The following article originally appeared in the second issue of Contra & Square Dance History, a short-lived quarterly journal that Michael McKernan published. It is reprinted here with his permission. Also see the Appendix, a database of dawn dances reported in the Brattleboro Reformer.
A look at late-night dancing in the Brattleboro, VT
area from the 1920s to the 1960s
by Michael McKernan
© Michael McKernan 1995
Nearly twenty years ago, Peter Stolley1 and I watched in shock and some horror as a woman tripped, and fell flat on her face on the rough barn floor of the Chelsea House Folklore Center in West Brattleboro, Vermont. Fortunately, she wasn't badly hurt. But Peter and I looked at each other and said "We have to do something about this floor."
I trace the beginnings of the now well-known "Brattleboro Dawn Dances" to that incident back in 1976. What we ended up doing involved the efforts of a large number of other people, many of whom had been thinking about the problem of how to improve the dance floor. The Chelsea House was the scene of weekly dances that were growing in popularity. Dancers from Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut and even farther afield were converging on West Brattleboro each Sunday night, and filling the small red barn with merriment, along with the inevitable stumbles and tumbles caused by the wide cracks, splinters, protruding nail-heads and multiple "levels" of the Chelsea House floor.
Spurred on by the fear of an impending catastrophe (if a serious injury should occur, as Peter and I had momentarily thought had been the case), a group of callers, musicians and dancers approached Chelsea House director Carol Levin about holding a benefit dance to raise money to replace the floor. We didn't know how much cash would be needed, but it was clearly more than a normal dance event would bring in.
David Woodsfellow and I, as well as other members of our band Applejack, had heard from "old-timers" about events known as "dawn dances" which had been held at a rural dance hall called Benson's Barn, in Saxtons River, VT, near our homes. We had even tried our hands at renting Benson's Barn for a few dances (the old dances there had died out some years before). But we didn't know much more about those "dawn dances" than that "they danced all night, until it was time to go home and milk the cows."2
Armed with that small nugget of historical 'fact,' we hit upon the idea that we could hold a special "dawn dance" to raise money for a new floor at the Chelsea House. Well, we asked around, and there were a number of callers and musicians willing to help out, even with a wild idea like dancing all night. But we had no idea if any of the dancers we knew would want to, let alone be able to dance that long, or long enough to make the event a success. We also had no idea just how to design or schedule such a production. After a minimum of careful thought and planning (at least that's how it seems to me in retrospect), we decided to start at the regular time of 8:00 p.m., and just keep going until the sun came up or the event died a natural death, whichever came sooner. Since it was a benefit, and "bigger" than a regular dance (our Sunday night dances went from 8:00 - 11:00 p.m., I think), we felt we could ask dancers to contribute $4.00, which was just double the normal $2.00 admission.
So the first "Brattleboro Dawn Dance" of the current series was scheduled for Labor Day weekend, where the Monday holiday would give us a chance to catch up on sleep after dancing all night on Sunday and into Monday morning. We closed our eyes, held our breath, and took a chance on that dance.
To our delight and amazement, more than two hundred people attended that dance. Such a crowd was far more than the Chelsea House, which was only about forty by thirty feet, could accommodate at any one moment. We were used to crowding-in three contra lines in that tiny space, but this was an absolutely overflowing crowd, which had to dance in shifts, with many patrons cooling off outside at most times. (At subsequent Dawn Dances still held at the Chelsea House in the early days, we actually tried scheduling simultaneous dancing to a separate caller and band outside the barn).
I suppose that we ended that first dance sometime between six and seven a.m. I don't remember exactly. But we had been dancing for about ten hours, and we felt that something special had taken place. When the dust had pretty much settled, we could see the sun rising through the window behind the little stage, while we counted off more than sixty dancers still on their feet for the last waltz!
Financially, the benefit was quite successful, even though it did not raise enough money to completely pay for a new floor. The rest was made up by the Chelsea House, some volunteer labor, and the work of Rich Blazej (who had a contracting business then) and his crew. Because of difficulties with materials and scheduling, the new floor was not perfect, but it was a vast improvement over the old one, and we were able to put aside our fears of serious injuries, lawsuits, etc.
Fred Breunig celebrated the new floor with his dance, "The New Floor's Revenge," which never fails to provoke in me fond memories of the Chelsea House dances. The Chelsea House Folklore Center closed its doors in 1981, after providing a generation of dancers with a loving home for a number of years. The weekly dances, however, continued in a different Brattleboro location for several more years, and the Dawn Dances are still held several times a year. My personal involvement with the Brattleboro Dawn Dances ended some five years ago.
This story of the Brattleboro Dawn Dances since 1976 is only a prelude (or "afterward," perhaps?) to the story I really want to tell, which is (some of) the actual history of "dawn dances" and other late-night dance events in the Brattleboro area. After the revived Dawn Dances were well underway, I decided to research these events, and the following is what I found.
• • •
There is evidence of late-night social dancing in America, going back at least as far as the 18th century. John Quincy Adams noted such events in his diary in 1787: "...At about seven o'clock we met at the dancing hall, and from that time till between three and four in the morning we were continually dancing."3 Numerous other references to after-midnight dancing can be found over the next two hundred years. In 1855, Rhodolph Hall, a New Hampshire musician (who was then playing in a quadrille band in Boston) wrote to his sister:
We have been engaged 5 nights per week since some time in Nov. most of which have been out of town and hard working engagements, or what we call "all nighters" The past week 5 nights, 4 of which did not excuse us until 5 o'clock next morning.4
Hall's phrase "excuse us" is perhaps an indication that these events were not planned in advance to continue to a particularly late hour, but may have lasted as long as the dancers wanted to keep going and could persuade (and pay) the musicians to play. In an earlier (1844) letter to his brother D.C. Hall (also a musician) Rhodolph noted that "Our regular price is 1.$ an hour. But we are not any more regular in it than you and I were last winter in our 50¢ an hour. But that is our calculating price."5 During my own career as a performer, there were a number of occasions when I and/or my band were asked to continue past a scheduled ending time, usually for additional compensation.
At a later date, just across the river from the Brattleboro area, a New Hampshire newspaper included the following discussion of the pros and cons of late-night dances.
1883/05/10 Walpole [NH]: Another grievance - our town hall is too old, hallowed, by too many pleasant associations to be disgraced by such a dance as came off in it one night last week. It was advertised for the hours between nine o'clock p.m. and two o'clock a.m.; nobody seemed to know anything about it; but the posters announced that "Huntoon's Band" would be present, tickets 50 cts. If the attendants had confined their racket with in the walls of the hall, the disgrace had not been so deep, but when in the street, night was made hideous by yelling, howling, and abortive attempts at singing. Some one said they were not intoxicated, only a little full; if such singing is a specimen of their capacity for - song - we earnestly recommend them to attend a cat concert and improve their style. Town officers are custodians of the town's property, and we hazard an opinion that there is not another town hall in the state that could be hired for a dance from 9 till 2 in the morning.
1883/05/23 Hinsdale [NH]: In your last issue your Walpole correspondent "hazards the opinion that there is not another town hall in the state that can be hired for a dance from nine o'clock till two in the morning." Let him come down here and he can see the best town hall in the state used for dances under church auspices and they don't even think of closing before four a.m. either. And it's all right, too! And it pays. And as to howling, yelling and similar recreation we can beat Walpole all hollow - in fact we do not admit that Hinsdale can be beaten in anything.
1883/05/30 Chesterfield [NH]: We don't boast of the best town hall in the state, but G.A.R. or any other responsible party can hire it for dancing, "till broad daylight," if they so desire; but howling and yelling would need to be imported, as local talent doesn't furnish that kind of music.6
Obviously, there is plenty of precedent for late night dancing in this part of New England, and it seems likely that it was prevalent in other parts of the country as well, even if some communities found it unacceptable at times. Many of the references to late-night dances used a particular phrase (often printed in quotation, as in the following example): "Bridgewater [VT] About sixty persons of both sexes met at the house of A. Eaton on the 9th and skipped the light fantastic toe till the 'wee sma' hours.' "7 In my research, this wording has appeared more often than listing of actual ending times. When such actual times are given, however, they are rarely later than 2:00 a.m., with most occurring between midnight and that time.
The "Dawn Dance" phenomenon, however, appears to have been something different than the late-night dancing described above. Dawn dance-type events, (which had a number of different names), had several things in common, which set them off from the late-night dances of the 18th and 19th centuries. After a number of years of looking into just what was special about dawn dances, I believe I can now make an attempt at defining this form.
My research into Dawn Dances in the Brattleboro area has produced data on nearly one hundred such events during the period from 1926-1964. The Brattleboro Reformer, a small-town Vermont daily newspaper, chronicled these dances, mostly in paid advertisements. Rather than footnote every reference to this body of data, I have included a complete charting of it as an Appendix to this article.8 These dances took place in the tri-state area of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts within about a twenty-mile radius of Brattleboro. Other work that I have done outside of this small region has convinced me that the after-midnight dance phenomenon was not restricted to the Brattleboro area, although the term "dawn dance" may have been a somewhat local usage (say, in the northern Connecticut River valley). I do not have enough data to generally characterize such events outside the Brattleboro area, so I cannot offer meaningful comparisons with the body of data I have on the local dances, except in the case of a small area of coastal Maine. But there is a possibility that conclusions drawn from my data could be extended to a wider geographical area.
The particular characteristics of late-night dances of the "dawn dance" type around Brattleboro include:
- They were holiday events. More specifically, they were clearly associated with just three, warm-weather holidays: Independence Day, Labor Day, and to a much lesser extent, Memorial Day.
- They were most often held on the evening before (the "eve" of, or more precisely, the early morning of), the actual holiday.
- They began later than normal dances (most often, at or just after midnight) and typically ended at 4:00 am, resulting most often in a dance of normal length (about four hours), rather than an unusually long event.
- They were often held in dance pavilions which may not have been constructed (or suitable) for winter use.
I have not located any evidence of events with this particular set of characteristics in the Brattleboro area before the 1920s. However, if it were the case that dawn dance-type events for some reason came into existence at about that time, I cannot yet say exactly why that development took place. Even so, there are a number of things I can relate from the data I've accumulated so far, which may make a start at answering such a question.
The earliest names for these events included the word "midnight" in the title. This may be an indication that the original concept of this genre of dance event was that it began at (or minutes after) midnight. The 9/4/1926 "Midnight Frolic" was advertised as the "Biggest midnight attraction for miles around."9 The specificity of "12:05 am" or "12:01 am" may be due to an initial need to avoid "blue laws" restricting Sunday activities. Some of these dances, however, began well before midnight. It is worth noting that when the starting time was significantly earlier than midnight, the ending time was most often earlier as well, preserving the typical length at about four hours.
The term "Dawn Dance" does not appear to have been used in the Brattleboro area until 1935, when a dance in Turners Falls, MA was advertised with that title. A few events were "All Night" dances, but the great majority of post-1935 late-night dances were called "Dawn Dance." The following is a complete listing of all the event titles which I located (1926-1964)
|# of Events||Title of Events|
|1||All Night Dawn Dance|
|1||Midnight Dawn Dance|
|1||Midnight Frolic & Dance|
|1||Nite B4 the 4th Dance|
|6||All Night Dance|
Sixty late-night dances were connected with the Fourth of July. Slightly less than half as many (twenty-nine) were Labor Day events. Memorial Day ran a distant third in popularity, with only three such dances showing up in the newspaper.
Only a few of these events took place in Brattleboro itself, even though two of the earliest were held in that community.10 One reason for this is probably that Brattleboro's Island Park Dance Pavilion, advertised as the "Best Dancing Pavilion in Central New England. Best Music Within 60 Miles" with "300 Balcony Seats for Spectators" and "Free Parking for 1000 Cars,"11 was damaged and put out of business by the floods of 1927 and 1928.12 More than half of the dawn dance events I found were held in just two locations or communities: Ware's Grove, a bathing beach and dance pavilion on Lake Spofford, (Chesterfield), New Hampshire; and Dover (mostly Dover Common), Vermont.
|# of Events||Location|
|1||Turners Falls MA|
|2||Guilford Ctr VT|
|4||West Brattleboro VT|
|5||Saxtons River VT|
|23||Lake Spofford (Chesterfield) NH|
|92||Total, 17 different communities|
Lake Spofford has been used as a recreation area for many years, and is situated about mid-way between Brattleboro, VT and Keene, NH, convenient to both communities.13 With swimming facilities right outside the dance pavilion, Ware's Grove, the site of the Lake Spofford dances, would be an obvious choice for summertime dancing. It also featured other forms of recreation, including roller skating, which was advertised there on a regular basis.14 It seems likely that Ware's Grove and perhaps many other locations for dawn dances, were not winterized, and could only be used in warm weather. Some of these dance pavilions may have even lacked walls. A few locations may have even been "open air" or under a tent, I suppose. The evidence I have seen indicates a clear, (perhaps even exclusive) connection between the dawn dance phenomenon and warm weather.
There are some data available on late-night dances in Maine which appear to have been contemporary and similar to those held in the Brattleboro area. In a privately-published book memorializing his father, a fiddler and dance band leader, E. Burnell Overlock wrote:
At a Night Before the Fourth dance in 1936 Overlock's music played at Light's Pavilion in Washington from nine to midnight, packed up their musical instruments, and traveled to Liberty Inn to play from 12:30 to 4 A.M. An equally large and enthusiastic crowd was waiting and loudly cheered when the orchestra drove into the parking area.15
Mr. Overlock describes the Liberty Inn as "a popular summer dance pavilion...located near the shore of lake St. George in Liberty... strictly a summer dance pavilion and consequently usually closed for the season in September."16
I wrote to Mr. Overlock for more information on late-night dancing in Maine, and here is what he had to say:
I never heard of dawn dances called as such but I can remember reading in dance ads that it would say that there would be dancing until dawn. However, not too much emphasis would be put on dawn. More an All-Night Dance. Our all-night dances were always the Night before the Fourth. We would take two jobs and at 12 stop abruptly put up my drums - and start for the next job. Sometimes the distance would be about 10-15 miles but we perhaps hurried a little and the crowd would be waiting for us. We didn't lose anytime setting up and beginning the dance with a good lively fox-trot.17
My research has not produced any evidence that the practice of playing for two different dances, in different locations, before and after midnight, was common with other bands, or in other areas. Mr. Overlock wrote to me that "we never played all night at one dance hall but would move to another hall an midnight. Never played for two dances except on the night before the 4th."18 Later in the same letter, however, he remembered that "I think it was at the Umbrella where we did play for an all-night dance. This is a hall outside of Belfast and at twelve o'clock everyone would leave the hall like at intermission and pay again to come in for the second part of the evening's entertainment."19 This leave-then-pay-again format has not appeared elsewhere in the data I have seen.
The "night before the Fourth" format, however, was common to both Brattleboro and the part of Maine where Overlock's Orchestra played. Overlock's book lists describes several of these as large-scale events. At the Umbrella Dance Hall, (another water-side pavilion), in 1944 "on July 3 an all-night dance was held with the orchestra of five pieces paid $50.00 for the evening's work." The following year, "709 tickets were sold at the Night Before the Fourth Dance."20
Overlock also characterized the typical ending time of a regular dance event:
I can not recall that any other holiday where we played later than 12 but years back we played until one o'clock and years before my day dances might have lasted until about two. It was not unusual if the crowd was lively and enjoying themselves that the manager or someone else would ask father if they would play another hour. He was always accommodating and if the orchestra was four pieces father would say we will do it for $4.00, a dollar per person. After an hour's playing the crowd would thin and were ready to all go home after the extra hour.21
The similarities between these Maine all-night dances and those held in the Brattleboro area seem greater than the differences. Further research in Maine might provide evidence of Labor Day all-night events, even though Overlock did not remember them being held on that holiday. It would also be interesting to see if any of the Maine events shared the 12:01 or 12:05 a.m., just-after-midnight starting time which seems to indicate that there was some specific reason not to dance before midnight. In the case of the Brattleboro area dances, these just-after times appear to be associated with Sunday night, before Monday holiday dances, which may indicate a legal or customary prohibition on Sunday dances. There would not be such a problem on the eve of July Fourth (unless the 7/3 should happen to fall on a Sunday). In fact, when Sunday fell on either 7/3 or 7/4, the Brattleboro-area dances were sometimes switched to a Friday or Monday, before, after, or on July 4th itself, thus avoiding dancing on Sunday. (See Appendix).
There were, as can be seen in the Appendix, a number of dawn dance events in the Brattleboro area which started before midnight, with some as early as 9:00 p.m. These before-midnight dances were almost all non-Sunday, "night before the Fourth" dances. There were, however, at least a few events which might have been Sunday, before-midnight dances, with starting times listed as 11:30 or even 11:00 p.m. In the case of one of the 11:00 p.m. starts (in 1960), the facility was advertised as "open 11 p.m.," which may indicate that patrons were welcome to arrive early, while the dancing might not begin until later.
It may be that some (but probably not many) dawn dance-type events did not include square or contra dances. Some of the advertisements listed bands which might have performed only "modern" dance music. Andy Canedy's band was advertised in at least four different ways in 1937:
- "Round and Square Dances" 7/5/1937 Dawn Dance, Dover, VT
- "The only Ballroom in Windham County where you will find Andy Canedy playing all modern dance music" 7/3/1937 [not a dawn dance] W. Dummerston, VT
- "Andy Canedy and His Orchestra" 9/6/1937 Dawn Dance, Dover, VT
- "With Andy Canedy's Swing Band" 9/4/1937 [not a dawn dance] W. Dummerston, VT
Note that in these listings, the dances clearly identified as "modern" or "swing" were not dawn dances, and that one of the Dover dawn dances was "round and square." In all the dawn dance-type listings I have seen (see Appendix), there was no dance which was clearly identified as "modern" or "swing." Many, however, were identified as "round and square." This was the typical phrase used to publicize what was generally referred to as a "square dance" when I started attending local Town- or Grange-Hall dances in southeastern Vermont in 1972. It was also the way that the Benson's Barn dawn dances (which, as mentioned above, were the first ones I ever heard about) were described. I located a notice of the "Grand Opening Dawn Dance" at Benson's Barn, 7/3/1949, which featured "George Capron and his Orch. Ted Glabach, Prompter." Clearly, this was what we would think of as a square dance.
The 9/4/1926 Midnight Frolic at Island Park, however, presented "Mason-Dixon Americas Wonder Orchestra, Twelve Youthful Artists." It is hard to say whether they would have included squares or contras. And on 7/3/1936, the "All Night Dance" in Keene, NH "With a Battle of Music Between Johnny Semonian's Orchestra and Frank Nardini's Society Orchestra" seems to have been outside of the typical square dance billing. On Memorial Day in 1938, the Dummerston Center, VT "Big Dawn Dance" featured "Harry Hart, Jr., and His Virginians, That Popular Colored Band. See Harry Hart on the Floor in His Dance Specialty." On that same night (or morning, to be precise), dancers could choose to go instead to Dover, VT, where our old friend "Andy Canedy and his Orchestra" were holding forth with "Round and Square Dances."
From the newspaper data, it is not possible to draw a more definitive conclusion concerning the style of dancing at dawn dance-type events other than to say that many of them certainly included square dances. It may be possible to collect more information on this question through oral history interviews with dancers. The few such interviews which I have conducted informally (such as talking to the Bensons back in the 1970s) consistently characterized the dawn dances as "square dances." The time frame of this study of dawn dance-type events covers a period when the local square dance events appear to have been in competition with other social dance forms. The evident demise of dawn dances in the 1960s came just a few years before the disappearance of other square dance events in the Brattleboro area in the 1970s.22 This phenomenon may be similar to what has happened in other areas, perhaps at different times, although local public square dances (outside of the "contra dance" and "modern square dance" events) certainly still persist here and there. There are still occasional "round and square" type events in the Brattleboro area, sometimes with callers such as Ted Glabach, who called at dawn dances in the 1940s.
It may well be that "dawn dances" or after-midnight events like them were held in many parts of the country. This study only describes the Brattleboro area in detail. As the small amount of data from Maine indicate, there may be much information waiting to be uncovered elsewhere. I hope to collect such data myself at some point, and I encourage readers to take a look as well. You may find some very interesting things by looking in local newspapers, for a start. It certainly would be worthwhile to have an idea of the overall area in which such events, and the term "dawn dance," were prevalent, and over what time period. Such a survey could be compared with state and local "blue laws" to see if there was a correlation between legal restrictions on Sunday activities and the Labor Day eve dances.
There is also much to be learned about the fate of square (and contra) dancing during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Successive "modern" dances or dance forms like the Charleston, "swing," etc., offered a more "with-it" type of dancing to the public, while contras & squares were several generations out of fashion. Yet for various reasons, some rural communities maintained enough interest in "round and square" dances to continue programming them, with or without the aid of the various "revivals."
As a closing, let me mention the "Big Mid-Night DANCE at the Esquimo, Dublin, N.H. Sunday Nite 12:01 to 4 A.M." on September 1, 1940. This "Round and Square" dance featured Richardson's Orchestra, with "Uncle Eb, Prompter," and "Guest-Prompter 'Hooker' Ralph Page." (Ralph never mentioned to me that he had called at any events like this!) "Richardson - Page -Uncle Eb - and The Esquimo - The best Square Dance Combination possible." "DANCE - EAT - DRINK - BE MERRY at The Esquimo Lodge." 23 Dublin is about twenty miles east of Keene, NH, far enough outside of the Brattleboro, VT area to not have its dances listed in the Brattleboro papers. Other than the lack of the term "dawn dance," this event appears to have been very similar to the Brattleboro area after-midnight dances. Since Ralph Page's name never appeared in connection with these events, even though he did call at other events in the Brattleboro area, 24 I suspect that dawn dance-type events may have been somewhat different from his idea of a good calling job.
There are now (or have been in recent years) dawn dance-type events in many parts of the country. Some of these appear to have been patterened on the dawn dances we "revived" in Brattleboro. Some even use the name "dawn dance". For a time, people from as far away as the West Coast called me to ask advice about how to organize all-night dances. As you have seen, our efforts in Brattleboro resulted in something rather different from the concept we were trying to duplicate. But the result does seem to have been appealing to a number of dancers. Our experiemtns has little claim to originality of concept, but it has clearly been given the compliment of imitation.
I am sure that there are a number of other late-night dancing stories waiting to be told.
© Michael McKernan 1995