Cracking Chestnuts: The Journey
In March 2004, a group of 22 callers met in Syracuse, NY, for a day of dance and discussion about classic contra dances. This workshop inspired the “Cracking Chestnuts” column in the CDSS News (2004-2007), authored by Syracuse caller David Smukler, with occasional history-related columns by David Millstone.
In 2008, CDSS published Cracking Chestnuts: The Living Tradition of Classic American Contra Dances, a book based on the News series, describing 17 dances in detail, and arguing for an inclusive approach to contra dancing, one which embraces the newer and older dances alike.
Meanwhile, David Millstone has been collecting video of chestnuts for years (see SDHP), and he and David Smukler agreed that video of the 17 dances in the book, plus the 20 in its appendix, would be a valuable learning tool for callers, and an important historical collection.
On March 2nd, 2013, the Syracuse Country Dancers held another Callers’ Gathering focused on chestnuts, and used the occasion to collect footage of additional dances. After months of editing, videos of all 37 dances (including multiple versions of some dances) in the Cracking Chestnuts book are presented below. The book, Cracking Chestnuts, is available from the CDSS Store.
David Smukler, David Millstone, Lynn Nichols, Micah Smukler, Pat MacPherson, Mary Wesley, Nils Fredland, CDSS, and the Syracuse Country Dancers all had a hand in creating this video project. Various videographers were also involved, as well as many callers and musicians who care enough to keep the chestnuts thriving. And, of course, we appreciate all the dancers who appear in these videos, happily dancing “chestnuts,” the classic contra dances of New England!
~ Pat MacPherson, Editor, CDSS
So Why Are They Called Chestnuts?
David Millstone, co-author of Cracking Chestnuts, did some research.
Webster’s New World Dictionary (1970) defines ‘chestnut’ as something old and familiar, as in a very familiar story, piece of music, etc. that is too often repeated. David Smukler, author of Cracking Chestnuts opined, correctly, that the term was somehow connected to the seminal albums of New England Chestnuts by Rodney and Randy Miller.
Rodney Miller wrote, “I have a letter from Joan Pelton dated Jan. 9, 1980… Here is a part of it.”
Dear Roddy and Randy,
I have spoken with Randy at length about a proposed record of New England “chestnuts” (meaning the dances that are still danced in N.E. that have become traditional. Whatever traditional means).
Aha! Joan Pelton founded Alcazar Records in 1977. Their first release was Yankee Ingenuity’s Kitchen Junket. Alcazar’s third and fourth releases were the two volumes of New England Chestnuts. In the 1970s Joan was playing for dances, which is where she met Randy Miller. Randy commented, “She’d lean over while a dance was being taught and she’d say, ‘Boy, that’s an old chestnut!’ in that inimitable style she had.”
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in CDSS News, #169, November/December 2002. To read the entire article, click here.
Cracking Chestnuts Videos
The book Cracking Chestnuts includes seventeen dances described in detail, as well as an appendix with twenty more dances.
Click the name of a dance to see both a video clip and dance directions that are synchronized to the video. Information provided below each video includes: where and when the video was created, caller, musicians, tune, and (sometimes) additional notes.