CDSS News, Summer 2021

Didi the cat basks in colorful disco lightDidi the cat basks in disco light to techno contra music. Photo by Susan English.

Finding the Silver Lining

By Susan English

It was late March of 2020. I had the program fine-tuned and was trimming loose threads on my dress for our third annual Jane Austen Ball in Wooster, OH, which is somewhere between Columbus and Cleveland. The decision to cancel the Ball and all our spring dances was easy. What was difficult was imagining how to stay connected with local dancers, musicians, and friends.

Then CDSS tossed me a lifeline, and I grabbed on. They were offering a Web Chat on using Zoom for dance activities. I downloaded the free version of Zoom, took some free online training courses, and announced our first virtual Wooster Contra Dance.

But only a handful of our regular dancers came, and none of our local musicians. I tried again. I updated my blog and posted my weekly dance on the CDSS online events calendar. I downloaded my favorite dance CDs and opened them with Music Speed Changer, as I did for weddings and homeschool balls. The Zoom boxes on my computer screen started to fill.

I learned to use Mailchimp and Google Drive. I attended some sound tech workshops, purchased Loopback software and, for calling and dancing at the same time, a Bluetooth headset mic. I eventually moved my computer to the basement dance floor—roofing liner over carpet, the brainchild of a local green architect and dancer. I heard about a ChoreoChat group and joined the conversation.

Attendees told me they liked the variety. They introduced me to their favorite bands and dances, to Andrew Shaw reconstructions and techno contra. I picked up a $12 disco light at a party store that was going out of business and stopped at the humane society to pick out my first cat. I started doing wild things and having fun again.

Attending other online dances made up for the years I had missed while caretaking my dear husband. I started meeting callers and musicians who previously were only names to me. Calling at other virtual dances, from from Atlanta (GA) to Lake City (WA), introduced me to a wider audience and brought back the joy of working with live musicians.

Where does this leave me, as our world takes tentative steps toward reopening? Instead of an empty feeling inside, I am filled with joy and gratitude. I can honestly say I looked forward to every solitary Saturday night—just me, Didi the cat, and my online dance group. I have met wonderful people and broadened my sense of community. I have dusted off all my favorite dances, learned dozens of new ones, and am now choreographing my own.

Will I ever repeat my dance exchange in China? Hard to say. Will I finally succeed in diversifying our local dances? Worth a try. Will I ever dance bal folk in Toronto or bourrée in France, meet Cecile Laye, or attend another workshop with Richard Powers? Will I ever meet the people I have danced with on Zoom, gaze directly into their eyes and actually embrace them? I certainly hope so.

All this because of the lockdown and the CDSS initiative on Zoom dances. What started as a personal and local dilemma has grown into a collaborative process much bigger and better than I ever imagined.

Singlet: The Bourrée Bump

By Susan English (2021)

A singlet: interact with your partner throughout, whether on the screen or in the same room as you; music can be a 2/4 bourrée or any reel.

A1 Partner orbit and swing, end facing up (16)
A2 Cast down into full figure 8 (around ghost couple below) (16)
B1 Partner chain across (pull-by R, loop L) (8)
Half a hey (pass R, loop L) (8)
B2 Forward and bump (8)
Forward and turn (8)

Calling Notes:

A1: Orbit and swing—Robin turn over own left shoulder (rotate ccw) while Lark orbits cw, arms outstretched (like a circle L) admiring partner; when you can’t stand it any longer, grab partner and swing

B2: Forward and bump: Forward (2, 3), bump R elbows, back (2, 3, 4) (returning to place) Forward and turn: Forward (2, 3), hook R elbows, turn 1⁄2 (cw), fall back (2, 3, 4) (changing positions with partner)

Susan English, of, has called monthly contra and square dances since 1990. She co-developed the intergenerational program at Terpsichore’s Holiday (early 2000’s) and co-created the Cultural Exchange in China for the Berea Country Dancers (2017). At home in Wooster, Ohio, Susan dreams of calling live dances again and leading performances with the Madrigal Dancers.

Have you been learning something new during the pandemic?

We’d love to hear about it! Wendy Graham is curating a year-long project to feature more of these kinds of stories in the CDSS News. Write to her via, and we might put you in this spot in our next issue!

A ship in a harbor at sunset

CDSS Sings

A Song Through the Darkness: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

By Nicole Singer

Y’know those moments when a song gets stuck in your head unexpectedly, and the lyrics are perfectly fitting for the moment you’re in? I had one of those a few months ago.

The song that visited me was “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” a hymn likening God’s mercy to the light from a lighthouse in a storm. The song calls for listeners to help bring another safely home, literally and spiritually, by keeping the shore well-lit with the lower lights—those smaller than the lighthouse, but visible from sea—to guide homeward-bound sailors into the harbor. The song was first published in 1871, written by the composer and music teacher Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876). It can be found under the titles “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy” and “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” and sometimes simply “Lower Lights.”

I first heard it on a recording by Forebitter, a band of four of Mystic Seaport Museum’s sea music staff: Craig Edwards, Geoff Kaufman, David Littlefield, and Rick Spencer. While Forebitter disbanded some years ago, their recordings and research were influential in my early explorations into sea music. Their version is from a hymnal at Littlefield’s place of worship in Old Lyme, CT.

I am culturally Jewish, and while I don’t have much of a spiritual practice of my own, I often find meaning in faith- based songs. This song’s messages about spreading hope, helping others, yearning for relief, and the will to survive struck me more powerfully than any other song I’d heard or sung throughout this pandemic. It reminded me of the importance of reaching out and of being reached-out-to, even (and perhaps especially) in difficult times. When the world shut down and my connections with other people became few and far between, the social stakes became higher: in every precious interaction, I wanted to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right moment, and I feared that if I didn’t, I would be in some way abandoned just when I wanted and needed connection the most. Fearing the repercussions, I would often continue on in loneliness without reaching out. While there are many of us who thrive when alone—and it’s important to recognize one another’s needs for solo space—this song’s message was just what I needed to hear during this year of isolation. Plus, it’s got a very singable chorus!

In a bout of emotion-fueled creativity, I began adapting the lyrics, changing a word here and there and adding a verse. I debuted an early draft at the monthly “Secular Songs & ‘Hymns’” session, hosted by Cate Clifford and Lynz Morahn. They started this session at Youth Traditional Song Weekend in 2017 and have continued to host it virtually throughout the pandemic. It is a welcoming and connective place “to share songs of hope, community, peace, perseverance, love, celebration, grief, etc. that don’t involve god(s) or religion,” as the event description reads. The session has become an important emotional as well as musical meeting place for many singers, including myself.

Plenty of singers feel conflicted about singing religious songs because the lyrics feel dissonant with their more secular worldviews. In adapting the lyrics of this song, I was beginning to find a way to expand the song’s appeal and message, allowing it to continue to have a strong (and, I hoped, positive) impact, including for those who are not religious themselves. Later, my friend and singing partner Becky Wright, a brilliant arranger and wordsmith, greatly improved what I’d started. The result of our work is the set of lyrics printed here.

In Frederick Pease Harlow’s “The Making of a Sailor,” an account of Harlow’s voyage aboard the Akbar of Boston, Harlow and a shipmate hear this song coming from inside the Seamen’s Bethel while on shore leave. The shipmate, Joe, hesitates to enter:

“Hold on, Fred! This is a Protestant institution and I am a Catholic.”

Then the chorus broke out afresh: “Let the lower lights be burning. Send a gleam across the wave.”

“Those are sailor words,” said he. “Oh, all right! The priest won’t know it; take the lead and I’ll follow.”

Inside, they experience a powerful song-filled service and start singing along with a little help from a Miss Hopkins:

“A swell-looking girl, with a good, strong voice, sitting next to Joe, shared her songbook with him, quickly finding the different hymns and taking particular pains to point out to him the page and the line being sung...and Joe finally found his voice and followed her with a fine tenor. No one could help singing under such conditions and the evening passed altogether too quickly.”

Songs like these carry themes that can buoy all of us, no matter our relationship to spirituality, with the kind of strength that the original hymns were meant to have within a specific faith context. Like the lights along the shore, we can shine out and steadily guide one another through this storm. And like Miss Hopkins, we will help one another find our voices when we sing together again.

Nicole Singer is a musician, dancer, teacher, and artist living in Easthampton, Massachusetts. She is an organizer and co-founder of Youth Traditional Song Weekend, the chair of folk music and song programming for NEFFA, and co-author (with Julia Friend) of CDSS’s Folk Sing Starter Kit. When she’s not singing or organizing, Nicole is an elementary school art teacher. Her solo album, Long Hot Summer Days, is available on Bandcamp. Her next project, a duo record with Becky Wright, is expected to be released this summer.

Reference/for further reading:

Harlow, F. P. (1928). The Making of a Sailor, or, Sea Life Aboard a Yankee Square-Rigger. Marine Research Society.

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Originally written by Philip Paul Bliss, 1871 (public domain)
Adapted lyrics and additional fourth verse by Nicole Singer and Becky Wright, 2021
Transcription by Kristen Planeaux

"Let the Lower Lights Be Burning" sheet music

Brightly shines the hope of harbors
Where our journeys shall be o'er
But, for now, we have the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

Let the lower lights be burning
Send a gleam across the wave
There’s a lonesome, struggling sailor
You may rescue, you may save

Dark the night has come and settled
Loud the angry billows roar
Eager eyes are watching, longing
For the lights along the shore

Trim your glowing lamps, my dear ones
Some sweet sailor, tempest-tossed
Trying now to reach the harbor
In the darkness may be lost

Stand your watches now, my shipmates
Rise and turn the glass once more
Soon will come the day whose dawning
Greets the lights upon the shore

Rick SzumskiPhoto courtesy of Rick Szumski.

Stories from the CDSS Legacy of Joy Society: Rick Szumski

“I have included CDSS in my estate planning because traditional music and dance has contributed so much to me, and I want it to continue into the future. I trust CDSS to use my contribution wisely to promote the traditional music and dance forms that I enjoy so much.

“This is just one of the ways I give back to the dance community. Giving back has never been a burden or chore; I contribute simply because it feels right.

“Including CDSS in my estate plan was simple—all I did was take some information from the CDSS website to name them as a beneficiary. Initially I was reluctant to share this information because I don’t want credit or recognition in any form, but I came to realize that sharing this might help others make their own decisions. I am thankful I am in a position to be able to help CDSS do their fine work.”

-Rick Szumski

Why not share the joy? You can fill out the easy online form like Rick did, or you can email Robin Hayden at And if you’re considering including CDSS in your estate plans but don’t know where to begin, fill out the “Expression of Interest” form on the website, and we’ll help you figure out your options.

Letter to the Editor

Re: Contras in the COVID Era, Spring Issue 2021

By Colin Hume

Engraving of two Elizabethan dancersI enjoyed reading Penn Fix’s article “Contras in the COVID Era” in the last CDSS News, and it got me thinking. I certainly hadn’t realised that “Becket Reel” had languished in the shadows of both the contra dance and modern square dance world as no more than a novelty dance for more than 25 years. By the time I started dancing, “Bucksaw Reel” (as the dance is known in England) was standard repertoire along with “Devil’s Dream”—which doesn’t suit modern American taste as there are no swings in it but is still a standard finish to a dance in England. These two contras were published in the “Community Dance Manuals,” a staple of callers’ repertoire since 1947, along with many other contras where the interaction (and the swing, if any) was with neighbor rather than partner.

However, I would dispute the caption “Herbie Gaudreau invented Becket formation in 1958.” No doubt he came up with it independently, but the English traditional dance “The Rifleman” was published in CDM 3 around 1952 (and presumably danced long before it was collected and published), and it uses this formation. However, the progression is that the top two couples of the longways set polka to the bottom as the others move up, so you always dance with the same opposite couple. Herbie’s brilliant idea was a right and left through on the left diagonal—action outside the minor set which was probably unheard of in those days. I don’t know any traditional English or American dance where you interact with couples outside your group of two couples (duple minor) or three couples (triple minor). If someone calls a traditional dance where the ones interact with their own twos and the next set of twos, such as the contra corners figure in “Chorus Jig,” I can guarantee that it was originally triple minor and has been condensed to give the inactives more to do and a better chance of becoming actives. Maybe Herbie thought of this because he was a square dance caller, and in squares you certainly get head couples going on a diagonal to do a right and left through with the side couples.

I also can’t agree that a triplet is a novelty dance. Maybe to those dancers who think that modern contra is the only dance form that ever existed, but three-couple dances are a staple of dancing in England. John Playford published many of these set dances in 1651, for instance “Grimstock” and “Picking of Sticks,” often with three distinct figures and no progression—and no partner swing! Later the fashion in county dances switched to triple minor formation, where the ones progress down the longways set and the twos and threes alternate numbers until they have their long- awaited chance to become active. Many of these triple minors have now been converted to three-couple longways set dances, including “The Fandango” which inspired Ted Sannella to start writing triplets. I remember Ted calling one of these in Beckenham, South London. He told us that he had based his triplets on the English model, and then explained the progression in great detail while we all stood there thinking, “Yes Ted, we know this—we are English.” He would run his triplets nine times through—six times with a call and three without. This is too long for dancers in England, so I normally run them six times through.

Penn calls for composers to create triplets that include contemporary figures such as heys—and again I feel compelled to object! The hey or reel has been a staple of English (and Scottish) dancing for a long time. “Grimstock” has three different heys in its three figures. “Picking of Sticks” has its signature “sheepskin hey” which has been baffling and delighting dancers for at least the last hundred years. “The Fandango” has heys for three at top and bottom of the set, and there are many other examples. The earliest explanation of the hey that I know is in Arbeau’s “Orchesography,” published in France in 1589, and I’m sure it goes back a long way before then.

Enough sniping at an excellent article—let’s get practical. I decided to write a triplet to suit modern American tastes: see if you think I’ve succeeded. We don’t use the “#” sign over here to mean “number”, though no doubt it’s creeping into the language from across the Atlantic, so here it is.

Colin's Triplet Number 1

By Colin Hume

Triplet formation; ones improper


All balance and swing: ones with twos, threes with partner.

A2 All six circle left halfway. All swing: ones with threes, twos with partner, finishing in the order 1-3-2 with the threes improper.
B1 Threes (in middle place) go individually to your own right to dance heys for three across the set with this couple.

All six balance the ring, then the bottom couple (twos) gate the threes down the middle and all the way round to where they came from, then the top couple (ones) gate the threes up to top place (so just half a turn), moving down as they do so, and stay facing that neighbor ready to start again with a balance and swing.

Progressed position is 3-1-2, known in England as a reverse progression.

I’ve tried to meet Penn’s criteria. In three turns of the dance, you dance in all three positions and have four neighbor swings and two partner swings. Maybe the die-hard contra dancers would prefer four partner swings, but that presents problems—if the ones and threes are swinging their partner, there’s no-one else left for the twos to swing, and all swinging in the center at once is too crowded and potentially dangerous. Maybe I could arrange it so that two couples swing their partner at the side of the set while the remaining couple swing at the top or bottom, but I’ll leave that for “Colin’s Triplet Number 2.” At least I have the obligatory two swings, the circle balance and the heys, as well as keeping all three couples actively involved almost all the time.

But what about a contemporary figure, since the hey doesn’t justify that description? How about the gate movement? I believe that’s a 20th century invention, as I don’t know any old English or American dance which uses it. English dancers will recognise it from “The Bishop,” “Sun Assembly,” “Guardian Angels,” “Wakefield Hunt,” and others, but these are all 20th century additions. The equivalent American figure is an assisted cast, but I don’t know how traditional that is: originally the ones would have led up the middle and then cast round the twos without any assistance.

For more of Colin’s dances and essays, visit

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