Monthly Archives: February 2011

Letters to Mr. Scarlett

My desk in the office is usually tidy, but right now I am surrounded by boxes of books, tapes, letters and teaching notes which are being processed to send to the CDSS Archives and Library at UNH. While going through a box from the Bob Hider estate, our fabulous volunteer Emma Van Scoy found a small sheaf of letters to a Mr. Andrew Scarlett of South Orange, NJ.  Bob Hider was involved in dancing from his teen years and was a square dance caller, and leader of English country, morris and sword dancing. The letters Emma found in the Hider box took place between 1936 and 1938 and involved correspondence between Mr. Scarlett and two influential figures in the early 20th century world of traditional dance: Benjamin Lovett, who was hired as dancing master by auto magnate, Henry Ford; and Ralph Page, aka “Dean of American dance callers,” and a pivotal contributor to the resurgence of contra dancing today.

We don’t know why Bob Hider had the letters and we don’t know much about Mr. Scarlett. (In 1930 he led a hike into a New Jersey state park and in 1942 produced at pamphlet entitled “Folk Dance Songs”.)

The letters are a fascinating view into the lost, courteous world of letter writing. Mr. Scarlett was evidently involved in country dancing in NJ, because the letter to him May 4, 1936 from Benjamin Lovett, on Henry Ford’s stationary, gives directions for “Balance Six in Line” and Lovett asks for eventual remittance of 10 cents.

The three letters from Ralph Page to Mr. Scarlett are dated January, March and June, 1938. In 1938, Page had just begun calling professionally and the previous year, his and Beth Tolman’s The Country Dance Book had been published. In the first letter, Page mentions a “big armful of letters” which Beth Tolman has just given him. Page refers to Scarlett’s letter describing the Mead New Jersey dance group, saying he was very much interested because he had only previously heard about it “from a distance.” Unlike Lovett, Page is accustomed to barter and offers Scarlett “directions and rhymes for one or two singing quadrilles” in exchange for “the Americanized form of The Huntsman’s Chorus,” and then goes on to offer the observation that he “[has] prompted for dances for several years and find[s] it a very interesting occupation. The favorite singing quadrilles up here are these: Darling Nellie Gray, Garry Owen, Buffalo Gals, O Susannah, and Duck and Dive.” He asks Mr. Scarlett for “the favorite contra dances in New Jersey” and offers that in Munsonville, NH the favorites circa 1938 are Morning Star, Hull’s Victory, Lady Walpole’s Reel, and Money Musk.”

In March, Page wrote again to Mr. Scarlett, thanking him for directions to Huntsman’s Chorus, saying “the galop part of it was most surprising to me. I had supposed that all of what we call ‘fancy contras’ had disappeared,” and goes on to write that he figures the only advantage he can see of living in a city would be to belong to a group of folk dance societies. “That way you get just the right people to your gatherings, which is extremely hard to do at a public dance,” although he also writes that he had been extremely successful with his dances in Nelson. Around this time, Page was invited to take a group of dancers to Washington, DC to the fifth National Folk Festival there. True to his offer in the January letter, Page fills the remaining space with directions to three figures of a Plain Quadrille.

Ralph Page

By June 20, 1938 Page is offering accommodation to Scarlett at his farm, where his mother and sister Marguerite “take boarders and tourists and they would be glad to have you here.” Page goes on to say “I am busy every Thursday and Saturday nights now; Thursday in Dublin [NH], Saturday in Nelson [NH]. The Grange dances in Winchester have ended for the summer. This will start up again the first Friday in October. Expect to have a Friday job in Stoddard…” Should he decide to visit, Scarlett is supposed to find Page with the following directions: “As soon as your mileage shows you are nine miles from Keene [NH], start looking for a log cabin that has a sign saying ‘Happy Valley.’ It will have an old fiddler on it and will be on the left hand side of the road. I am there from May 20-Nov 1 and from 10am to midnight.”

So, who was the enterprising Mr. Scarlett? If anyone has knowledge of him, let us know. We’d be thrilled to know if Scarlett found his way to Happy Valley to visit with Ralph Page to talk about old dance tunes and country dances there.

– Pat

If you are interested in donating to the CDSS Library or Archives please contact me at pat@cdss.org

If you’d like to find out more about the roles Ralph Page, Benjamin Lovett, and Henry Ford played in the history of traditional dancing, we recommend the wonderful short documentary, Together in Time, among other resources.

The Bob and Kathleen Hider Scholarship was established at the request of his family upon his death in 1996 and has helped many attend English and American dance programs at CDSS camps.

Dancing into the New York Times

“The sound of fiddles and foot stomping may be the last thing you expect to hear at the Chinatown Y.M.C.A. Nevertheless, every weekend Country Dance New York turns the basketball courts into a country dance hall, filled with jigs, reels and plenty of swinging your partner.”

That’s how an article in the New York Times last December began. Entitled “Country Dancing in the Big City”, it was a piece for the local edition that described the English and contra dancing going on around the city, highlighting CDNY’s series, the gender-role free series, and the new Brooklyn contra dance.

I thought it was quite cool to get a mention in the Times and asked David Chandler, president of CDNY (and CDSS board member), for some of his observations of how the piece came together and what (if any) results they had seen. These were his thoughts:

David Chandler

“Getting an item into the NY Times was a combination of having volunteer professional help – and luck. One of our dancers is a professional publicist who is very aware of different ways to get one’s story out, and she contacted an editor at the Times who seemed a likely bet about a story focusing on young people in contra. Oddly enough, that seemed to fall through because of the last media success for contra dancing, the NPR story a few months ago – the editor didn’t want to just repeat that story.

However, that contact may have laid the foundation for a reporter independently finding out about contra dancing from a swing dancing friend, and presenting this to the editor as a possible story.

The reporter was great, coming and dancing all night and trying to write an accurate, positive story, at which she generally succeeded despite vigorous editing. We were reminded of the fact that one does not control the story, since the Times chose to publicize one of our events which was for experienced dancers only, and didn’t provide clear address information about our two locations (though the online edition mentioned our website).

The photo from the Times. By Michael L. Brown.

The upshot is, as always, unclear. The new contra dance in Brooklyn which was also mentioned got 90 dancers for their first dance, although we don’t know how many responded to the story. Our next two regular dances and the experienced dance got perhaps fewer new dancers than at a typical dance. But the dance last night [Dec. 11] got a lot of new people, some of whom mentioned the story or came to us after initiation at the Brooklyn dance, an offshoot of our story. So, generally positive for sure. And we are hopeful of finding other media outlets through our highly motivated professional volunteer.”

That was in December. I saw David more recently and he confirmed that it’s difficult to know how the Times article has affected attendance, a question that’s always hard to examine. (He did note that the Brooklyn dance has continued to do very well, though they’ve also been doing a great job of promotion in all kinds of ways. That’s the stuff of another post.)

Perseverance and luck paid off for getting a mention in the Times, though it’s a useful reminder that newspapers have the final cut of a story, as much as you can try to guide a story. (Fortunately, I don’t see a lot of hit pieces directed towards traditional music and song.) Once again, too, it’s interesting to see how mainstream media portrays traditional dance and music.

Have any thoughts on getting traditional music and dance into the media spotlight? Or wish merely to pontificate on the impending death of print journalism? All comments welcome.

– Max

Bugs Bunny and the Power of Calling

A few observations on a less-than-serious topic for everyone across North America who is covered by snow.

Bugs anticipates the men-in-skirts movement.

Some may be familiar with the 1950 Warner Brothers short Hillbilly Hare, wherein Bugs Bunny lifts up the fiddle and calls a complicated square dance.

Watch it on YouTube. (Sorry there’s no embeddable version.)

At first glance, this sequence might cause us to ponder the representation of rural Southern culture in mainstream media or examine the ways that (and extent to which) violence is used as a tool for comedy. But after close examination we are, most of all, forced to ask, “Is Bugs Bunny the greatest square dance caller ever?”

In this sequence, his patter calls are impressive to say the least. I’ll admit, most of these moves fall outside what I’ve seen documented in traditional calls, let alone Modern Western lists. Not only do they contain great variety but they are adaptive to their environment, be that brook, pig pen, or hay baler. It’s not clear how experienced our dancers (Curt and Pumpkinhead Martin, I am told) are, but certainly Bugs has their trust. They follow his calls remarkably. Lest they get discouraged, Bugs incorporates gentle encouragement into his calls, “Step right up, you’re doin’ fine, / I’ll pull your beard, you pull mine.”

We can see Bugs has a traditional musical sense, unplugging the band and giving an acoustic solo fiddle performance — albeit with full orchestra providing the boom-chucks. Somewhat less traditionally, Bugs deserves credit for anticipating the men-in-skirts movement at dances way ahead of his time.

Luckily for us, at sixty years old, this classic is not merely archival but part of a living tradition. And will continue to be into the next generation.

— Max

Meetup.com: A Resource to Consider?

Is this a useful resource for dance and song organizers?

Over the last few months, I’ve heard from a few groups about their experiences using the online social network Meetup to attract new participants. I’ve even seen its effect at a local dance. This got me wanting to find out a little more about Meetup and how dance and song organizers have been using it. I don’t have enough anecdotal information to really know how useful Meetup can be for dance and song groups, but let me share what I do know.

What It Is

Meetup, whose slogan is “Use the Internet to get off the Internet”, has been around for a decade now. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a social networking tool meant to facilitate face-to-face meetings. The organization’s mission statement speaks to a lot of the values I hear traditional dancers and singers express: “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”

How this sentiment works in practice on their site is that organizers create groups (and pay dues of between $12-$19/mo) and those groups have members and events.

Meetup isn’t the only site out there doing this sort of thing, of course. BigTent seems to be another resource, although this doesn’t seem to have a lot of folky representation at the moment. And there’s plenty of overlap with what you might already be doing with Facebook. Indeed, Meetup also connects with Facebook with an app. (I should note that it’s a time of transition for Meetup, which just underwent a major facelift a few days ago that not everyone likes.)

Who Is Using It and How

Meetup contra dance groups and interested members across the globe.

There are a number of Meetup groups out there done by the organizers themselves. Contra dance and square dance both generate some hits across the country. English Country Dance doesn’t seem to have a lot of representation, with the notable exception of the Las Vegas Country Dance group. There is a little morris out there as well. “Folk song” and “folk music” generate lots of hits of various stripes.

Meetup sites can contain a lot of information, as with this Chicago Sacred Harp page. Reading the quotes from participants is also quite fun. (It’s the sort of thing that would be nice on any website, really.)

Looking through these can give you a sense of how organizers might use Meetup.  There’s another way Meetup can impact communities, too: a broader Meetup group can decide to go to a dance as one of their activities.

This can happen when one of the organizers of a group that finds fun, unusual things to do decides contra dancing sounds interesting. I experienced this type of Meetup effect at a dance recently, when this contra dance was sponsored by the Nerd Fun – Boston, a group with almost 3,000 participants. Lo and behold, a group of a dozen or so descended on the dance.

Is It Worth It?

A little effort and money can give you a Meetup site, but is it worth it? I don’t know.

While $12/month isn’t a huge investment, it’s not a drop in the bucket either; it’s only going to be worth it if you see results. If you have several groups with close missions (e.g. contra and English or pub sings and a morris team), I could see combining forces to share the burden.

So, have you used Meetup or something like it to promote a song or dance event and/or find new participants? How? Did it work? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it and I am sure others would as well.

– Max