Kitchen Junkets and Contra Dance
March 3, 2013 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Kitchen Junkets in New England homes were a wintertime venue for live music and contra dance - a social dance form that's never really faded from the region's popular culture. Often credited with keeping the form alive, scholar/musician Ralph Page celebrated the kitchen junket and other contra traditions from 1949-1984 in his hand-printed magazine Northern Junket, available indexed and fully digitized via the University of New Hampshire.

Ralph Page's name is known today primarily because, in his memory, UNH hosts an annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend - a well-attended contradance gathering.

Page was also a founder of the New England Folk Festival Association, familiarly known as NEFFA, which still hosts a popular early spring folk festival of music and dance. Ralph also wrote the book on contra dance...five of them, actually.

Chris Page (apparently no relation) created a handy index of favorite/notable Northern Junket features.

Chris Page's contra dance site contains some great links to other resources.

A pretty comprehensive pile of links is available at If this interests you, there goes your Sunday! I apologize in advance for the many dead links you're likely to encounter. The grassroots/volunteer nature of the contradance community tends to mean that things come and go, but there's always someone keeping their corner of it alive.

Dance manuals from the Library of Congress. Contra grew up alongside of (and had some pretty complex interactions with) formal European-style dance traditions taught by dancing-masters in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early American dance manuals often combine a bit from both traditions.
posted by Miko (15 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Back a few years ago, I spent a couple of long weekends at a campground in New England somewhere attending a wintertime contra dance camp. Several dozen adults coming together for live music and great calling and workshops and food and talent shows and many dances...

It was a glorious, joyous time. It was made even more interesting because it was "gender-free" dancing. Instead of there being a male or a female role, all the dances were called for either "armbands" or "barearms", which were noted by wearing an armband or not. Anyone could dance either role, and switch between dances at will.

Anyway great fun. Oh, and look, you can find out more about the Lavender Country and Folk Dancers, if you want to know more about gender-free dancing.
posted by hippybear at 10:57 AM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

"This was an opportunity for neighbors to get together and share the most recent gossip or commiserate about the weather."

And, oh, don't New Englanders always "commiserate about the weather!"
posted by ericb at 11:09 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

ah, I miss contra dancing. It's interesting how it changes regionally too -- I've only danced in Philadelphia (which I think follows the New England mould), but apparently dancing in the south is rather different, as are the Chicago and West Coast scenes.

I have my arguments with some aspects of the contra scene, but it's warm and inviting and loving, and unbelievably queer-friendly/gender-free as hippybear points out. It attracts a truly interesting range of humanity too, as far as I can tell.
posted by kalimac at 11:23 AM on March 3, 2013

I have some arguments too - revivalist obsession with purism, haven for the occasional creepy dude, - but on the whole every dance I've been to has been fun, it provides paid gigs for fiddlers and other reprobates and outcasts, it's super intergenerational, and it's pretty nice to do something that's an unbroken tradition for over 200 years.
posted by Miko at 11:25 AM on March 3, 2013

VERY nicely done sir. Huzzah! Slightly related.
posted by timsteil at 11:38 AM on March 3, 2013

Gypsy in a Jeep.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:39 AM on March 3, 2013

Yep, loved your "Breaking Up Christmas" post, timsteil. Some musicians I know do a jam called "Breaking Up Christmas" on 12th night.
posted by Miko at 11:45 AM on March 3, 2013

I moved to UNH for graduate school and had never heard of contra dancing before that, now I try to attend as many dances as possible. The Ralph Page one is particularly great. I feel that I am usually the youngest person there (I'm a woman in my late 20s) and that can sometimes have a creepy factor.
posted by source.decay at 11:59 AM on March 3, 2013

I feel that I am usually the youngest person there (I'm a woman in my late 20s) and that can sometimes have a creepy factor.

There are contra dances that attract a younger crowd, or at least a bigger mix of ages. I'm surprised the ones around UNH do not. In some of the dances in the greater Boston area it's not uncommon for half the crowd to be 30 or under.
posted by mr vino at 12:30 PM on March 3, 2013

The one in Exeter NH has had a fair number of young people every time I've gone (a few).
posted by Miko at 1:31 PM on March 3, 2013

Oh God I miss contra. Used to go down the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo (DC/VA). That place would just jump. And then if you got too hot, you'd step outside and the place would be surrounded by fireflies. Just magical.
posted by newdaddy at 5:49 PM on March 3, 2013

Issues of Northern Junket are also available as downloadable PDFs in UNH's Digital Collections.
posted by Agitpropnik at 5:23 AM on March 4, 2013

Speaking of NEFFA, are any MeFites going next month? I'd start an IRL topic but I'll be there helping out Mrs. usonian at her booth, and we'll have limited mobility.
posted by usonian at 5:55 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

MeMail sent, usonian! I posted some links to current blogs and other resources in an Ask question by d. z. wang (who I recently had the pleasure of dancing with!). The Laufmans still hold kitchen junkets in south-central NH (here is a dance in 1964).
posted by nonane at 6:58 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, those New England contra dancers are so prissy! sez he who dances in the South and participated joyfully in "sleaze contra" a number of years ago. :-)
posted by Oh_Bobloblaw at 9:11 AM on March 4, 2013

« Older Make someone's day with your own pony mashup   |   Nothing but Microsoft Paint (no tablets, no touch... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments