What happens when you put together a couple of people who love New England contra dances, a community of young people who are looking for ways to enjoy themselves, and a charming community hall nestled in the rural countryside of a vital community in Connecticut? In the words of David Bragdon, you have events that “put the energy level and excitement quotient into the stratosphere.” In 1974 David Bragdon arrived in Greenwich, CT, to teach math at the Brunswick School. He discovered a former teaching colleague from New Hampshire, Jenny Chapman, working at the nearby Daycroft School. Jenny and David had both been introduced to New England Contra Dancing, an American variant of English Country Dancing, by Dudley Laufman of New Hampshire, and they were excited about the possibility of coordinating dances in the Greenwich area.
At first they collaborated to “import” contra dancing from New Hampshire, using the facilities of Brunswick School and Daycroft. Early on, through Dudley Laufman, they met Marshall Barron, who brought her fiddle to the first few dances and put them in touch with Dick Forscher, a local dance caller of some renown. They discovered that Dick had been calling youth dances – both square dances and contras – at the Round Hill Community House, dances that were sponsored and promoted by Jessie Snyder, the Youth Group Coordinator of the Round Hill Community Church. Joining forces, this intrepid trio began planning monthly dances at the Community House with Jessie providing refreshments (always cider and apples from a local orchard) and David and Jenny making more contacts with local talent for the bands and callers. By the fall of 1975, the Community House was the scene of monthly contra dances, attended by anywhere from 120 to 180 people, the majority of them being high school students. David Bragdon interested his students through his classes at Brunswick, and they in turn began to bring their friends from Greenwich High and other area schools.
These high school students of the mid-‘70s not only became excellent contra dancers, they also performed in special dance groups and provided demonstration dances during intermission. Under the guidance of teacher Tony Poile, a group of Greenwich boys formed the Greenwich Guard Rapper Team which perfomed during the BiCentenniel Celebration in New York in 1976. Not to be left out, the girls began to learn Morris dances from Tony during practice sessions, forming a Morris team called the Burgundy Belles. Gail Beers and Amy Brewer, the two team members who were still in high school in the fall of 1977, started the Mianus River Morris Team with Tony Poile’s help that year, a team that continued to perform these ritual dances of the English countryside at many fairs and festivals in Connecticut until 2005. Former Greenwich Guard member Andreas Hayden went on to teach Rapper and Morris skills at Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Programs at Pinewoods and other camps are still sponsored by the Country Dance and Song Society each summer to keep alive the traditional dances of the past while sharing old and also very new dances with enthusiastic new generations of dancers.
One of the most significant connections that Marshall Barron made for David and Jenny was with the Ash Creek String Band, an eclectic group of folk musicians that had come together for the love of playing old time music. Marshall met with them for several rehearsals to go over “phrasing” and other special considerations of playing for contra dancing, and Ash Creek became the official Round Hill house band for the next several years. Live music was a must from the beginning of the Round Hill dances. “Fennig’s All Stars,” a band from the Albany area was an occasional guest band, and Jerry Jenkins and Joan Pelton also visited. Ralph Sweet from Hazzardville, CT, called a couple of dances with his band, Fifer’s Delight. Alistair Anderson, the great concertina player from England, once sat in with the Ash Creek band for a dance called by Dudley Laufman. When musicians and callers came from outside the Greenwich area, there were often associated dances and concerts held to fill out the week-end, such as Saturday afternoon dances at Yale University and Friday night concerts at the Salty Dog Coffeehouse in Westport.
When David Bragdon was getting ready to move to Massachusetts, about the time that Jenny Chapman and her new husband Brad Foster were leaving for California, they urged those who had become regular participants at the Round Hill Country Dances to form a committee to ensure that they would continue. In the autumn of 1977 a group came together, including David and Margot Heap (whose daughter Andrea had been part of the high school crowd and got them interested in the dances), Barbara Litchman, Elfrid Windsor, Colin Healy (a member of the Ash Creek String Band), and Tony Poile. The following spring, the Round Hill group became an official center of the national Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) with David Heap elected as president. Colin Healy took over the booking of the dance bands and callers for several years, and the Round Hill Country Dances were established.
For over 40 years, the Round Hill Country Dances have provided a tradition of community fun, a dance where all generations and people from all walks of life can join together for a joyful, vigorous and historic form of entertainment. As years have gone by, some of the dances themselves have acquired a more modern flavor with swing and even some techno influenced music, and new dances are always being written. It’s a living tradition.
Newcomers are always welcome and beginners mingle with experienced dancers each month. Longtime dancers remain active and involved with the dances, friends from the earlier years occasionally return for a dance, and several marriages have occurred among dancers over the years. In 2010 the dances moved to the Stone House in North Stamford after rental costs in Greenwich put the Community House out of reach. We moved again in January 2018 to downtown Stamford for a similar reason. Our new home is smaller, but also near I-95, Metro-North, and the vibrant downtown.
Round Hill Country Dances were traditionally held on the second Saturday of the month from September through July. An extra dance was held each year on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving, a tradition that began in the early years when the original group of high school students had graduated and wanted to meet their old friends for a dance during Thanksgiving break from college. The June dance often included a potluck picnic and occasionally a workshop. The dance changed to a slightly different format in 2017.
Round Hill Country Dances has thrived for 30+ years and continues today because of the enthusiastic dedication of volunteers, including officers, committee members, sound crew, refreshment crew, and helpers of all sorts, who have made the dances a success.
History compiled by Connie Rockman; updated by Carol Mazza.