Blind Squirrel, featuring Upper Valley musicians Bill Shepard, Erin Smith, and Steve Hoffman (fiddle); Suzanne Long (fiddle and cello); and Chip Hedler (guitar).

On many a Saturday night at Tracy Hall, dancers can be found moving to one of the Upper Valley region’s several contradance bands. Joined by a “caller” who choreographs the dancers, the bands invoke a variety of musical traditions, from Appalachian and Celtic to old English and French Canadian.

One man who contributed significantly to the Norwich contradance scene was the late Chip Hedler. Chip was the guitarist for the band Blind Squirrel, which regularly performed in Norwich. Alongside one of his bandmates, Erin Smith, he was also a member of the Norwich Dance Committee, a small group that works together to plan community dances throughout the year.

Performing with the band Blind Squirrel, Chip Hedler embodied the
essence of the Upper Valley’s contradance community: openness,
enthusiasm, and generosity of spirit.

Performing with the band Blind Squirrel, Chip Hedler
embodied the essence of the Upper Valley’s contradance
community: openness, enthusiasm, and generosity of spirit.

The group got together in 2015, when two of the local contradance bands that had been going for years – Northern Spy and Cuckoo’s Nest – decided to stop undertaking the organizing of the events by themselves.

The idea was, “if you want [the dances] to continue, you have to participate and be willing to step up and take a leadership role,” Erin said. “I think everybody had been coasting along and enjoying letting someone else do it, so there was a learning curve figuring out how to run it.”

Chip was ready to take up the challenge. As part of his duties, he maintained the Dance Committee’s website, made posters, and booked talent for dances. He also helped plan the summer series at East Thetford’s Pavilion.

“Chip was crucial to keeping things going,” Erin said. “He [was] part of the committee since it started and he [was] just always willing to step up and do things when needed, [was] really supportive of new dancers when they come, and eager to be a better musician.”

One of Blind Squirrel’s last dances with Chip was in February. Erin remembers a humorous moment Chip had with a vibraslap – a percussion instrument commonly found in Latin music. Chip was stomping his foot right next to a music stand that the vibraslap was balanced on. He accidentally toppled the music stand and the vibraslap fell over and sounded off, causing the whole room to turn and look to see what happened. Everyone in the band was laughing, but they had to keep playing – the show had to go on!

Calling Contra Dances in Norwich & Beyond

Chip also was a dedicated caller who would travel far and wide to call for contra dances in New England. The week before his death in March, Chip and former Blind Squirrel bandmate, Steve Hoffman, went to the Saint Patrick’s Day gathering in Littleton, New Hampshire.

Steve recalled, “He would go just about anywhere to call a dance.” He credited Chip’s professional background as a teacher with his ability to engage audiences. “Being a teacher, I think he had a good sense for that.” Chip taught elementary and middle school in the Danville area at some of the last one-room schoolhouses in Vermont.

Veteran caller David Millstone has over 30 years of experience performing in the band Northern Spy that regularly played in Norwich. He says callers need to be well-rounded, sensitive and responsive, and good communicators. They “need to be able to read a crowd, knowing when to introduce simple, basic figures, and when they can introduce a little more complexity or challenge into an evening,” he wrote in an email to the Norwich Times.

Dancers take to the floor at Tracy Hall during a contra dance in February.

Dancers take to the floor at Tracy Hall during a contra dance in February.

What David most enjoys about calling was “the sense of helping create an enjoyable evening for everyone by picking the right dances for that particular group of people, working closely with the band to find the right mix of tunes and letting them sound their best, choreographing the evening so that everyone goes away having had a good time,” he said.

Chip excelled at setting the mood for dances. He “[helped] everyone feel comfortable and relaxed, whether they be new dancers or new musicians…he was a welcoming and supportive presence,” David added.

The History of Contra dance in the UV

Beyond Blind Squirrel, numerous contra dance bands have graced the Upper Valley region since the resurgence of the art form in the early 70s, including Northern Spy, Cuckoo’s Nest, Smash the Windows, and Dr. Ruth and the Pleasure Seekers.

Blind Squirrel

Blind Squirrel

According to David, renowned caller Dudley Laufman re-launched the dance genre locally, in South Strafford’s Barrett Hall. A new band, Smash the Windows, emerged in the late 70s, holding monthly dances in Lyme, then in Lebanon and Cornish.

Northern Spy, David’s band, first performed in Lebanon, then Etna, before settling at Norwich’s Tracy Hall. At the early dances, sometimes the band members would outnumber the dancers, but by the late 80s, attendance at Tracy Hall contra dances numbered up to 200.

“The popularity waxed and waned, and by the 20-teens, when a committee took responsibility for organizing the Norwich dances…attendance had fallen below 50,” David added. The coronavirus made dancing impossible for a while, but “the Norwich dance now is on the rise with many new, younger dancers discovering this healthy and friendly activity and bringing their friends.”

Looking to the Future

Since the retirement of Northern Spy and Cuckoo’s Nest, the Norwich Dance Committee has been able to engage other regional bands and provide more variety for dancers with different styles of music. Blind Squirrel is looking to restart by finding a new guitar player. “That’s what [Chip] would have wanted,” said Erin.

Elfie Forbes, a long-time contra dancer and Norwich resident, is grateful for the continued efforts of the committee. “I’m glad [dancing] keeps going here,” she said. For her, dancing helps build an in-person community in a world that feels fractured and disconnected, and it’s a great way to meet people. Elfie’s late partner, Ruth Sylvester, was a caller at Norwich dances for many years.

Chip at one of his last dances in New London before his passing in March.

Chip at one of his last dances in New London before his
passing in March.

Contra dancing is fun for the musicians, too. “It’s a great feeling” to provide the music for the dancers, Steve said. The pressure is off because “you’re there playing in front of people, but you’re not performing. The people dancing are so focused on the caller, so we’re playing for ourselves and the dancers.”

That ethic of service was certainly evident in the way Chip supported his bandmates and his community. He’ll be remembered for his generosity, caring nature, dedication, and humility by those who continue to be connected to the contra dance tradition and beyond.

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