In 1979, Gordon Peery and Mary DesRosiers returned from a trip to Elkins, W.V. They had just attended the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop.
While there, they were surrounded by musicians and dancers from all over the country practicing and celebrating traditional music. In tandem, they danced to the calls of Sandy Bradley, an inspired caller, who was known to engage new dancers, pulling them out of themselves and on to the dance floor.
When they returned home to the Monadnock Region, the experience followed them. They unpacked their suitcases, but their desire to repeat the experience closer to home could not be tucked away in a drawer. Two years later, the Monadnock Folklore Society was born under the direction of Peery, DesRosiers, Ken Wilson, Jennifer Price and Gary Heald.
In their first organizational newsletter, published in November of 1981, Peery wrote, “Our goal in some ways is quite simple — more music and more dancing more often.”
The Monadnock Folklore Society continues this mission today in three ways: by promoting dances and concerts; supporting performing dance teams; and creating educational initiatives. The founders started dances in Harrisville, Greenfield and Peterborough, and in the 1990s took over the organization of the historic Nelson Monday Night Dance, a community contra dance that has been taking place for 200 years.
Just as Monadnock Folklore Society carries the art of traditional dance into the future, it also carries the
institution of the weekly Nelson dance. The Monday Night Dance serves as a good example of how a nonprofit like the society can support existing historical structures without seeking to change them.
Monadnock Folklore Society also hosts a monthly dance in Peterborough. This dance has struggled more with attendance, but the organization, endowment and longevity of the society allows the dance to keep going.
The popularity of contra waxes and wanes, and, although not widely acknowledged, the Nelson dance was even canceled for a few weeks one winter in the 1994, said Bruce Myrick, the current Monadnock Folklore Society director. The society organizes volunteers who set up amplification and chairs, make space for the dancers and musicians and open the doors.
And the doors are open to all.
“There are no restrictions. We accommodate everyone,” said Myrick.
This open call to dance is one of hope and opportunity. Myrick himself met his wife at the Nelson contra dance.
At first, Myrick, who came with his cousin, focused on the challenge of the new figures, but slowly he relaxed and was able to lift his eyes and look around. Five years after first coming to the dance, he passed in line a beautiful woman, Susan, who later became his wife.
There are no guarantees that a new dancer will have the same romantic success, but Myrick and Monadnock Folklore Society continue to provide live music, dance and the opportunity for connection.
The Monadnock Folklore Society also organizes and promotes a calendar of concerts showcasing regional and global traditional music. The concerts provide a way to support local performers and for the community to connect with musicians from around the country.
Its June 29 concert showcased local talent, the Solstice Sisters at the Nelson Town Hall. In a July offering, the society partnered with the Dublin and Walden Schools to offer a free jazz concert with Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses.
The society supports three dance teams with insurance and promotion. These teams perform around the region spreading the joy of dance and keeping a living culture alive.
Board member Val Van Meier, a Morris Dancer, says of dancing, “I think traditional dance music feeds my soul. Everybody should try contra dance — there is something about holding people’s hands and moving through the music, you become one.”
The persistence of any tradition relies on the passing of knowledge to the next generation, and Monadnock Folklore Society takes this part of its mission seriously. In 2002, Peterborough piano player Bob McQuillen started a scholarship program for young musicians.
What began as an annual allocation is now the quarterly Johnny Trombly Memorial Scholarship —Fiona Goodman, 2019’s first recipient, has been playing traditional and classical violin since age 7 and will use the scholarship to continue her studies with Keith Murphy and Becky Tracy.
The society also supports the Nelson Strings Program, supplying instruments and subsidized lessons for all Nelson Elementary School students starting in second grade. The program, small but mighty, is currently looking for a violin teacher.
When Monadnock Folklore Society became a nonprofit in 1982, one of its primary challenges was the dissemination of information. The local folk radio station had recently shut down.
How would people have access to traditional music? How would they know where to go to dance or hear live musicians?
The organization began with a newsletter, available with membership or for a $5 subscription. Today, communication with Monadnock Folklore Society is available for free on its website or through multiple social media channels.
But before the chatroom, before Facebook, there was dance — folk dance. Contra is networking before the network. Community dances are the chat rooms of yesteryear.
A lot has changed since 1982 in the ways that people gain access to information and communicate, but the need for human connection has not. It is organizations like the Monadnock Folklore Society that allow opportunities for this connection, the vibrations of the instruments under foot, hands reaching out to the next partner.