The center of the scene

New England is contra dance country, and Brattleboro is where the action is

BRATTLEBORO — Fiddler Peter Siegel encourages you to join the fun at the Brattleboro Contra Dance at the Stone Church, at the corner of Main and Grove streets, just north of the post office.

“We honor our local participants as we showcase bands from around the country,” he says.

Meeting on the second (well, mostly) and fourth Sundays of each month at 7 p.m., Brattleboro Contra Dance, affiliated with the national Country Dance and Song Society (, recently organized as an educational nonprofit.

That's important, Siegel says, because many locals don't yet know what many musicians around the country do: that Brattleboro is a national epicenter of traditional fiddle music and dance.

“This region was where the back-to-the-landers got right back to the old ways back in the 1970s: by gathering at granges and dance halls for contras, a form of social dancing done in couples to music of the British Isles, Ireland, Quebec, and New England,” Siegel says.

Contra is a New England tradition going back hundreds of years, he adds. Contra refers to partnered folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines or a square. A variation from Great Britain is called English country dance; another from the American South is square dancing; up here it's sometimes described as New England folk dance.

As Siegel explains, the music in New England consists of live fiddle tunes from Ireland, England, and France, both new and traditional compositions, all the way through techno.

Siegel, who regularly calls and performs for contra groups in Brattleboro and Greenfield, Mass., says that he believes there's been a contra dance in Nelson, N.H., every week for nearly 200 years.

He adds that the popularity contras and squares enjoyed in New England faded in post-World War II America, but it's clearly swinging back to life.

The Brattleboro Dawn Dance (, he says, seems to have put the region back on the map for contra dancing. That's where, over Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends, hundreds of enthusiastic dancers from all over the country converge on Brattleboro to dance from dusk to dawn - accompanied by some of the form's finest musicians and callers.

But, Siegel says, that's not the only contra game in town. He points to the rise of contra dance groups in southern Vermont, northern Massachusetts, and western New Hampshire as especially encouraging.

And the music's in his blood. His website notes Siegel “contributes a radical chord to American Roots music. Influenced by the songwriting of Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, the chunking groove of a rugged old-time jam, the effortlessly precise playing of trad [sic] Northern tunes, and the gutsy blues of the Stones...”

Rise of Brattleboro Contra Dance

Six years ago, fiddler Ethan Hazzard-Watkins formed the Brattleboro Contra Dance, a twice-monthly dance party featuring live music, excellent calling, and a lively group of friendly dancers. The dance is now organized by a group of local volunteers including Siegel, Erich Kruger, and Bre Ginty, who say they intend to keep it aloft for years to come.

Although the dance features many nationally touring bands, “there is almost no need to book from afar,” Siegel says. He names Becky Tracy, Lissa Schneckenburger, Anna Patton, Keith Murphy, and Mary Lea as some of the folks who play around the world but live in Brattleboro.

And the venues are ideal here. “The Stone Church features a lovely wooden dance floor and excellent acoustics in a convenient location,” he says.

Other pluses to the local scene: Brattleboro Contra Dance welcomes musicians and dancers of all ages, and is friendly, attracting “families, singles, the young, the old, college kids, homeschoolers, and anyone with a sense of humor and a smile,” Siegel says.

Don't worry, newcomers. No experience is necessary.

“All dances are taught and called, and you don't need to come with a partner,” Siegel reassures, promising that “other friendly dancers will dance with you.”

Musicians hang out and play tunes together at a slow, informal jam session before every dance. At 5 p.m. there's always an open session. All instruments and skill levels are welcome and the fun runs until around 6:30.

“Bring your instrument,” Siegel says, and adds organizers can always use help bringing fliers around to other events and talking up the scene.

The evening starts with a workshop for beginners at 6:45 p.m., gives way to dancing at 7, and wraps at 10. Admission is $10, but students and seniors, and anyone on a low income, pay $7.

As for equipment, just bring a pair of clean, soft-soled, non-street shoes for dancing to help to protect the old wood floor and keep the hall clean. Dancers are asked to change their shoes in the front hall before entering the dance space.

Looking for Web leads to the local contra life? Follow Brattleboro Contra Dance on Facebook, hook in with rides to and from the dance via, and - for anyone wishing to plug into the scene from Greenfield, Amherst, Northampton, and other Massachusetts towns in the area - visit the Pioneer Valley Contra Dance group on Yahoo.

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