What are Chestnuts?
The term chestnut refers to something old and familiar. In the early 1980s the term was applied to some of the old — as in 100-200 years old — contra dances that were still being done in New England.
New England is, of course, the birth place of contra dancing.
For a short explanation of how the term became applied to certain dances, plus links to videos of several chestnuts and information about the book Cracking Chestnuts (highly recommended to anyone interested in these dances or contra dance history), see this page on CDSS.org.
The program for February 29 is a work in progress. Once completed, we'll post it here. Until then, please read the descriptions below.
Please note: this evening of dance is not for everyone!
While several of us feel that doing these old dances is a great way to spend an evening, please read the descriptions below and look at the program itself once it is posted before you decide to attend. If you tend to complain when a dance doesn't have everyone moving all the time or when a dance doesn't have at least a partner swing, this evening will not be your cup of tea.
Here are characteristics of the dances that will be on the program:
Most will be in proper formation
There are a few contra chestnuts in improper formation but expect most of the dances to be proper.
Starting in proper formation doesn't necessarily mean staying in proper formation. In some proper dances the very first move has the actives cross to their opposite-gender neighbors.
They will be very unequal
In many of the chestnuts, the actives do most of the dancing and are expected to show off. The calls are to the actives only unless otherwise specified. In some dances the actives never stop moving while the inactives hardly move at all.
The inactives are expected to dance their part and assist the actives without being told what to do, and when not moving have an important role to play by keeping the structure of the set. It's not as easy as you may think.
Dances that have everyone moving most or all of the time are recent inventions. Don't expect any of them on this program.
We'll do modern versions of most of the dances.
In this case “modern” is a relative term that refers to dances after 1870 or so!
There's a story that young dancers in North Carolina — a state known for hotshot, cutting-edge contra dancing — were thrilled to be introduced a few years ago to a new, cool, and challenging formation: triple minor!
All contras were originally triple minors, were proper, and had no swings as we know them (the term swing meant a hooked-elbow turn). In the middle and late 19th Century, some dances were converted to duple minors and ballroom-position swings were added. It's those “modern” versions that we'll do for most, but not all, of the program. Expect some dances to be triple minors and some dances to have no swings or swings for the actives only.
There's a possibility that one of the callers will take one dance and teach it two or three different ways to show how the dance has changed over time.
Follow this link to see one dance, Lamplighter's Hornpipe, evolve from the original triple minor to a version that might be danced today. (Note that Lamplighter's will not necessarily be on the February 29 program.)
They won't always flow smoothly from one move to the next
The concept of flow in contra dance is very new.
They might be more challenging than contemporary contras
This is especially true for beginners.
Some have their own tune
And some don't.
While I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. That is why I dance.
~ Hans Bos