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Preserving the spirit of the dance

Recalling the shy kid in the corner he used to be, New Hampshire musician, dance caller, and farmer Dudley Laufman has sought to keep the music welcoming. Recalling the shy kid in the corner he used to be, New Hampshire musician, dance caller, and farmer Dudley Laufman has sought to keep the music welcoming. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Scott Alarik
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2009

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Dudley Laufman has never strayed far from the moment he fell in love with the dance. The New Hampshire musician, dance caller, farmer, and poet is perhaps the most important figure in launching the contra dance revival of the 1970s, and he received this year’s National Heritage Fellowship, the country’s most prestigious traditional arts award. He appears at the Lowell Folk Festival this weekend with his band Two Fiddles, featuring his partner Jacqueline Laufman and legendary contra pianist Bob McQuillen.

When that first moment came, Laufman was just 14, an awkward, quiet, painfully shy boy who felt like a stranger everywhere he went. After a long day’s work at Mistwold farm in Fremont, N.H., he was invited into the farmhouse for an evening of social dancing.

“I was just getting used to girls,’’ Laufman, now 78, says from his farm in Canterbury, N.H., “so dancing with them was exciting enough. But it was the whole atmosphere, the woodsmoke, the sound of the fiddle, the firelight on the girls’ hair. It was a real community dance, and that spirit has stuck with me straight through.’’

More than the dancing, it was the welcoming spirit that drew him, the magical way an outstretched hand and a simple do-si-do can turn strangers into neighbors.

He became a dance caller in 1948 and found himself a rising star in a falling tradition. Young people just weren’t interested in the old dances. The low-water mark came in 1964, when he did a college dance and nobody came. “We went to see where everybody was,’’ he says, “and they were all watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.’’

In 1965, Laufman was booked at the Newport Folk Festival. It says a lot about his feel for the tradition that he insisted on bringing a dance troupe that included a few beginners, so it would look like a real dance and not a show. In the early ’70s, a new wave of young people moved to rural New England, part of the back-to-the-land movement emerging from the ’60s counterculture. Laufman had formed the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, wanting to create a richer, more exuberant sound.

But he also wanted the stage to be as welcoming a place as the dance floor, and invited anyone to sit in. Furry-headed, barefooted young people loved the freewheeling, neighborly vibe; and he welcomed them all, however they dressed - or danced.

At the same time, he stuck to the traditional New England dance repertoire, a hearty hybrid of Celtic jigs and reels, English melodies, and French-Canadian tunes, played in an austere, crisp, and unmistakably Yankee style.

The term “contra dance’’ can be confusing, because it’s used in two distinct, though overlapping ways. One is to describe a particular social dance, in which couples line up opposite - or contra to - one another. The other is to describe the broader tradition of New England social dances, also called barn or square dances.

These ’70s dances became known as contra dances, though contra was just one of many dances performed.

As the revival grew, many musicians and dancers wanted more complex dances and quicker tempos. Laufman resisted, always thinking about the shy kid in the corner, the stranger he used to be. Keep it simple, keep it welcoming.

“When I go to Dudley’s dances,’’ says Lynn Graton, traditional arts coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, “it’s remarkable to watch how he can take a group of people who don’t know each other and have never danced, from little kids to old people, and get them all on the floor, smiling at each other, so happy to be in each other’s company.’’

She sees those same neighborly, populist instincts in Laufman’s poetry. “I treasure his ability to look at everyday, blue-collar, Yankee rural life,’’ she says, “and find the moments of beauty and poignance. It’s very rare.’’

Laufman is asked what he’d like his legacy to be, and he’s stumped. Jacqueline reminds him he hasn’t talked about his “vision’’ yet. “Yuh, I guess that’s it,’’ Laufman says. “Well, the vision is Mistwold farm.’’

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