Walter Lenk Oral History Project

The New England contradance renaissance of the late 1970s and early 1980s Oral History Project
by Walter Lenk

I started this project in the summer of 2013. I was inspired by being involved in a mid Cambridge neighborhood oral history project about a decade before – the collected stories were fascinating, and I learned so much about the neighborhood that I had been living in for the past 30 years or so. I had also been reflecting on the amazing changes that happened in the Boston dance scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and wanted to start collecting stories from people about this before they faded from memory. I was particularly affected when friend and dancer Ernie Spence died in 2011. Ernie had been an active dancer ever since starting to dance with Duke Miller back in the early 1950s, and his store of memories of times and people were amazing. I wish that I had a chance to capture some of them.

I put up a page on my website to talk about the project and to explain what I thought some of the changes were and what a timeline was for these events. I started getting in touch with people and inviting them to come and talk to me and referring them to my website for some more information about what the project was and to get them thinking about those times. My intention was that these interviews would then be sent up to the library at the University of New Hampshire in Durham for use by future research projects.

Over the next several years I had interviews (they were really conversations) with 18 different people (callers, musicians, and dancers), and at the end David Millstone came down from New Hampshire to interview me so as to get some idea who was the person that was talking to all these folks. At the end of the project, all the recordings were sent to Chrissy Fowler in Maine to be transcribed – a process that was financially underwritten by the CDS Boston Centre. These transcriptions were then sent to the interviewees for checking.

My thanks to all those who came to chat with me about the old days for the record. And a special thanks to David Millstone who was invaluable in providing advice and information, and occasionally prodding me to get on with the project. I also greatly appreciate the work of Chrissy Fowler who did the transcriptions. 

Walter Lenk

From his website:

When I started going to dances in the Boston area in the Summer of 1978, the local square and contra dance scene was undergoing a wild growing phase. The big weekly Tuesday night dance run by the CDS Boston center had outgrown the YWCA in Cambridge, and had just recently moved to the Brimmer and May school gym in Chestnut Hill. Tony Parkes and Donna Hinds had recently started up the Monday night “Yankee Ingenuity” dance at the Concord Scout House, and Tod Whittemore had just started his Thursday night dance at the Cambridge YWCA (this dance then moved to the VFW in West Cambridge within a few years). Over the next few years, many things changed as these two private dances became the most popular dances in town, eclipsing the CDS Tuesday night dance. The music that was played for these dances evolved rapidly, new dances were written in an evolving style that would become known as “modern urban contra” dances, and the younger crowd increased at these dances. It seems that this was the start of a revitalization of an old tradition that had been going on for several hundred years, and this revitalization helped to launch this tradition out of New England into the entire country.

Some of the things that I think changed over this time (pdf)

A rough timeline of this period to jog your memory (pdf)


(We will be releasing one per week.)

Here is the list of the people who I have talked with, and a short bit about who they are:

Tod Whittemore – A favorite dance caller and the founder of the
Thursday night dance back in the late 1970s. (interviewed May 5, 2013) [AUDIO , TEXT ]

Joyce Desmarais Isen – played hammered dulcimer and percussion
with Yankee Ingenuity back in the day. (interviewed June 6, 2013)

Tony Parkes – A favorite dance caller and a founder of Yankee
Ingenuity and the Monday night dance. (interviewed April 12, 2014)

Jim Bollman – A dancer and musician and an owner of the Music
Emporium in Cambridge and now in Lexington. (interviewed April 29, 2014)

Vince O’Donnell – A fiddle player. (interviewed May 14, 2014)

Dan Pearl – A dance caller and the producer of the Thursday night
dance series. (interviewed May 17, 2014)

Carol Bittenson – A fiddle player. (interviewed May 20, 2014)

Sue and Bruce Rosen – A dance caller and a musician. (interviewed July 10, 2014)

Mary Lea – A fiddle player with Yankee ingenuity. (interviewed July 16, 2014)

Dudley Laufman – A dance caller and musician from New Hampshire
who started a lot of other musicians on their way. (interviewed July 28, 2014)

Jack O’Connor – A dance musician who is currently running the
Monday night dance series. (interviewed August 12, 2014)

David Stoppelman – A dancer and a musician. (interviewed August 24, 2014)

Robin Kynoch – A dancer and a musician. (interviewed August 29, 2014)

Daniel Watt – A caller who was part of the group that started Roaring
Jelly back in the 1970s. (interviewed September 4, 2014)

Ruth Rappaport – A dance musician. (interviewed September 29, 2014)

Cammy Kaynor – A dance caller and musician who was originally
from western Mass but now lives in the Boston area. (interviewed November 22, 2014)

Kate (Peter) Barnes – A dance musician and the piano player with
Yankee Ingenuity. (interviewed April 13, 2016)

Walter Lenk (interviewed by David Millstone, July 27, 2016)

Donna Hebert – A fiddle player, who with Tony Parkes founded
Yankee Ingenuity and started the Monday dance series. (interviewed October 9, 2016)