Each saturday night, all across new england, in town and grange halls and church basements, people are dancing. There is nothing official about these dances. They simply happen, a series of independent and very local affairs. Each is unique and is supported by a different community.
Nowadays, most yankee communities prefer a program of all singing squares, in which the dance directions are sung like lyrics to the melody of a popular tune, unlike the contra or quadrille, where the dancers are reminded of the next figure a measure or two ahead, in the singing square the directions are given at the moment when the figure is to be danced. This makes it difficult to dance the figure in time with the appropriate music. Regular dancers solve this problem by memorizing the calls (in fact, many dancers sing along with the caller). Newcomers, however, have to stumble through behind the beat until they learn the dance.
Interestingly, the "newcomers" - the city people who have moved in large numbers into the small towns and villages now only a short commute from the cities - have adopted as their favorite dance the traditional new england contra dance. And they've chosen it because, unlike the square, in a contra it's virtually impossible not to dance with every other couple in the hall. A contra dance is a great way for a group of relative strangers to gain a sense of community.
At the center of all traditional dancing in the northeast is the fiddler, without whom there is no dance. Only the flute, and earlier, the fife, has ever challenged the fiddle's dominance. Since the earliest days, the roles of fiddler and caller have been intertwined. In some cases, certain dances were done only to specific tunes and the fiddler, in choosing the tune, also chose the dance. But many fiddlers developed independent reputations as callers. Often the fiddler would just announce the dance and briefly review the figures before beginning to play.
Although each of the major traditional northeastern communities (yankee, french canadian, scottish, and maritime) has developed and maintained its own vigorous and distinctive fiddle styles, all share characteristics that distinguish them from other major fiddle regions of north america. Among these characteristics are: unison (one rarely hears harmony or countermelodies ), distinct articulation, and absence of variation. Additionally, there is a high degree of musical literacy. Many fiddlers learn much of their repertoire from printed sources, and tunes in the "flat keys" are not uncommon.
All of these fiddle styles, all of these traditional dances, are still alive all over new england. Indeed they thrive at the saturday night dances. New england musicians and dancers presented their traditions daily and in evening concerts at the 1981 festival, inviting audience enjoyment and participation.