Dancing in Church

The East Alstead Congregational Church, located about 15 miles north of Keene, New Hampshire, was built in 1798. It is a classic example of old church architecture in the Monadnock region. But the handsome edifice has undergone extensive renovations, including the division into two floors of the original, open, floor-to-ceiling great room. The front entrance was moved from the long, south side to the west end of the building. These alterations were done in the early 1800s, soon followed in 1832 by the addition of a steeple complete with a Revere bell cast in Boston. Locally, this bell is famous for the misspelling inadvertantly cast into the side, which reads “Revere: Bosotn.”

Great room of the East Alstead church as it may have originally appeared, before the space was divided into two stories. Drawn by Howard Weeks


Since the mid-1970s contra dances have been held in the church hall below the sanctuary. It’s just big enough for two contra lines, divided neatly down the middle by a row of posts. Dancers must navigate around uneven floor planking and, in the summer, hordes of mosquitoes. During one dance, Bob McQuillen was playing piano and I was fiddling. All the windows and doors were open to get the night breeze. While the music was going during one of the dances, we noticed a black cat calmly walk through the door by the piano into the hall. The cat looked up at Mac and then leaped up onto the fourth octave above middle C. We kept playing, and Blackie started to walk down the keys. We played, the cat walked. She made it all the way down to about the low D, stepping over Mac’s pounding hands, jumped down, turned around and walked out the door. The cat executed a perfect “down the outside” and “cast-off” but apparently didn’t have the patience for the inactive part of the dance.

Another time in the East Alstead hall, a mid-winter dance came up in the frigid part of the year, and an hour before the start I opened the church to turn on the heat and get set up. Back in September the church had its annual harvest fair and someone put a big handsome pumpkin on top of the old upright piano. Orange and black go nice together. But the pumpkin froze during the winter, then thawed in a warm spell, so that pumpkin juice had dribbled all down the front of the piano. I cleaned it up and luckily the sliding cover had been pulled over the keys before the thaw. Cancellation due to pumpkin ooze was avoided.

In September of 1801, three years after the East Alstead church was built, the congregation voted to paint the building and their color choices were recorded in the church records (apparently not all churches were austere): “The outside of the House to be white lead and spruce yellow, the Front Door to be painted Green and the Porch Doors Chocklat Colour, the inside of the House Blew and the Pillers Clouded, the posts to be painted Down to the Tops of the pews, the Pillers from the Galaryes to the Base, the Brest work and Doors on the Inside, the stare Case and Stares, the Desk and Deacon Seat and Canopy also the Casing of the Desk windows, the Stem of the Canopy, to be painted Green and white.”

The congregation also issued instructions that “The above said work to be done in the manner of good workmanship.” Indeed, it appears that it was.

Randy Miller is a fiddler, pianist, music teacher, and tunebook publisher active in contra dancing since the 1970s. His contradance band, Celticladda, was formed in 2006 and performs nationwide. Randy’s website is www.fiddlecasebooks.com.

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