People & Places

Brattleboro marks 40 years of dancing until dawn

dancing
The Brattleboro Dawn Dance, pictured in a past year, will celebrate its 40th anniversary this Labor Day weekend. Provided photo
BRATTLEBORO — On a holiday weekend known for workers putting their feet up, why would anyone step onto a dance floor at dusk the Sunday before Labor Day and strut, stomp and shimmy until 7 the next morning?

“Tradition,” participant Cedar Stanistreet says.

Back in 1976, contra dancers at the local barn-turned-Chelsea House Folklore Center watched as one of their own tripped and fell on a problematic wooden plank.

“We have to do something about this floor,” patron Michael McKernan recalls saying.

And so dancers organized an unusual fundraiser: a marathon set of jigs and reels from sundown to first light.

The Chelsea House — a red Route 9 barn next to West Brattleboro’s Chelsea Royal Diner — would close five years later. But what became the Brattleboro Dawn Dance, held annually ever since the first one, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend.

People who arrive at downtown’s Gibson-Aiken Center shortly before the event’s 8 p.m. start will be greeted by volunteers wearing “shoe police” vests and wielding brooms and brushes.

“We don’t want people tracking in dirt,” one explains kindly but firmly.

Several hundred participants then will tread lightly onto an indoor basketball court to follow the direction of a trio of callers and backup bands for the next 11 hours.

“The sweet flow of the last waltz notwithstanding,” The New York Times wrote in a 1982 story on the event, “these New England folk dances are not for the weak of heart, the limp or the weary.”

dance
Long lines of dancers participate in the Brattleboro Dawn Dance in a past year. Provided photo

To online to www.dawndance.org’s “survival guide” and you’ll learn to bring water, protein-rich snacks and plenty of extra clothes.

“You’ll definitely want to change your outfit one or more times during the night,” it says, “and your dance partners will thank you if you do.”

Participants also are encouraged to sleep beforehand and pack bandages for blisters and anti-inflammatory pain relievers for soreness and swelling.

According to a dawn dance history by McKernan, such late-night programs can be traced back to the days John Quincy Adams wrote about in his 1787 diary: “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.”

Two centuries later, Brattleboro is one of the few places to still sashay from dusk to dawn. The nearly dozen members of the volunteer organizing committee say tradition is just one reason they continue.

“The idea of being able to dance all night,” Hal Kuhns says, “is wicked fun.”

Wicked challenging, too. Caller Bob Isaacs, who travels all the way from New Jersey, notes that “the crowd gets younger and younger as the night goes on.”

“Someone who is here at 3 o’clock,” Kuhns adds, “will probably be here at 7.”

That’s when the weary remaining dancers hold each other up for one last waltz.

Admission is $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors, with more information available at the event’s website.

“There’s one other dawn dance I know in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but you don’t get this opportunity very often,” Isaacs says. “I travel all over the country, and this is unusual.”

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  • John Malcolm

    40 years go by fast. I remember leaving the dances early to get home to milk cows. Another fine dawn dance was at Mirror Lake in Calais VT where we danced upstairs in a nice hall, hopped in the lake in the morning and finished a grand time with breakfast downstairs.

    • Karl Riemer

      That was a heck of a good one, especially inasmuch as the lake was right there all night, no need to wait for morning to cool off in it, but the Grange loft was too small and unbearably hot. That worked because only half of the crowd could dance at a time, and most could only dance half the time without suffering heat stroke. But G-A in Brattleboro is a beautiful hall, with room for bored youngsters and exhausted oldsters alike to sleep, plenty of nooks to change clothes or canoodle, high ceilings and a solid floor. Also, it’s worth noting, admission pays many dance bands, which means fresh, varied, full-on music all night, and an encouraging hand for live musicians.