They say they've been dancing in Nelson for 200 years. It feels completely true, regardless of the actual historical facts of the matter. If the heart and soul of traditional contra dance lives anywhere, it is in Nelson, New Hampshire.
This little town hall, in a flyspeck of a village on the top of a mountain, is the Mecca of contra dance that every good dancer needs to visit one in his or her lifetime. Do it in the winter, when the students and the summer people are gone. Go in on a deep, below-zero night, change out of your winter layers (though not all of them, the hall is still chilly), bang the snow off your boots. If you're early, Lisa will be concluding the musicians slow tunes class. The dancers will drift in, singly, a couple, a family (there are always kids at the dance). Someone puts out the fiddle case for the $2 admission. Whoever volunteered the previous week to make the brownies or cookies is laying them out on the table. Harvey shows up with his fiddle, sits on the fold-up chair on the stage. Bob sits at the piano. "Line up for a contra," barks Don, in a clipped, Yankee accent. "First dance is Moneymusk."
Anytime I'm in New England I try to stay over on a Monday and catch the Nelson dance. My first time was in 2003, and I felt like I had entered a slower paced, locavore mode of dancing. Eight years and a half dozen visits later, and it hasn't changed much.
In this main photo Don Primrose is calling. He tells me the dancers are Jaime Contois and Kirk Dale (if you're wondering, I tried to get hold of everyone who was going to appear prominently in a big photo to get their permission). The small photo in the middle shows Harvey Tolman holding his fiddle in his inimical way, and Bob McQuillen in the background on piano. These musicians are national treasures--click on the links to learn more.
Here is a video from Nelson that I made in 2008