Contras in the COVID Era
The Lesson of “Becket Reel” and the Triplet Project
By Penn Fix
In 1958, Herbie Gaudreau composed a contra dance that would languish in the shadows of both the contra dance and modern square dance worlds as no more than a novelty dance for more than 25 years. Nearly 25 years later “Becket Reel” would become the foundation of many modern contra dance compositions. Ten years after the introduction of this dance, Ted Sannella wrote his first triplet contra dance. And like “Becket Reel,” his triplets have been overlooked and passed by until perhaps now. In the COVID era, there are opportunities for novelty dances like the triplets to serve important roles in our current contra dance world.
Herbie Gaudreau lived in Holbrook, MA, most of his adult life. He began dancing squares in 1950. By the time he wrote “Becket Reel” eight years later, he had learned to call contras from Charlie Baldwin as well as from his good friend Ralph Page. While he remained in the modern square dance world, he always included one or two contras in his programs. He began composing contra dances because he wanted them to be more appealing to his square dance audience. Besides adding modern square dance figures to his contras, he worked to eliminate active and inactive roles so that no one was left standing and instead everyone was “busy.” When Gaudreau wrote “Becket Reel” in 1958, the contra dance world relied mostly on traditional dances featuring proper formations or newly composed improper dances where the active couple remained the focus and the inactives often just assisted. Within this context, Gaudreau’s altering of the traditional contra formation made total sense. “Becket Reel” began in what is now known as Becket formation, with couples facing couples across the set instead of partners facing opposite one another in the contra line. Clearly in this formation, there were no active or inactive couples.
Gaudreau named this dance after Camp Becket, a camp outside of the town of Becket in Western Massachusetts. For many years, he was on staff as the contra dance caller for the New England Square and Round Dance Camp sponsored by the Boston chapter of the YMCA. Interestingly enough, Gaudreau appears to have never written another contra using Becket formation. In 1971, Gaudreau published “Becket Reel” and several other compositions in Modern Contra Dances. After that, callers like Jack Perron used “Becket Reel” as a novelty dance. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that this “maverick” dance—as Larry Jennings called it—would reemerge to meet the changing needs of the contra dance world.
In 1983, Larry Jennings published Zesty Contras, a massive enterprise that included a selection of 500 contra and other dance formations from multiple composers. “Becket Reel” was included in the contra dance chapter, along with just two other Becket formation dances, including Walter Cole’s “Don’t Forget Us.” Twenty years later, Larry published a follow up book called Give and Take. In the contra dance chapter, there were 116 Becket formation dances, representing 20% of the contras. This dramatic change reflected the similar changes occurring in the contra dance world. Contra dancing increased significantly in popularity, with crowded dance halls across the country. In urban areas like Boston and Washington D.C., contra dances often included hundreds of participants. Herbie Gaudreau’s reasons to write “Becket Reel” were now even more evident: no one had the patience to dance traditional proper and even improper asymmetrical dances when there were 30 or 40 couples in a single line. Subsequently, composers during this period wrote dances that were symmetrical, where everyone was doing the same figures at the same time. Everyone got to swing their partner, not just the active couples. In these new compositions, distinction between actives and inactives had disappeared. As Gaudreau noted in 1971, everyone wanted to be “busy.” Within this environment, the formation found in “Becket Reel” provided an unique opportunity for modern composers. Almost all compositions using the Becket formation include a partner swing, usually at the end of the dance. It was a composer’s dream! Today the Becket formation is a foundational pillar of contra dances.
“Becket Reel” served the changing needs of the contra dance community. And in this era of COVID, a little used formation—the triplet—may do the same.
In 1968, Ted Sannella wrote three dances inspired by a three couple English country dance called “Fandango.” He called them triplets. Like Herbie Gaudreau, Ted used figures familiar to contra dancers. He explained that these new dances appeared to be mini contra dances in which the same three couples would dance together. Rather than using inactives and actives, Ted referred to the couples by their three positions. By playing through the dance three times, each couple would dance in each of the three positions. While Ted started all of his triplets in proper formation, several of his dances actually began with the first couple crossed over.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, young people were drawn to contras. Ted had successfully transitioned from the square dance world of Herbie Gaudreau and was very active in this new contra dance world. Like Gaudreau, Ted saw a need for a new formation. He wanted dancers to have more movement. In triplets, couples would not have to wait in a long contra line before becoming active. Instead, they had to wait just two times through the dance. Larry Jennings added that triplets encouraged camaraderie, because Ted encouraged everyone in their triplet to introduce themselves before the dance started.
Over the course of his life Ted published 41 triplets, all of them numbered instead of titled. He often included one or two in an evening program. Because they did not have memorable titles, very few dancers recognized any of the triplets, but a tradition began in which everyone would give a rowdy applause after Ted would announce the dance: “This is ‘Ted’s Triplet #7,’” he would announce, and the dance hall would explode, though no one knew what the dance actually was! By the way, ‘Triplet #7’ was Ted’s “personal favorite.” A video demonstration of it can be found at the Dance Video Archive.
When Ted published his first book of dances, Balance and Swing, in 1982, he had composed 31 triplets. In the next ten years, Ted wrote only 10 more triplets. During this pivotal time period, composers abandoned proper dances and even asymmetrical improper dances. They instead wrote dances that were symmetrical in which everyone swung their partner at the same time. The need for a triplet had evaporated, just as “Becket Reel” became more relevant.
Now more than 50 years later, I think we have a new place for triplets! The COVID crisis has kept us from dancing in our favorite halls. However, the pandemic is offering spaces to dance in new ways. Dancers might find themselves in informal spaces where a dance can occur. Pods of dancers might arise consisting of friends and or relatives who are confident they are COVID-free. As vaccinations reach more and more of our communities, more opportunities for smaller gatherings will occur. Old spaces can become new opportunities.
In his 1937 The Country Dance Book, the dean of contemporary contra dancing, Ralph Page, described the kitchen junket, an informal dance that took place in people’s homes as early as the 1800s. These “heel-burners” were “as casual and individual as the affairs themselves. In the largest room, often the kitchen, furniture was cleared out; the fiddler/prompter found a place literally in the sink; and, the participants danced squares, reels, and couple dances furiously into the early morning hours.”
Such spaces may once again be the scene for contra dances. And the triplet might be the cornerstone of this change. Rather than turning to the dances of those earlier junkets—squares and reels—modern-day contra dancers would more likely want to dance contras. And those mini-contras—triplets—fit perfectly in smaller settings because they require just six people. If musicians and callers are not available, then recorded and/or streamed music can be used, and dancers can prompt themselves.
What remains is for composers to update the triplets. Currently, nearly 300 triplets have been written, but like Herbie Gaudreau, composers need to accommodate today’s dancers by creating triplets that include contemporary figures, such as heys, circle balances, circle left 3⁄4, and multiple swings, as well as making couples #2 and #3 are more actively involved. Triplets have their own challenges, especially in terms of the progression of the couples. But this challenge encourages creativity. Let’s start a new initiative called the Triplet Project (note the appropriate acronym!) and send your new triplets to relevant listing services like The Caller’s Box.
Then let’s be ready to dance!
Penn Fix is a long-time contra dance caller, composer, and leader in Spokane, WA.
Thanks to David Millstone for fact-checking this article.
David Millstone writes: "I've enclosed a snippet of a contra dance called East Meets West that exemplifies his connection to the contra world as well as the modern square movement. Set to the tune of St. Anne's Reel, the first half of the dance and the second B part are classic contra dance figures, but B1 is a DoPaso, from modern square dancing. More live recordings of Herbie Gaudreau's calling can be found in a collection on the Internet Archive."
Triplet by Ted Sannella
Ted's Triplet #7
Written in 1970, Ted referred to this triplet as his favorite.
Proper for all three couples
|A1||Top two couples turn your own with allemande right, 1 1⁄2
The same four right and left through
|A2||Couple #1 turn contra corners|
|B1||Couple #1 balance and swing (finish facing up)|
|B2||Couple #1 come up the center, separate, go down outside to foot of the set
Everyone dosido your partner
Tip: After the allemande right, you often find yourselves with more time on your hands. To allow the music to “catch up,” finish with right and left with a courtesy turn that goes 1 1⁄2 times around instead of just 1⁄2.
Triplet by Penn Fix
Our Maine Man
Dedicated to Ted Sannella, who retired to Maine after living most of his life in the Boston area.
Top couple crossed over
|A1||Dosido your neighbor (couples #1 and #2)
With right hand balance the same neighbor and box the gnat
Circle left 3⁄4 and pass through
|B1||Circle balance and turn right 1⁄4 (couples #1 and #3)
Circle balance and turn right 1⁄4
|B2||All three couples balance and swing your partners|
Notes: Couples #1 and #2 dance a half chain followed by a circle left. Partners will pass through together ending with couple #2 at the top of the set and couple #1 in the middle of the set facing couple #3. Couple #1 then takes hands in a circle with Couple #3 and they balance followed by a Petronella turn to the right. Repeat this sequence again and Couple #1 is at the bottom of the set and Couple #3 is in the middle. After the swing, the new top two couples face one another up and down the set, with the new top couple facing the new Couple #2. Repeat this dance three times, and you should end up with the couples in their original positions.