Who We Are & What We Do
WHO — We are a community of recreational dancers, singers and musicians, teachers, callers and dance historians who enjoy dancing, playing and singing traditional dance, music and song with roots in English and North American culture.
WHAT — We support these traditional arts with participatory programs, resources, services and funding, serving as a hub of information within the field.
WHY — We believe in the joy and enrichment that participatory dance, music and song bring to individuals and communities, and we are committed to their vitality and sustainability.
WHERE — Our community is in the US, Canada and overseas. Our office is in western MA, camp programs are in eastern MA, NH and WV, and regional conferences and meetings vary in location.
What are our traditions?
The Social Dance Traditions
“Turning, moving, spinning, dresses swirling, music beating, eyes in contact with a partner, then another, then another, then another, and the fiddle turns a corner, the phrase repeats, the dance repeats. You smile. Your body smiles. Everywhere.” — Doug Plummer, in his introduction to his contra and square dance photographs.
Contras and English country dances (ECD) are done by couples, with partners across from each other in long lines (longways sets). Each couple dances a round of the dance with another couple, then moves up or down the set to dance with the next couple, and then another, repeating the figures many times, until the dance is done. Then new couples and lines are formed, and the next dance begins. The dance is “walked through” before beginning each new dance, and figures are called or cued by a caller until the dancers have the pattern.
In square dances, four couples arrange themselves in a square set, with each couple forming one side of the square. Circle dances consist of everyone beside or across from a partner, all moving in the same direction with their partner or in two different directions to a new partner. Other set dances are done in smaller sets of three, four or five couples. Like contras and ECD, squares and circles are led by a caller.
Figures and footwork are simple and easily learned — for example: allemande, cast off, do-si-do (back to back), hey, ladies chain, star right and left, sashay, promenade, reel (weaving), swing your own, turn your partner, up a double. A comfortable walking step is the most common for the dances, but there are skipping, slipping, hopping, waltz, clog and polka-like steps as well. All can be done by beginners, and done well with practice. Knowing where to go may be disorienting at first, but the caller and those in your set will guide you.
Dress is casual, although some people like to dress up for balls and special events. No special classes are required, but some groups have sessions before a dance to help beginners with the basics. You do not have to come with a partner since it’s common in many communities to switch partners for each dance.
The Music Traditions
Traditionally, depending on which form you’re dancing, you may hear fiddle, bass, piano, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, hammered dulcimer, banjo, concertina, guitar, washboard, or bodhran — contra dancing especially has a strong Anglo-Celtic and French-Canadian element in parts of the country, a more old time sound in other parts — but these days you may also hear clarinet, tuba, oboe or sax, hip-hop or techno music. Most dances in our community are done to live music, although recorded music may be used.
“If I’m ever in a coma, somebody announce “Hands four’ and start shuffling your feet. If that doesn’t bring a smile to my face or get my toes tapping, then you know I’m beyond hope.”— Greg Rohde, in The Commonspace
Based primarily in the English and Anglo-American traditions — folk songs, ballads, sea shanties, rounds, songs with choruses — we also enjoy spirituals, work songs, country harmony, African call and response, shape note and gospel, contemporary a cappella, and new arrangements of traditional songs. Our emphasis is on community singing. We also have a strong interest in early music, for its own sake and for how it enriches the experience of dancing English country dances of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Cotswold morris, longsword, rapper sword, Northwest, Border, stepdance (clog) and garland dancing are part of a long tradition of display (or ritual) dance and music in England and, since the early 20th century, North America, and they are performance-oriented.
Characteristics of Cotswold morris are energetic dancing and jumping to music (pipe and tabor, fiddle, concertina, for example), accompanied by coordinated movement of the arms and hands, often with hankies, stick clashing or clapping. In most cases, bell pads are strapped to the legs, enhancing the festive sound. Dances may be performed by one, two or three dancers, or more usually are danced in a set consisting of six dancers in two lines, with carefully choreographed figures similar to English country dance figures, but executed more vigorously. North West morris is danced in wooden clogs, with a more precise stepping than Cotswold, but with similar figures, carrying garlands, twizzlers or short sticks, and danced to a brass band. Border morris is a simpler, vigorous style, often done with blackened faces, danced to music which may include melodeons, fiddle, concertina, triangle and tambourines, tuba, sousaphone, flute or oboe.
English sword dance is a team performance, with the dancers linking and unlinking their swords several times throughout a dance, highlighted by the “lock”— intertwined swords passed over the dancers’ heads. Longsword is generally done by six to eight dancers with long rigid metal or wooden swords. Rapper sword, generally done by five dancers, is performed with swords made of flexible sprung steel, giving the dancers a tighter formation and quicker movements. Music for sword dance may include concertina, fiddle or pipe and tabor.
Step dance, or clogging, characterized by dancers’ hard-soled shoes producing musical, rhythmic and audible footwork, can be found in many countries. Our specialty is English and American clog, and it goes by several names, such as buck dancing, buck and wing, clog dance, flatfooting and jigging. It is performed solo or with a group, and with a choreographed routine or done freestyle.
More information about our traditions can be found in our Advice and How-to Kits section.