Traditional New England Barn Dances

Dudley Laufman & Jacqueline Laufman

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Laufman is lord of the (country) dance

By Catherine Foster, Globe Staff, 4/12/2002

CANTERBURY, N.H.- In a small gray cottage at the end of a lane in this tiny town, Dudley Laufman is calling a dance. With a dozen or so musicians - playing fiddle, banjo, guitar - sitting on the sides of a small ''ballroom,'' and about 20 people lined up in rows, Laufman calls out instructions:

''Ladies, make a circle. When I say `Paul Jones,' ladies turn around and polka with the man behind you.'' He adds, gruffly, ''If you don't know how to polka, it's time you learned.''

They learn. There's something about the way he calls that helps even the neophytes pick up the steps quickly. Maybe it's the underlying sense of welcome; maybe it's that the steps are simple. But teaching people dances that have been done here for 350 years - and playing the music to accompany those dances - has been Laufman's life for more than half a century. This passion has taken him around the country and won him national recognition. But right now, it's the fifth Saturday of the month, so he's at home, calling another of his ''kitchen junkets'' in a room he and his partner, Jacqueline Laufman (who has taken his name), built for that very purpose.

Laufman, 71, described as the Johnny Appleseed of country dancing, is credited with bringing traditional New England dancing to a wider audience. On Sunday, Laufman will come to Club Passim in Harvard Square for a rare dance and concert. With him will be the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, making its first appearance at the club in more than 30 years.

Ever since the first settlers came, people have danced. The gentry brought English and French country and court dances with them; common folk brought simple reels. Jigs and reels, accompanied by a fiddle, were done in log cabins on dirt floors, in kitchens and meeting houses. The dances provided a social outlet for people living hard lives on isolated farms. In town, people danced in taverns and private ballrooms.

While this type of dancing gradually died out elsewhere in the United States, it remained vital in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. David Millstone, a teacher living in Lebanon, N.H., made a film about the rise of contra dancing - a form of country dancing - called ''Paid to Eat Ice Cream.'' He says the late caller Ralph Page is credited with bringing these old-time dances to Boston in the '40s and keeping the traditions alive for the next 20 to 30 years.

Meanwhile, in the '40s, Laufman was living in Arlington and spent summers in Fremont, N.H., where he worked on the nearby Mistwold farm. On Sunday evenings, the farm's owners, Jonathan Quimby and his wife, Betty, would move the furniture out of the way for a dance. Quimby played the fiddle, other neighbors played piano, and Betty called out the Virginia reel from a book. All the neighbors would come and dance.

''It was a combination of the wood smoke, the firelight gleaming off the girls' hair, the rosin-y sound of the fiddles,'' recalls Laufman, sitting on the stone threshold of his house and enjoying the spring sun. ''That's how I got hooked. It was a social, romantic thing for me. These parties that we have here now - and all the dances I do - are an attempt to relive that vision.''

Laufman went to an agricultural high school in Walpole that had square dances every Monday night. He started calling at 17 or 18 as a way to meet girls. He kept calling through agricultural college, where he got halfway through a program to become a dairy farmer before losing interest.

In 1959, Laufman bought the 2-acre parcel where he now lives ''for $15 an acre,'' he says with a grin. In this rough-hewn house, he raised a family. Early in life, he knew he wanted to be his own boss, so over the years he did odd jobs while trying to make a living as a musician and a poet.

And he called dances. He was decades younger than other callers and, by all accounts, charismatic. Other dances mainly featured squares, but Laufman was interested in contredanses - folk dances in which couples face each other in two lines. (The name change to contra dances had nothing to do with the Nicaraguan rebels.) He attracted a younger crowd. ''I'd let dancers do it their own way, let them dance barefoot, shout, fart, whistle,'' he says. Flocks of hippies followed him around, drawn by word-of-mouth to the latest ''Dudley dance,'' as did the musicians he encouraged to play with him.

Millstone, who used to go to those dances in South Strafford, Vt., in the '70s, says: ''Throughout the '70s and '80s, virtually every dancer I knew either learned from Dudley or learned from a caller who had learned from Dudley. In the same way that Page popularized contra dances for a previous generation, Dudley was the individual most responsible for the resurgence of contra dance in those years.''

Bob McQuillen, the dean of contra dance musicians (and the subject of ''Paid to Eat Ice Cream''), remembers Laufman's influence. ''He brought in music we hadn't played,'' he says. ''He was scouting around for new tunes, and they were swell. And he also called dances that hadn't been done. He did new ones written by himself and others.''

Sarah Bauhan, who lives near Portsmouth, N.H., grew up playing onstage with Laufman. ''Dudley came to the little school I was going to and taught us to dance when I was 10. He gave me my first [penny] whistle to play. I started playing at 12, and I haven't looked back.''

Preserving tradition

Laufman and his merry band of musicians got invited to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. They needed a name, so someone came up with the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, even though Laufman was the only member from that town.

''We took about a dozen musicians and dancers and talked about the jig, the reel, and the hornpipe,'' recalls Laufman. ''We were there with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Donovan. What a time that was!'' Soon they were invited to play at Club 47, the earlier incarnation of Club Passim. In 1972, the orchestra put out the first LP ever of traditional New England dance music.

''It was a very exciting time for music,'' recalls Laufman. ''We attracted large crowds, sometimes 300 people. The young people brought a freshness to it. It was something that had almost died out. But I couldn't have done it without older dancers' knowledge.''

Many of the old-timers were put off by newcomers who were noisy, unwashed, and didn't pay attention to the calls. The hard-core dancers formed their own dances. And the gas shortages in the '70s prevented people from driving long distances, so new callers and new dances sprang up.

But all fads evolve. The smaller rural dances struggle to keep going, while the urban dances pack them in. The nearly 20-year-old Thursday night contra dance at the Cambridge VFW Hall on Huron Avenue often draws more than 200 dancers of all ages.

''The dancers today, most of them are the offspring of that particular crew that was dancing back in the '70s,'' says Laufman. ''Their children are no longer back-to-the-land, they're computer programmers and high-tech people. They've taken over the contra dances and made it into a high-tech kind of thing.'' Dancers today, he thinks, want more complicated, technical dances.

But Laufman is no longer part of that scene. ''I got left behind, but not out,'' he says philosophically, waving off a sluggish wasp. The popularity had taken him ''totally by surprise. I had no thought of groupies, recordings, concerts. I just wanted to play for dances. It was a wave, and I rode it. It was a way of making money. I'm glad it's over now.''

These days, he's more interested in passing along the old traditions. Since 1986, he and Jacqueline, as Two Fiddles, have made their living calling traditional New England dances like the Virginia reel, Portland Fancy, and Paul Jones - dances that beginners can get quickly - at weddings, camps, elder hostels, and private parties. They've also taught thousands of children in school residencies how to do-si-do, alamande left, and promenade.

They're passing along their skills to apprentices and students. They've published books and CDs of traditional dances and fiddle music, and the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra last fall re-released its 1972 album on CD.

Their efforts to keep the old traditions alive have been recognized: They were selected to represent traditional dancing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 1999 in Washington, D.C. And Laufman won the 2001 New Hampshire Governor's Arts Award for Folk Heritage.

Seeing beauty

On Easter Sunday, Laufman called a dance at the Hutchinson Sugar House in Canterbury. As the last sap of the season boiled in a long tank in another room, about a dozen dancers stepped forward to learn some old-time dances that their Colonial ancestors would have done in spots just like this one.

Even 50 years later, the music and the dancing still move him. And for a fiercely independent New Hampshire guy, he expresses quite frankly why they do. ''The rise and fall of the notes can bring tears to my eyes. There's the physical part of the dance, I look at the whole thing. I see women dance, and this dancing brings out their beauty. Then there's the social aspects. Even with the little kids in schools, the element of romance is still there. I try to keep it that way.''

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.