, and conductor of the Canterbury 
Orchestra, which specializes  in the English, Irish, and Scotch 
country dance music and plays for the Nelson sessions.

The orchestra has a few steadies — Newt Tolman, Nelson author and 
country squire, at the flute; Kay Gilbert at the piano, Dave Fuller 
playing the accordion, but mostly it has a large following of fans of 
this particular music who come whenever they can step up on the small 
platform that serves as stage, and fiddle away, pluck at the banjo, 
guitar, or whatever. They always seem to know when Dudley and the 
orchestra are going to be playing somewhere (they play at other 
events, too, such as a series of dances in Keene, and the Fox Hollow 
Folk Music Festival in Petersburg, NY) and they turn up like 
relatives at a beach house, only more welcome. In fact, Dudley often 
invites anyone who wants to play along to come up and join the 
orchestra. The tunes and dances are well known to the faithful: 
Petronella, Money Musk, Chorus Jig, Hull’s Victory, etc.

Who are the Nelson dancers? To the uninitiated, it’s an interesting 
exercise to look people over as they arrive and try to size them up 
for occupation and niche. If you arrive at the little white clapboard 
building before 8:30 PM and have a look around at the primitive 
facilities which have probably not been much improved since 1787, you 
might be prepared for an in-gathering of local farmers. Not so. Just 
as it’s possible to look at the barren little building and not see 
its pristine charm and its contribution to the serenity and beauty of 
the town green, so it’s possible to see no more than the occasional 
dungarees, beards, and bare feet in the crowd. In fact, it’s a 
sophisticated group and has a rare property: all ages are found 
there, and everyone dances with everyone else no matter the age, 
size, or dress, and the dress varies from dungarees and sweat shirts 
to long shirts to minis and macros. Families come together and have a 
great time. Students come; and grandmas and grandpas com.

Many of the dancers work in Keene and live in the Nelson countryside 
— the beautiful area around Tolman Pond, named after the family of 
Newt Tolman. There are realtors and engineers, farmers and “gentleman 
farmers,” university students, artists, Boston people who come just 
for the dance, and some from Vermont. Many are longtime dancing 
acquaintances, but rarely or never see each other outside the Nelson 
Town Hall.

Once the music starts, everybody is all business. The long lines 
rarely get tangled. After awhile, the clogging starts, and you wonder 
that the floor doesn’t fall through. But spirited and fast though 
they are, there is no rowdiness, no wild dancing, no getting out 
of line. At the breaks people buy soft drinks or sandwiches in the 
hall. And it all ends punctually at midnight.