November 18, 2020, marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Ted Sannella. Ted shaped our lives as dancers and callers, and we remember him vividly. Before more time goes by and memories fade, we decided to use the occasion to collect stories and tributes from others who knew Ted.
The stories below include the serious and the silly, brief acknowledgments and more extended entries. These memories come from dancers, callers and choreographers throughout the US, as well as from England, Denmark, and Belgium, evidence of Ted’s wide-ranging influence.
If you have a Sannella Story of you own, you can contribute as well! Please send us your tale by clicking on the “email us” link below, and we’ll post it on this website. We also hope to present some of these stories in dance camp or festival settings once the COVID-19 pandemic has abated enough that we can dance safely. In addition, all contributions will be passed along to the Ted Sannella Collection at UNH and shared with members of Ted’s family.
– David Millstone and David Smukler
Do you have a story about Ted?
Email it to us — we would love to include it!
Select any name to read that person’s Sannella story, or scroll through to browse the entire collection.
Tuesday night, September, 1975, I went alone to the Central Square YWCA Ted Sannella contra dance. A young barefoot woman in a white dress adorned with brightly colored flowers asked me to dance. We ended up talking and dancing together the whole night. Three years later we got married.
One autumn evening in 1985 I was playing piano for Rodney Miller at a New Hampshire contra dance Ted Sannella was calling. I had not seen him since I’d met Mary Alice, and I couldn’t wait to tell him. There he was, with his typed out list of contra dances and tune suggestions for the evening.
“I met my wife, Mary Alice, at your Central Square YWCA contra dance in 1975!” I said.
“If you only knew how many people told me that…” Ted answered with a smile.
I’m not sure how he felt about me: – Cammy Kaynor and I crawled out on all fours and bit his leg once while he was teaching!
A quick wit, though – once I was playing at Brimmer and May with Cal Howard and Jack Perron. They walk in together and Ted says “Hi Jack. ‘Lo Cal.”
He was an excellent square and contra caller, but I also loved that he taught an occasional international dance during an evening.
Once during Easter Ted and Bill T., Mary L. and I played at a synagogue for a bunch of kids feeling left out of gentile festivities. Ted lined all the kids up and said “All right, we’re all going to have an Easter Parade!”
(see Mary Lea for more on this story)
Since I play fiddle for contra dances, I worked with Ted many times over many years. He was always very appreciative of his musicians, often suggesting tunes that he had enjoyed hearing specific people play in the past. I was on the dance floor even more often, and we all know that he was one of the best callers ever. He was an excellent contra dancer, too, although it was a rare treat to dance with him.
My story is from almost 40 years ago at a dance in Cambridge, MA at the YWCA. NEFFA was coming up soon, and Ted was enthusiastically telling the dancers about it. He asked how many of us had been to NEFFA, and several hands were raised. Then he asked how many of us had been to five NEFFAs. To ten? Twenty? Thirty? When my hand was still raised, he said I was much too young to have been to all those NEFFAs. I explained that I had attended with my parents as a child and mentioned how much fun it had been to play under the bleachers back when that was allowed. After hearing this, Ted would tell the story that my parents brought me to NEFFA in a basket when I was a baby. This wasn’t quite true, but I love the story!
My wife Carol just told me about this effort to collect tributes to Ted’s memory, so here’s a bit more.
I started contra dancing in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1982 and quickly became immersed in the community, which I’d previously known about only as a guitarist who played fiddle tunes. In 1983 I decided to change jobs and selected the Boston Area as a destination in part because it was clearly the best place in the US for contra dancing. Among my goals in moving here was to get to dance to Ted Sannella’s calling, which I’d heard about often on the west coast as a must-do in Boston. I immediately became a regular at Ted’s Brimmer & May dances (among others), got to know Ted a little and had several opportunities to play at dances for him, where he had clear ideas about what tunes he wanted to hear, and often remembered the band’s repertoire. He was exceptionally welcoming of newcomers to the community, taught me how to Hambo, and when I bought a copy of his book Balance and Swing, he graciously agreed to autograph it for me, writing “Keep on dancing and stay young forever!”
I started dancing in November 1974, at the Tuesday night dance at the Cambridge YWCA. The format that year was a rotating group of local callers. Ted was the most popular of them, and more people showed up for the evenings when he was the caller. The next year, as I understand it, Ted was asked to be the caller for every Tuesday night, but he preferred to alternate weeks with a young caller that he could mentor (Tony Parkes). Tuesday night attendance increased greatly that year.
I believe that Ted routinely recorded the bands that he played with. The next time he was going to be calling to that band, he would listen to the tape and pick out the tunes which the band played best, so that he could request that the band play those tunes, and have prepared dances which would go well to the tunes.
Ted called a weekly summer dance series in Westport, Massachusetts, and he invited young callers to come to those dances with him. He said it was to keep him from getting sleepy on the drive home, and I suppose that was partly true, but it gave us young callers a chance to see how he called for that kind of crowd, and to discuss calling with him during the drive each way, and during the stop he always made at the rest area restaurant halfway back.
Two images that come to mind when I think of Ted:
At one of the NEFFA Contra Dances in the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, someone called Petronella. It was a large crowd, with three contra lines. Ted was in the set near the windows, the only person in the hall who was refusing to do the balances and turns when he was inactive. They weren’t part of the original dance, and he wasn’t going to do them.
One year at July Fourth weekend at Pinewoods Camp, C# (the large dance pavilion) was being completely rebuilt, and so the evening dances had to be split between two locations, C# minor (the smaller dance pavilion) and the dining hall, with half the dancers in each, and the American dance caller and the English dance leader changing places during the break in the middle of the evening. Housing at Pinewoods was segregated by gender back then, with Lads a Bunchum being just men, and the central section of cabins being just women, and labelled Women’s Hill on the camp maps. I danced one evening in the dining hall. During the break I went out on the paths, and was surprised to see Ted coming over Women’s Hill, taking a shortcut from C# minor. With his briefcase in his hand, of course.
Ted occasionally visited the UK because his son was at University in Scotland. On one of his visits he stayed with us and I arranged for him to call at the Guildford Club with a band that included Allison Ellacott and Mollie Koenigsberger. Ted asked for the band’s tune list and I had to confess that I didn’t know what he was talking about. When he explained I said that they wouldn’t have one but not to worry as they would certainly have whatever he wanted. And they did! We had a great evening, Ted with the microphone and Jean sitting at the back with her knitting.
Eileen Cecelia Callahan
I learned so much about dancing well from Ted. Loved his triplets.
(The following appeared in the AADS News, newsletter of the Anglo-American Dance Shop in Belgium, shortly after Ted’s death in 1995. Philippe has given us permission to reprint it here. You can also see this PDF of the original piece.)
On November 18, 1995, Ted Sannella passed away in his home in Wiscasset, Maine (USA). The cancer that had returned with a vengeance in the spring, defeated him. With him, the world of New England style square and contra dancing loses one of its most prominent leaders.
Ted was born in Boston’s North End in 1928 from Italian ancestors. He started dancing when he was 16 years old. Soon, he started attending Ralph Page’s dances in Boston. In 1946, Ted took up teaching squares and contras himself. In 1954 – also the year of his marriage to Jean – he graduated from college as a pharmacist. He would stick to that profession all of his life. Gradually, his reputation as a caller spread over New England and later all over the USA and beyond.
Ted was not only a real fine caller, but also a prolific choreographer and a dedicated teacher with a definite philosophy. His Yankee Reel (written around 1955) still proves to be popular while Scout House Reel has become one of those “modern classics”. He is also the one who came up with the triplet concept (Ted’s Triplet #1 was written in 1968). All together there are 41 triplets now. Many of his dances can be found in his excellent book Balance and Swing (1982). For years, he has been working on a new collection, Swing the Next. That book will, now posthumously, be published by the CDSS.
We are so lucky to have had Ted call here in Belgium three times (1990, 1992, 1995). Each of his visits was a real treat for everyone attending the weekends he conducted. Here’s what he wrote me in a letter dated June 19 after having called the AADS Spring Dance Weekend last March: “In retrospect, I feel that the weekend in Malle was one of the most successful events with which I have been involved. It certainly was the most enjoyable!” This characterizes Ted very well: he would meticulously prepare for such a weekend, give of his best while calling, and everyone, including himself, would go home happily and satisfied.
Jean, we wish you, the children and the grandchildren, strength and courage.
On behalf of the Belgian dance community,
I remember Ted was quite the character. He called some great dances but he also would like to mix things up on occasion. I remember one time, everyone had lined up in long lines and was awaiting his instructions. the first thing he had everyone do was to take their partners place to switch roles. Most of the women had no problem with it however many of the men had never done this before and were unsure of themselves in this role. I must admit, it was different but at the same time so much fun!
Another time after the dance had started he announced to listen to the calls. he would change a move to something else such as a circle left would become a circle right and then back. Or a swing would become “everyone swing in the opposite direction”! without some practice this is not as easy as it sounds.
Another thing he would do is an 8 person basket swing during a square. And once the swing got moving he would have the ladies lift their feet and fly.
North Whitefield was where I most often saw him and danced to his calling. I started dancing in 1987 so had not the opportunity to know him for very long, but so glad I did know him and enjoy his calling. I knew Ted only for a few years before his passing but every time he called it was indeed a delight and an adventure.
I’ve always considered Ted one of my mentors. Once, Ted called for the Mid-Winter Ball in Baltimore and he called a square dance where he obviously lost count of the number of times through and we didn’t end up with our partners. Afterwards I told him how relieved I was to know that he, too, could make such a mistake. I said that I even have my own name for it: Dalsheimer’s Disease. He replied that he had his own name for it: Sannellity.
At NEFFA one year Ted and I were sitting next to each other at Larry Jennings’ Callers’ Discussion Group. I forget what point we were discussing, but Larry turned to us and asked would we, the two oldest callers present, like to comment. At this point Ted had been calling for more than forty years and I, for a mere twenty some. Ted and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh – but it was actually true. Sometime after that, I was attending a CDSS meeting in the Boston area and decided to attend a dance Ted was calling at the Scout House. I had an early morning flight to catch on Sunday morning, so I tried to slip away unnoticed after the break while Ted was walking through a dance. Ted spotted me at the back of the hall and announced to the dancers: “There goes Bob Dalsemer, one of the best callers around, and…one of the oldest.”
The first thought that came into my mind was a tune written by David Kaynor in honor of Ted Sannella called “The Master of the Dance”.
Quite a few of us have been playing music in David Kaynor’s back yard in Montague MA this summer and fall. This tune is one of David’s we had all learned. Soooo… yesterday I made a video of us playing the tune in Ted’s memory.
And here is the score.
You will see George Wilson on fiddle, Rebecca Weiss on fiddle, Becky Ashendon on piano and Andy Davis (me) on accordion. David Kaynor is out of the picture on the porch – but he is acknowledged at the end of the tune. David enthusiastically encouraged this contribution to Ted’s memory.
Feel free to use this in any way you wish in the tribute to Ted Sannella, who was truly a “Master of the Dance”.
Susan Davis and Scott Russell
Many years ago, the Atlanta contra group, The Chattahoochee Contra Dancers, hired Ted as guest caller for our yearly dance weekend.
He stepped on the dance floor to demonstrate a dance that included a right-hand star. As he reached for the wrist of the next dancer, he saw others in the set giving hands across. He seamlessly adjusted his hand and took hands across. No one but a few old hands noticed it and Ted never mentioned it. One our turf, he danced our way, even though he “wrote the book,” so to speak.
Also, in Balance and Swing, he wrote something that Scott and I really liked and tried to live up as a callers and dancers. He “classified” dancers (“one man’s opinion” he called it) according to skill and attitude. Skill-wise, advanced dancers can dance complex dances; mature dancers try to contribute to the pleasure of the dancers on the floor, dance with beginners and newcomers, and work for the good of the activity.
Ted Sannella worked for the good all over contra land and we are all better dancers and better people because of it.
Ted Talk???? I hate you both. 🙂 Will try to put a specific year on the Buffalo Gap dance evening where he turned up in full Red Sox uniform.
Keep up the good work.
Ted called at JJ and my wedding back in ‘84. He did a great job with so many rank beginners, and there were Morris Dancer shills in the mix to help along. He taped it for us to re-listen to. It is so nice to hear him teach and call.
Aww, Ted. He was the best ever.
It’s great that you’re doing this. What a nice tribute for Ted.
I didn’t know Ted personally, but did have the privilege of attending a few of his dances when he came “south” to Maryland or West Virginia (Buffalo Gap Weekend), as well as at NEFFA. I also attended at least one workshop for callers that he gave, either at Buffalo Gap or perhaps at NEFFA.
One thing that stands out in my mind from the workshop(s) is Ted’s admonition that the caller must be prepared to abandon the planned program and adapt if there is a sudden arrival of new dancers, etc. He probably would express it differently now, but I remember him saying that the caller must be prepared for that busload of Japanese Girl Scouts who show up in the middle of the evening. That specific phrase has stuck with me, and I’m sure we’ve all had our evenings when that busload did arrive.
Thanks for your work on this project.
Around 1985, I went East to my first NEFFA, and had the honor of being Ted and Jean’s house guest. We sat in his study, sharing dances in our respective collections. Ted had strong ideas about what figures were appropriate for contra dances. I suspect he was concerned that traditional dancing not follow the path of federation squares with their ever growing list of figures.
I showed him a modern dance I had collected that flowed beautifully with a square through. He liked the dance and wrote it down, but changed the square through to an allemande left even though that did not work as well. He told me he would never call a square through in a contra, but it was OK if I wanted to.
One time Ted was on staff at a BACDS dance camp, a number of the campers decided to play a trick on him. They quietly spread the word that, no matter what he called for the third dance, everyone would start doing Chorus Jig on the fourth repetition. Some of us were reluctant, worrying he would be angry at such disrespect.
After much anticipation, the appointed moment finally arrived. On the fourth repetition, Ted switched to calling Chorus Jig just before the dancers did. I never did find out who tipped him off, but everyone had a great laugh.
It is so hard to believe he has been gone for 25 years…seems like yesterday we were all at Maine Folk Dance camp…
When I first started composing contra dances in the late eighties I wanted to see if they had any merit so I typed them up and sent them out Mail to every caller I had an address for.
Ted was on tour in Michigan at that time and one of the callers I sent to shared the dances with Ted — I do not remember who that caller was.
When Ted got back home he called me tell how much he liked them. I was pleased to have such a famous Contra Caller and composer be so generous.
I wrote Cappuccino ReeL shortly after in his HONOR.
Warmly, Don Flaherty
Memories of Ted Sannella (Sunday November 29, 2020)
Ted served on CDSS’s “National Council” from 1984 through 1989, near the end of which (and after the office moved to Northampton in 1987) the “Council” became the “Board.” At one of the early meetings in Northampton after the move (I think in 1989) we met at the office in the afternoon, and then many members of the Board (including most if not all of the men and very few of the women) went to the Saturday night contra dance at the Munson Library in South Amherst. I don’t think any of us called that night, but there were a lot of callers there. And we brought a group of mostly men to a dance that happened to already have more men. This was back in the day we still tried to “gender balance” our camp weeks. I’m not sure it was all that unusual for a local dance to be imbalanced, but what we had that night was more extreme than usual. The result was that many of us danced with each other. Ted was dancing with Dan Pearl; Bob Dalsemer (I think Vice President at that time) was there as well.
Suddenly in the middle of one dance there was a great ruckus at the other end of the hall, something impossible to understand at the time that was almost an explosion of deep laughter. As I traveled down the hall as an active, I eventually ran into Bob Dalsemer, who looked at me and said “I tried to twirl Ted under.” A little later I ran into Dan and Ted (who was at that point laughing louder than Bob had when I ran into him), and Ted said “Bob tried to twirl me under; I almost broke his arm.” I used that story for many years after that as an indirect way to say it was okay to not want to be twirled, and to object.
Hey for Four
At some point (I think when the office was still in NYC – if so, sometime between 1983 and 1987) Ted made an offhand comment that he was the first to introduce the hey for four to contra dancing. Ted said he got the figure from an English dance (which is interesting because so few of them back then had heys for four – the most common I can think of done at that time and earlier was the Dorset Four Hand Reel). Dorset was still a popular dance at that time; it has since faded from view. Sometime later I felt modern English country choreographers borrowed the figure back from contras and put it into new English dances. At least from my perspective I had no sense that they too found it in the earlier English repertoire.
The Limits to Calling it a Dance by Ted
Again, in that period when I worked for CDSS in NYC (1983 to 1987) we had dance weekends twice a year at Hudson Guild Farm in New Jersey. That was a wonderful camp out in the rural western part of the state with a very long and thin hall. One weekend both Ted and I were on staff, and I arrived for my contra class only to discover my band wasn’t there. I played some accordion in those days, had my accordion with me, and had rarely called while playing, but I gave it a go, choosing some easy dance by Ted in the hope that I could manage both. I’m not sure if I realized Ted was in the hall.
Things started well – I love teaching with music behind my teaching. But it was hard to concentrate on playing the tune and calling the dance at the same time, and I made a minor mistake (or change, as Ted put it) into the dance. Ted let that one go by. At this point I’m at B1, and I make another minor “change”, and Ted let that go by too. And in the home stretch I made another mistake. At that point two things happened. One was that Ted reached his limit; the other was that my band arrived, late, for the class, and I started teaching without my own music, reverting to Ted’s choreography. Later on Ted said that after the first “change” he thought to himself “well, it still works”, and let it go. After the second “change” he thought longer, but because the dance still worked he let that go too. After the third change even though the dance still worked he felt he could no longer accept it being with his title and authored by him, and he was just about to tell me to change the title when the band arrived. Ever since that time I’ve thought about how far things have to go to no longer be the original. One change might be a minor variant; two a bigger variant. And for Ted, three changes, even if everything still works, is too much to be called one of his dances anymore.
Ted & Bertha, and the Production of Balance & Swing
Balance & Swing was published in 1982, just before I started at CDSS and during the tenure of Bertha Hatvary. Bertha’s expertise was in editing and publishing; she was first hired to work on the CDSS News before being hired as Executive Director. I missed the birth of that book; much later, Ted said it was difficult, and worth it. Ted had by then written many dances, and had some of them published, but this was his first major publication. He had strong opinions about what Balance & Swing should include, how it should look, even how various aspects of formatting and publication style should be done. And he discovered in Bertha someone with equally strong opinions who wasn’t at all afraid to share those opinions with Ted and wasn’t particularly moved by his opinions. I gather they had a stormy beginning, with Ted providing his draft, Bertha quite liberally editing it and sending it back, and Ted getting upset by the changes. I’m pretty sure Bertha changed some of Ted’s words in his calls; I can’t imagine he liked that. She also told him he had too much material, and that whole sections had to be removed; I can’t imagine he liked that either. But then something changed. Ted said later that at some point he started trusting Bertha and grew to have more and more faith in her editing. By the end Ted said he thought her work was excellent; by then they were working as a team.
The Peril of Being Local
I no longer remember who the particulars were for this story. I believe I talked to Ted about this; I know I talked to others. Someone remarked that Ted was a national treasure who was under-appreciated at home. They didn’t mean un-appreciated; that was far from the case. I suppose the real difference was that he was more appreciated outside than inside Greater Boston. One person’s theory was that in Boston Ted was so well known he was just part of the framework, and outside Boston he was a rare treat and was both seen and appreciated more. Others said the same about Genny Shimer in NYC – that she particularly enjoyed the chance to get out of NYC to teach where people paid more attention to her. One person said she particularly enjoyed teaching at Berea. For my part, as National and later Executive & Artistic Director of CDSS I revered Ted but nonetheless did little to showcase his talents. I started my tenure giving camp program directors as much latitude as possible and suggesting very little; my (and our) goal at that time could be summarized as new is better. It wasn’t until he was very near the end of his calling life that I regretted that decision and started the practice of occasionally promoting one or another caller or musician because (like Ted had been) they were national treasures; I always wished I’d done so with Ted. I have clear memories of Ted being the focus of my regrets, and that in learning from that experience I started to do things differently with others.
Ted Sannella contributed to my dance experiences in so many important ways. He deeply influenced the Maine dance scene when he co-founded the 4th Friday series in North Whitefield, at the St. Denis Parish Hall. Many musicians and dancers were privileged to work with him, including a group called Calliope (John Pranio, Toki Oshima, Tamora Goltz, and David Stimson) who were Ted’s house band for some of that time. For years, that series has had the reputation of having the most skilled and smooth dancing in the state, no doubt related to Ted’s influence.
Ted also was part of my early development as a dancer. I lived in the NH Seacoast at the time, and in my first year of dancing was already actively participating in what I think was initially called the Ralph Page Weekend (which later became the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend) produced by the Ralph Page Memorial Committee of NEFFA. Ted’s sessions at those weekends, and at the NEFFA festival itself, were always a joy. I remember the exhilaration of first dancing to his carefully choreographed squares, at the bottom of a crowded hall on the UNH campus. It was like riding the tail of a comet, having to be ultra-aware since you knew he’d play some little trick on the dancers, but you weren’t quite sure when!
At one RPDLW, I remember visiting the UNH Special Collections room, where the archivists had set out a collection of Ted’s materials. Among those was an annotated program from Halloween, which included a blindfolded square. In the margins, Ted had written an emphatic reminder to himself: “DO NOT REPEAT! Too Dangerous!” (or something to that effect.) I loved that he tried something so crazy, and loved even more that he cared enough about refining his practice to remind himself not to make the same mistake twice.
I also appreciate that Ted and his wife Jean are buried in the St. Denis cemetery, just down the hill from the dance hall. It makes dancing and calling on a 4th Friday feel special, knowing that there’s a thread of connection from generation to generation.
As a caller, I especially appreciate his calling books, with the explanatory notes. I’ve used them for years, and still discover new gems whenever I dive into them.
I remember being on crew at Pinewoods in the 80’s. You didn’t want to miss the contras in the evenings when Ted was calling. Great dances, innovative, and such good energy in the pavilion!
I have a lovely memory of Ted from NEFFA when I went there sometime in the ‘90s. 1994 maybe? I was dancing a square with Tony Parkes as my partner. Tony Saletan was calling a singing square, and Ted was standing near the front of the stage, near our square. About halfway through the square, Ted came over and cut in, dancing the rest of the square as my partner. Tony P was, of course, gracious about this turn of events, and I was delighted to be sought as a partner by Ted as well as Tony. That was a lovely dance!
Another time, probably within a year or two of the previous story, I was on staff at the Missoula Bear Hug dance weekend, and Ted was the other caller. I remember that I taught a square dance workshop, which I thought went very well. Later, Ted told me that I took too long to teach! Hmmm, wasn’t it a workshop, I thought? But nonetheless, it was a treat to work with him that weekend.
I’m glad you posted the call for Ted Sannella stories on the ECD list, because my slight experience of him reinforces the idea that his dance world was not just contra.
International folk dancing was my “gateway” form of dance, and that is where I met Ted in the 1980s when I was a graduate student in the Boston area. He was a fairly regular attendee at the Friday evening international dance of the Folk Arts Center of New England (FACONE). At most of those sessions, each individual dance was taught during the first (main) portion of the evening, and the last half-hour or so was a program of requests without teaching.
The last dance of the taught program was almost always a contra dance such as “Chorus Jig” or “Hull’s Victory” a classic dance that in a different context we would call a chestnut. The instructors explained that it was usual to end the taught part of the evening with a folk dance from local (i.e., New England) dance tradition. And often, the evening’s instructors would ask an older gent who had spent the rest of the evening dancing with the rest of us to teach the contra. Sometimes that gent was Ted Sannella. And that’s how I had the privilege to dance some contra chestnuts called by a master caller before I was a contra dancer and before I knew about Ted’s triplets or who Ted was.
A Ted Sannella Tale
Ted Sannella was one of the main callers in the Boston area when I started to call, so he was a respected leader and role model for me (and he was a wonderful dancer!).
His last gift to me, and perhaps to our local dancers, was at an evening that Larry Jennings organized as part of the Thursday contra series at the Cambridge VFW. Larry knew Ted was quite ill, so he created a Salute to Ted Sannella night, and enticed Ted to come down from Maine so we could celebrate him. The format was a classic Jennings “Neffa night”, with a variety of callers, each getting 12 minutes to call a dance—in this case, a Sannella contra or square.
My slot was the last dance before the break. After I got people lined up, Ted waved to me and approached the mic, asking if he could say a few words. What he said has stayed with me and has provided a sentiment that I have freely shared at other memorial dances:
As you take your hands four, be aware that you aren’t just dancing with your partner and your neighbors, but with the whole line, stretching out beyond to include all the people in the hall. And remember that you are also dancing with everyone who has ever danced and has ever loved dancing. We will always be connected.
If there was anyone in that crowded hall who didn’t understand what the evening was about, they did then. There was silent acknowledgment and a lot of meaningful looks. I then called Ted’s contra “Love and Kisses” to a wholly connected room.
Ted Sannella, I remember him, or better his dances. Specially I was very fond of his triplets. I started dancing and calling at the same time in 1991. I saw in the newspaper that Margit & Frede Olsen had a Saturday afternoon with “square dance.” I didn´t know what kind of dance, never heard about it. Margot Gunzenhauser was there, and as I in my youth was a member of “Tinglutti,” a dance and singing group, using dances and songs from all over the world, she saw a future caller in me. That very first dance lesson brought the coming 15 years of dancing to me. I had my last class in Maniitsoq, Greenland.
Back to Ted. I think he was here once in the beginning of my dance life, but don’t know exactly. BUT I do know his triplets. Jørn Borggreen and I took initiative to hold a Saturday dance, where callers and their experienced dancers came to Nyborg from 9.30 – 17.30 to a Ted´s Triplets´ marathon. I had rented a local dance school, near by the station. Every caller was told what to call, and Jørn and I called the rest. I think we got through almost all 41, as I remember. What a day, we danced nonstop, people had to skip a dance or two for coffee break and lunch, while others still were dancing. We were exhausted by the end of the day. A wonderful day.
I was at grad school in Boston. I previously had contra in the Hartford area during undergraduate days, but nothing compared to the Boston Area; amazed at how frequently dances were called. Seemed like you could dance various styles every day if you looked. Sometimes Monday at the Scout House with Tony Parkes or Thursday Cambridge with Larry Jennings. There was a lot of great calling and music going on.
But Tuesday nights at Brimmer & May will always be my favorite. Several lines of good dancers and if you didn’t have Tony Saletan calling with Yankee Ingenuity, chances were Ted was calling. He was my favorite caller then and such a great teacher.
About midway through the evening, when Ted announced a Triplet, a modest roar from the dancers would engulf the hall and B&M was a large space. Several lines of people would pick up the instructions and away we went. I don’t remember doing a specific triplet twice. He created so many.
I just presumed I would run into these triplets through my dancing years. Alas, that has not been my case. They’re great dances and are worthy of their place in the way squares are at contra dances.
The next best thing after Ted calling at Brimmer & May, was Ted calling at the Scout House in Concord.
(then) coordinator of Old Songs Dances
We were able to have Ted call here at the Old Songs dances in Albany all too few times. One time stands out. Ted was calling a circle left for two couples in a longways set. He apparently was not satisfied with what he was seeing from the stage. Suddenly he leaped to the dance floor, stepped into one of the hands four and began to circle with real vigor. He demonstrated how with hands raised to shoulder height each dancer could give weight most clearly to the others and the circle rotated more easily and rapidly. Ted climbed back up onto the stage, and said through the microphone, “Now that’s dancing!!”
I’ll have to go crawling through some very old photos to see what I’ve got of Ted. I remember him very well, and enjoyed learning so much from him.
Many, many fine memories … here’s a handful.
A recurring lament among long-time dancers is that changes in dancing style have resulted in losing something that is a key element in a beloved original. One example I’ve repeatedly heard: “In Petronella, people who clap destroy the *best* part: the strong connection and delight of all four dancers, spinning, catching hands, and balancing together.” [irony alert !]
One of my earliest memories of Ted Sannella is from a caller workshop — probably around 1980 — when the question of Petronella came up. He said (paraphrased from my memory):
“I haven’t called Petronella in many years. That dance was *ruined* for me when the 2nd couples started joining-in. They shouldn’t call it Petronella — better to call that dance Citronella. Petronella is all about the first couple being center stage and showing off.”
Ted, of course, was happy to innovate in his choreography, most famously using the Petronella figure in a novel way in his dance “Fiddleheads.” Like most of us, though, once he learned to love a dance, he was deeply offended when modern ‘updates’ eroded the elements that seemed most vital to the original.
In 1991, I had the honor of working with Ted as a colleague — we were the staff callers at BACDS American Week. Luckily, collaborating on programs was easy: his repertoire was mind-blowing [his “box” of cards was a briefcase — with hundreds if not thousands of cards and notes], and his attention to detail and presentation were inspiring.
Sadly, though, Ted’s afternoon class of special squares was scheduled opposite a clogging class — in an era when clogging was ‘hot’ and particularly appealing to women. The first day of Ted’s class, there were probably 5 women and 15 men. In 1991, (even in California), many men were uncomfortable and clumsy dancing the “other” role. Ted needed to drastically his plans, lowering the challenge level, and adapting to a situation where some men strongly resisted swinging with each other. The number of participants and class energy dwindled through the week.
I talked with Ted about this unfortunate circumstance. At the time, he was the premier caller and choreographer in North America — but his highlighted class in his specialty was barely viable. His exact words escape me, but his complete acceptance, grace, and determination to “make the best of it” were palpable. I realized that he had spent decades traveling all over the country, and doubtless faced many audiences that were tiny, ill-suited to his planned material, or difficult in some way. It may seem obvious that we adapt to disappointment and do our best, but watching one of my idols actually do that with such humility and grace helped me to see and admire Ted’s less-visible human side
I will never forget the way Ted’s face glowed, and the delight of his contagious smile as he wrapped-up a dance and savored the enjoyment of the crowd.
He was the first caller I heard of and I met him at my first weekend Dance. He helped me the first night and I found later out who he was.
When I started as a caller in Denmark I used a lot of his triplet in my classes??
I remember that briefcase, too [in a picture send by Emily Ferguson and mentioned by Tod Whittemore]. And many memories of Ted at American Week at Mendocino. Then later, hosting Ted at my house when he came to Santa Barbara’s Harvest Moon festival. That was when we dancers made a plan to do a different chestnut—was it Hull’s Victory?—when Ted was to teach and call, I think Petronella (?). Ted had spies, though, so, he taught the preplanned dance then started calling the surprise dance with seamless flow.
When he taught Chorus Jig, he started it as its original triple minor. After a few rounds, he started switching it to a duple minor by having couples waiting out at the top go in in duple timing. That created a memorable experience being momentarily between triple and duple.
I’ve danced several times to his “sex-role changing square.” Lots of fun!
I think I’ve already told the time when, at Mendocino Woodlands, Ted went down to the swimming hole, where, at that time, we went skinny dipping. Armin Barnett was with us with one of his fiddles. Ted was asked to call a dance. There was Ted in his swimming suit while Armin in the buff playing one of his fiddles and eight nude swimmers doing a Grand Over and Under in the water. Hilarious and Fun!
Jacqui Horwitz (and Phil Mason)
My husband and I met 33 years ago at a contra dance in Jamaica Plan in February, 1987. We think it was Valentine’s Day. Ted was the caller and I remember deciding to go there because he was calling the dance. Same with Phil – neither of us had been to the Jamaica Plain dance before! We both had enjoyed his contra dances in Concord and Cambridge.
He will always hold a special place in our hearts.
My wife and I remet, after my two years in the Peace Corps, at a Ted Sannella dance and the rest is history. We went to a lot of his dances. Then I got involved with NEFFA and have been on the Board ever since. (My first year on the Board was when Angela Taylor was President and the Festival was in Wellesley, about 50 years ago.)
James Joseph (via Bill Olson)
I’ll start by saying I didn’t know Ted very well. My first experience with him was not a positive one. We (Scrod Pudding) played a couple of N Whitefield dances with Ted calling. One of the things I did, and still do, with the band was play snare with brushes and hi-hat. Ted was calling a dance, we were playing, and he looked at me and then looked at the hi-hat and shook his head, telling me to stop doing that. In my head I’m thinking, WHAT? This is what I do-it’s an integral part of the sound of the band! What’s his problem anyway?! I did as he said, but the resentment stuck with me for quite some time. After a while Scrod got back on the schedule to play another N Whitefield dance, with Ted once again calling. The day of the dance, I got a call from Ted, out of the blue, asking if I could give him a ride to the dance, knowing that I was coming from Phippsburg and would be driving right through Wiscasset where he lived. I picked him up, and we had an absolutely wonderful ride to the dance, sharing our histories, in and out of the dance community. Nothing like getting to know someone to help dispel misconceptions, right?
At one point during the dance, he was playing spoons while calling, and I was playing snare with brushes (no hi-hat!). There came a point where we got in the pocket, so to speak, and exchanged huge grins. And I also remember the dancers LOVED Ted. That’s how I remember Ted.
One thing I liked is that when he was calling for a band he always studied their repertoire pretty carefully ahead of time so he knew what we enjoyed playing before the night began. Many callers do not.
Great project! Ty! I was at his last Scout House dance when he said goodbye. Never forget it!
I only met Ted one time. I believe I attended a dance he called in New Jersey very early in my dancing days, before I tried calling, but I might be misremembering that, and I certainly didn’t speak with him. But, in 1995, I attended the Ralph Page Legacy Weekend in Durham, NH.
I had, by this time in my calling “career,” called a couple of dances at Pinewoods, done a few guest caller slots in New Jersey and — maybe — called a full dance or two in some remote locales that have faded from memory.
Ted was one of the featured performers, so I enjoyed the privilege of dancing to his calls. Bob Dalsemer, George Fogg, and Tony Parkes were on the program, too. It was a great weekend. But I was much too intimidated to try to speak with any of them.
However, there was this “open mic” session that had been added to the weekend. Larry Jennings was the contact person, so I had to talk to him. He told me that he and Ted would give open mic callers feedback if we wanted it.
Things worked out; I got on the program. The band, Soozarama, was willing to go along with me and play the tune I wanted. I presented an eminently forgettable “singing contra” of a sort — Golden Slippers. Last time through, I improvised the ending with a swing and promenade up to the band, and dancers applauded and I thanked the musicians by name. (I was young(er) and foolish, and yeah, I was hoping to make an impression.)
I cringe at my over-the-top performance in retrospect, but it must not have been too awful. Larry, who later became an important mentor for me, never said anything to me. He just gave me a big grin and the thumbs-up signal. After the session, I went into a little reception room off the dance hall to hear what Ted had to say.
There were pleasantries. And then, with the incredibly generous spirit of an incredibly generous man, he told me that I “had a great future as a caller.”
As I’ve said many times since — I could have gotten home to New Jersey without the aid of a car; floating on the warmth of his kind words.
In my old age, as a coordinator of our many multi-caller nights at the Thursday Night Dance in Philadelphia, I have always been loose (disorganized?) about programming. There’s always a spot for someone, I say, just in case the Spirit of Ted Sannella should drop in and be willing to take a turn on the microphone.
Anne & Richard Ketchen
It isn’t a dance story, but we have a strong memory of Ted that is very telling of who he was as a person. My husband had pinched a nerve in his neck and was prescribed a cervical collar. We went to the pharmacy in Concord Center where Ted worked as a pharmacist. The place was packed and there was a long line of people waiting. Ted happened to look up and notice us way in the back of the line. He recognized us from contra dancing. Without a word, he came out from behind the counter and approached us. My husband handed him the prescription and Ted disappeared. When he returned he had the collar in hand. It was an act of generosity and consideration that we have always remembered.
I also remember going to Ted’s memorial service. The church was packed. The minister invited attendees to share their thoughts and comments about Ted, and as you can imagine, lots of people wanted to speak. After a while, the minister appeared a little impatient and uncomfortable (who knows, maybe he had another appointment coming up) and tried to stop the sharing, but people from the dance crowd stood up and loudly protested! I’ve never seen anything like it at a memorial service! The minister gave into the pressure and let more people speak. So, yeah, Ted influenced a lot of people in the dance world!
I had the good fortune to have begun dancing to Ted’s calling back in the early 70s. After dropping 45 cents at the Harvard Square’s MTA, its Green Line rattled me out to the Brimmer and May School for the biggest dance in the Boston area — an hour and a half’s total travel to dance for three hours. The program was an equal mix of contras and squares, with the odd mixer, triplet, and couple dance thrown in for variety. Each evening was a social, aerobic event with top-notch music, preserving a tradition that was clearly dear to Ted’s heart. A healthy sense of tradition underscored each program, and Ted’s enthusiasm for the joy of dancing was nothing short of infectious.
Ted’s gentlemanly demeanor extended to the dance floor itself, and his events always proceeded flawlessly, seemingly without effort. The 70s were a period of change and exploration in the dance scene, and Ted presided carefully over the loss of certain dance figures and traditions as they were replaced by new ones. The choreography of his dance compositions tended to reflect his traditional roots, but he penned many that remain classics to this day. His unique dance form, the triplet, seemed to have grown out of the need for a dance that would fit into the kitchen of a New England farm house. He undoubtedly felt a sense of disappointment as the popularity of squares declined in favor of ultra-active contras in the average dance program. When CDSS published his seminal book of dances, “Balance and Swing” in 1982, it contained twice as many contras as squares. The book also contained 10 of Ted’s Triplets, all 41 of which were danced in triplet marathons held in New Hampshire, New York, and California on March 2nd and 3rd, 2002.
Ted was generously supportive of new callers, careful to critique new dance compositions with a gentle but seasoned view. By the 1980s, I had moved to California, and I sent him a dance I had composed, hoping for some positive feedback. He wrote back that he unfortunately would not be calling it because it contained a California Twirl, a figure he felt was contributing to the trend of twirling in place of courtesy turns, a change he did not condone at the time. I felt that the genie was already “out of the bottle”, but his guidance, as always, made me think.
Like Ralph Page, Dudley Laufman, and so many other callers who have preserved and extended the healthy tradition of community dancing to live music, Ted Sannella rightfully occupies a place of honor in our dance history.
Ted, Larry Collins, and I, hitch hiked from Revere, MA (where Ted grew up) to Concord, NH to attend the Caller’s Jamboree, sponsored by the local Square Dance Club. They held the event on a Monday because callers were available then. The callers that evening were Gene Gowing, Ralph Page, Al Brundage, Hal Brundage, Larry Loy, Pop Smith, Ed Durlacher. Musicians were the Gulyassy brothers, Dick Best, Dick Richardson, Russ Allen, Bob McQuillen, Johnny Trombly, Jr. Richardson, Norm Smith. Cy Kano may have played too. The dance, held at Concord High School, was top drawer.
After the dance, Bob invited us to stay at his place in New Boston. We had sleeping bags and slept in his back yard on the edge of the Pistcataquog River. In the morning kids going to school on the sidewalk above us said Look at the bums sleeping in the field. Bob invited us up for breakfast, fresh strawberries and cream from Hob Nob Farm Jerseys. The Gulyassy’s had spent the night too and after eating they got down to playing music. Bob called the school and said Send the Saint John boy and his buddy down here to hear some great music. They arrived and listened to such they had never heard before…..Devils Dream, Old Joe Clark, Peter Street. Ted was just starting to call then, and I am sure he soaked it right up. Bob said after, Don’t bother to go back to school boys, just go swimming. After coffee, Ted, Larry and I headed back to Revere.
Ted and I used to play Guess that tune over the phone…he using those great French Canadian records he had and I would play something on my trusty harmonica.
Many years later a party was thrown for him at the Scout House, celebrating 40 years of calling. They decided to roast Ted. I was given a turn. Dan Pearl was doing the sound. I gave him a cassette of Tommy Duchesne et ses Chevaliers du Folklore band playing Reel du Pays de Haut (Reel of the High Country.) What’s that tune, Ted I said. Reel Pays de Haut he replied. I know what’s on the other side Dudley, do you.
Ted’s Friday night dances at Porter Square were very popular. He did a good mixture of square dances and folk dances. Maybe two contras. He used recorded music and kept very accurate notes of every dance he called and the music used. Somehow I persuaded him to let me play my harmonica and piano accordion (at the same time) for Lamplighter’s Hornpipe. I guess I messed it up some, but Ted was very patient and kind about it.
I do know that Ted was not a musician. He told me once that he couldn’t carry a tune in a hand basket. But he could call dances with some sort of chant.
Anyway, at one of the earlier RPLW Ted asked me to call a dance. He asked me what I was going to call and I said Money Musk. Oh lord Dudley that will take forever to teach. But I went ahead and did it anyway. Didn’t walk through it, just said This a triple minor proper dance, active couples turn partners once and a half around, below one couple, forward six and back etc. Of course they were all good dancers and they did it fine. After, Ted said, Good job, Dudley, I should have known better to question you. In that gracious way of his.
Later that evening Marry DesRosiers called Darling Nellie Gray. Jacqueline and I danced in the same set as Ted and Jean. They were second. First couple to the right and balance the two. Elbows bent, we did a neat step swing balance…step on right foot, pass left foot over across in front of right, knees bent just a bit, then right foot across left with just a hint of a pigeon wing, then an easy shuffle two step, circle, then R&L etc. Ted beamed through it all. Said later, You dance sort of like Ralph.
A week or before he died, I was having coffee with him in Wiscasset. Jean was knitting. Ted asked me what I thought of the current version of Petronella. I said I didn’t like it with inactives joining in on the turns and balances. He said, Why, you started it. I said Beg your pardon, but Donny Parkhurst and Glenn Towle got that thing going. Jean said I’m leaving. I said, I had called the English dance Dressed Ship which has all the couples bouncing around and Donny and Glenn just adapted it to Petronella, and you didn’t tell kids that age how to dance. I thereafter called it Citronella. We agreed that we didn’t like it.
Coming home from Maine Fiddle Camp one time, Jacqueline and I went by way of Whitefield and found the cemetery where Ted is buried. Fiddles under arms, we walked to his grave and played Chorus Jig for him.
I would amend that story (Kate Barnes) that took place at a Temple in Newton to say that “Perhaps Ted thought the kids must be missing out on Easter celebrations and thought an Easter parade would be in order.” After he announced that they should line up for that, one of the kids yelled out, “We don’t have Easter parades; we’re Jewish.” And that was the end of that.
I also remember that Ted had a PA system that was kind of old-fashioned and didn’t have great sound. We always noticed that his calling was twice as loud as the band. There was nothing we could do about it because that’s just how he liked it, and he had control of the knobs.
I also appreciated playing squares and liked that he played international music at the break, I believe, at Brimmer & May. And of course he had the Triplets that he wrote and called at each dance. There was the tradition of people clapping loudly when he announced them. It was his signature and it was sweet that that followed him through his career.
I also remember that he recorded every dance and logged it in and analyzed which music worked and which didn’t. When you played for him at another dance, he would suggest those tunes you had played that he thought worked well. Over time I came to appreciate how committed he was about creating a good dance, and I found that it was helpful for me as well to know what he liked. He very much thought the caller was in charge, and I was fine with that model. In more recent times, some callers have complained to me that certain musicians would not take any direction from them about what kinds of tunes were suitable– even though the wrong kind of music made calling certain dances, squares in particular, very difficult. Ted would not have tolerated that, I suspect. As the years went on, I held Ted in greater and greater regard because he was so dedicated. But I always wished he’d had a better sound system and made the band a little louder in the mix.
He was the Dean, after all!
In the early 90s, I was the person who was responsible for hiring bands and callers for the Sunday night dances in the Washington, DC area (for FSGW). At the time, in an effort to improve dancing, we would ask callers to spend a few minutes of their evening focusing on a particular move and explaining in perhaps more detail than they normally would, how to do it. So, callers would spend a little extra time on how to swing, or how to do a ladies’ chain, etc. I think when I called once during that era I focused on how to circle left (giving weight, walking in one direction, etc.). Anyway, when Ted came, he spent some time on how to do an allemande left. I was on the dance floor, kind of near the top of the hall, and my neighbor scoffed at the instruction, saying something like “Why is that old man telling us this stuff? Doesn’t he know that we are *advanced* dancers?” I looked at him and said – “First off, I am the one who asked him to tell us this stuff. Second, that ‘old man’ is a master. If he says we don’t know how to allemande left, then we don’t know how to allemande left.” The entire evening was spectacular, of course. I hope that young man got over his attitude.
A note – the DC Sunday night dance, at least at the time, was designated an “advanced dance” – which I never cared for. Obviously we let anyone in, and callers always did what instruction needed to be done to make the evenings pleasurable for everyone. I’m afraid that it sent a pretty unwelcoming tone (and contributed to some dancer attitude), but that was out of my hands – I just made sure there were bands, callers, and sound people each week.
Margaret (from Maine)
During his years calling for the North Whitefield dance in Maine, there was often a hambo played at the break. I danced with my partner Eric, and afterwards, Ted made a point to come tell us that he thought we were the best hambo couple in the floor. That felt like high praise!
Oh also! I recall dying with laughter on a few occasions when he would throw in the square dance call to “swing your corner’s partner’s corner’s partner”!
Years ago, my brother, Dudley and our family had some dancing in our house In Arlington Mass. On one such occasion, Ted, along with our dance friend Larry Collins. couldn’t seem to get into our house. The dance was held in our cellar. To our amazement, suddenly, Ted and Larry appeared through the cellar window and joined us. A few years later, my husband Ed Mason, now late, and I danced in Newtown Hall in Porter Square In Cambridge at Ted’s Friday Night Dance which was famous and wonderful. We all had the best fun. Ted had us dancing contras, squares and just as many international dances including English country dancing. Ted was a great teacher and got us through King’s Cross, the Hambo, which was a feat, and also a Russian square which was a challenge and of course lots more. Anyhow, it all was a marvelous time together with so many of our dear friends. Every time I dance Newcastle I am thinking of Ted who loved that dance. When the evening ended, many of us repaired to the Midget Restaurant across Mass Ave for more fun. That was a time to treasure which I do.
Ted Sannella was a fixture in my early days of contra dancing and as a young fiddler. Ted was not only a gifted and inspiring caller, but also a generous mentor to young callers and musicians. When my first band, Unstrung Heroes, formed and nervously started playing for contra dances, Ted was one of our biggest supporters and champions and frequently hired us to play with him at dances. One of the things that made him so unique as a caller and wonderful to play with, was that he knew our repertoire and would create an entire program of dances that he planned to do in an evening, write or type it up, along with tunes and medleys from our repertoire that he thought would go well with each dance! I’ll never forget that. He was such a strong and abiding presence in our dance community then and now.
I hadn’t thought about these things for a long time but I do have a couple of remembrances about him.
NEFFA session when Ted called. When he announced that he was going to do Ted’s Triplet #24, everyone cheered as you know. The younger crowd never experienced that but I’ll remember those dances (which I loved) forever.
In the early 80’s I had a friend here in Vermont from work. She knew I liked dancing contra at the time. She got married in a small ceremony as I recall somewhere in Vermont or maybe in New Hamster. So, I show up at the venue on that day and maybe I was doing something out back visiting or getting something ready for the wedding or reception and I discovered that she had hired someone to do a contra dance. There in the back, outside was Ted Sannella and Bob McQuillen. There could have been a third person but I can’t remember. I’m thinking, wow, she hired these famous people to do this tiny wedding dance? And this was not a dance crowd. I don’t remember anything about the dance itself but it seems so strange at the time. But, now I realize that a gig is a gig and if it makes money, you do it.
Of course memory is a fickle beast so anything I say is subject to the ravages of time.
Ted was on staff at Pinewoods (was it the week that we re-named “Damp and Mildew Week?”) one of my first times at camp. I was relatively new to dancing, and he saw an opportunity to introduce me to a “cheat that doesn’t harm anybody or the dance.” We were partners, and the call was lines go forward and back; actives swing. So the lines went forward, and with a twinkle in his eye he let go of his line and started our swing early. He knew that I’d be shocked, and also delighted. And he was right. And it was probably 35 years ago, but I still remember the surprise and joy.
- Ted Sannella was not just a caller, but a true dance leader. He understood all the many elements that have to combine to make a good evening of dance. He was thoughtful about all aspects of dancing. His introductions to the two books are a mini-course in dance leadership, and beginning callers would do well to read his comments in the Contra Connection column in old CDSS newsletters.
- He was an extraordinary, zesty, playful dancer himself. Going down a long line and encountering Ted meant being ready for an extra twirl in passing on a hey for four, or having your partner stolen (temporarily) from you and then returned with a big smile, always on the beat.
- He was a skilled choreographer who also celebrated and delighted in the choreography of others. Every letter I received from him contained calls for one or usually two dances that had come his way and that he believed deserved wider attention.
- He was a perfectionist who believed in preparation: He’d spend hours planning for an event, looking through the band’s repertoire, listening to their recordings to find tunes that they played well that would fit the dances he planned to call. Of course, he was also flexible, ready to shift gears as needed.
- He loved to demonstrate good dancing, hopping off the stage onto the floor, where his deep red shirt made him a visible subject as he showed how to dance something with grace and good timing.
- He was one of the few callers I know who could deliver an effective lecture (Tod Whittemore and Lisa Greenleaf are others) on dance style and still keep people’s attention, in part because he was both very serious about what he was saying and because he said it with such good humor.
- He loved taking a group of complacent dancers and mixing up his calls (in a square, for example, where there’s plenty of room for that) to leave them all over the place, but laughing all the way. “Wake up, you guys!” is what he seemed to be saying. “Have fun but pay attention!”
- In the very first calling workshop of Ted’s that I attended (three of us in a church basement) he spoke about the K.I.S.S. principle (the first time I’d encountered it) and he demonstrated it again and again, in his selection of dances, in his instruction, and in his calling. For folks just a little older than me, Ralph Page stands out as the exemplar of a caller. For me, it is Ted who sets the example.
- He and Jean stayed with Sheila and me many years ago, and I can still picture the two of them talking earnestly to us: “You two should get married!” We took their advice, happily. Hanging on a cupboard door over the kitchen sink is a small doll Jean made for us; the doll wears the commemorative pin we made for the Ted’s Triplets marathon danced in that very room, March 2, 2002.
Ted was a pharmacist. He took Friday afternoons off so he could plan his evening program for the Porter Square, Cambridge, or Somerville, dance. I don’t remember where the boundary lines were. These dances were filled with college students and this was pre-live music. Number 7 was always the mixer. Ted had determined that this was the appropriate place for a mixer. The dances cost 80 cents and there were plenty of dimes for making change. We all had to sign in to give the appearance of a private dance. This was to avoid some regulation or fee. Ted’s wife Jean logged everyone in and made change.
The program consisted of 3 squares, a contra and an international dance. If the dance went longer than the record, Ted would just flip the record player arm back to the beginning. He became very adept at quick resets. Once in a while he would remind the dancers that should you refuse an invitation to dance, you may not go dance with another person. Sounds archaic but to me, that was the norm.
Remembering Ted Sannella
When The Olde Michigan Ruffwater Stringband was in our ninth year of Lovett Hall Contra Dances at Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Ted Sannella joined us for our Sunday March 4, 1990 dance. We had worked with Ted a number of times through the Ann Arbor Council for Traditional Music and Dance (AACTMAD) and the Ten Pound Fiddle, and were honored he could join us for one of our monthly “First Sunday” dances. He called a tip right after the intermission, in the sweet spot of the program. His first dance was a contra, and based on the figures the Ruffwater crew selected the medley of Earl of Mansfield (G) into Joys of Quebec (A). After his signature teaching, he launched the dance. At the halfway mark, the band of 10 jumped into Joys of Quebec and lifted the dancers about a foot off the floor. The crowd started clapping to the beat of the tune in this very “hot” hall, a real deluge. Ted turned to us in the bandshell and hollered out “Do you let them keep clapping like this?” and 10 heads nodded up and down in unison. He got the biggest smile on his face and let the good times roll. There were in the neighborhood of 250 dancers in the hall that day. Imagine all those shoes squeaking, the hooting and whooping AND the clapping. PARTEE HARDEE
I had the privilege and pleasure of working with Ted in the Boston area starting, I think, in the mid to late ‘70s. One of the first things that comes to mind when I think about Ted is that he had great taste. That applied to the dances he wrote, the classy way he ran a dance evening, and his appreciation of good music. He respected the musicians and interacted with us more than many callers.
Ted gave pretty specific feedback to musicians – positive and negative, in terms that could be acted on. He wasn’t fluent in musical terminology, but he was able and willing to articulate what he heard and what he wanted.
For example, early on in my working with Ted, I was playing mostly electric guitar and some occasional fiddle. Ted found a tactful way to convey his enjoyment of the guitar, but also to say how important the fiddle is to a New England sound. That encouraged me to work more at the fiddle, and I’m grateful for that.
And, as Mary has noted, Ted kept track of tunes and medleys specific musicians had played for specific dances and often asked for repeats of combinations that he liked. That felt like a real compliment. This was also an important lesson that choosing tunes to fit the dance is an essential part of the art. And I learned to be on my toes, because he would remember if I screwed up!
Even though Ted wasn’t regarded as a musician, he had a lot of fun making the limber jack into a great percussion instrument.
I once had what I thought was a great idea for an opening figure for a contra dance and worked it into a 32 bar dance, set to a tune I’d written for my friend Susan Rubel (A Trip to Connecticut). I asked Ted to critique it. With a little “help” gently pointing out all the things that didn’t work, he morphed it into a totally different dance – but he did it without ridiculing me and kept the tune when he put his new dance in his second book. Again – tactful.
The squares that he wrote and called had real life, joy and fun to them. He also appreciated and found room for variety of couple dances that no longer are interspersed at most dances – although Salty Dog Rag seems to have stayed in the repertoire. He expected musicians to be fluent in these traditional staples, and that added variety and a change of pace to an evening.
Finally, Ted was a decent man, with high standards, but was not on a pedestal. When he hired you for a gig, the call would end with “Ready to play at 8”. That said it all – you knew what the expectation was.
Vince’s comments from Retrospective Session
Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, January 18, 2014
Just from a musician’s perspective, actually I have said this here before, a long time ago, but I think it’s a wonderful thing about Ted was that he really paid attention to the music and he thought a lot about what tunes worked with which dances, which a lot of callers do. But even more than that, Ted would think about this musician playing this tune with this dance was really fun and he kept notes on this. And so he would say, “Remember, five years ago down in Westport, I did this thing and I really liked that medley you did with Carol Bittenson.” That’s the kind of thing he would pay attention to. As the musicians, I have to say, we really appreciated that.
“Written in about 1998 or thereabouts”
I didn’t know Ted Sannella all THAT well, but we had our “moments” I guess you’d say. He moved to Wiscasset, Maine about 8 years ago and a couple years after that, Jim Spicer started the North Whitefield dance on fourth Fridays. This was “Ted’s” dance and was an immediate success. Actually it false-started a few times at various halls but ended up in North Whitefield because that’s where my friends John Pranio and Toki Oshima, who were going to be the “house band”, lived, and that was close to Ted’s and there was a nice hall there (St. Dennis’ Parish Hall). I started doing the sound for the dance and sitting in with the band on bass or percussion occasionally. So I got to see Ted in action from “behind the scenes” once a month.
At first we all thought he was a little stiff and demanding, well let’s say I did. Who was this guy coming in here from away, telling US what to do!!?? I mean he seemed very fussy about how the band sounded and everything had to be just so, and he had these lists of dances and recommended tunes to go with them printed up to pass out to the band before each dance, I mean really!! Of course the dancers all seemed like they were having a good time and the dance grew very quickly. And Ted and I became friendly and he always had helpful suggestions about the dances. If I asked about a dance sequence, he’d give me the card to copy it down and point out the important stuff – often he’d do this while calling the dance at the same time. I mean this guy was GOOD.
Ted used to like to play his wooden spoons along with the music sometimes. He’d beat them between his hand and chest, all the time with this big grin. I used to play bottlecap rattle with the band sometimes, too. One time we took a percussion break together on wooden spoons and bottlecap rattle, me and Ted both with these big shit eating grins. John saw it, said he wished he had had a camera. Anyway, everyone warmed up to Ted and realized he really KNEW how to get the most out of any situation. He had a gentle way with beginners that kept them coming back and a way of making ANY dance seem fun for the experienced dancers. I think the Maine experience loosened Ted up a bit, too. It was wicked fun working with him. So now he’s gone and we all miss him. There’s so much more I would like to ask him, and it’s too late. But I think about him when I’m passing out my sheets printed out with the dances and tunes before each dance…. See ya Ted.
KGB Visits Maine
Back in the late 90’s the Seattle contra dance band KGB was on tour on the east coast and were booked at North Whitefield shortly after Ted died. KGB is: Julie King – piano; Claude Ginsburg – violin, concertina, viola; Dave Bartley – mandolin, guitar, cittern, etc… This was and still is an AMAZING, talented, fun band! I was doing sound for the dance. Here’s a little side bar. Ted was not Catholic but asked to be buried in the cemetery right next to the Parish Hall of St. Dennis’ where the Whitefield dance is held. We always used to keep the window facing the graveyard open during the dance so Ted could hear the music. This was right behind the “stage”, stage left. I didn’t know the members of the band at the time but they knew about Ted and made reference to the fact that he was “listening” during the dance. Afterwards, when we had broken down and were starting to leave the hall Claude (I think) said they wanted to go down to the graveyard and play a tune for Ted at his graveside. It was late fall and pretty cold but we went down there, (it’s a five minute walk I guess) and after a while found Ted’s grave (not ostentatious just a stone flat on the ground). I think it was Claude on fiddle and Dave on mandolin and they played “Lady of the Lake” (in G) in the dark. There were 8 or ten of us there, some in tears, some just remembering stuff. Quite a moment!
Two on the Aisle
In the final year or two of Ted’s life, his leukemia (I think that’s what got him) returned but he kept up an active schedule of calling all over the country. At one of the last dances at North Whitefield that I remember dancing to his calling, he introduced a new dance, “Two on the Aisle”. This dance had a cloverleaf swing that ended up with a partner swing on the side. I was always totally amazed how anyone could write a dance and know where everyone would end up after a “cloverleaf swing” for heaven’s sake. BUT, of course, Ted was a genius and he knew!!
The dance was entitled “Two on the Aisle” and the “two” were himself and Bob McQuillen. Ted told the story of traveling by air to a dance weekend – I think it was in Alaska – and coincidentally meeting Mac on the flight. They had aisle seats right across from each other and spent the whole flight “sharing” with each other. The dance was a result of that meeting. In February 2014 at the Dance Flurry I was there and Mary Wesley called the dance and during the walkthrough and introduction of the dance seemed unaware of who the “two” were. This was just a week or so after Bob passed, and there had been a lot of sadness about his death and honoring of this great musician during the weekend. So I ran up there and filled her in and she graciously announced that to the crowd which resulted in a thunderous applause. Two GIANTS for sure! Here’s the actual dance from that.
One of My First School Dance Gigs
I was just starting out calling in the late 80’s, early90’s. I had been dancing since the late 70’s. As many callers do, who are coming from dancing in the “urban contra dance scene”, I started calling duple improper dances to people who already knew how to dance and I was having a reasonable amount of success. BUT based on my years, hah hah, of experience I got hired to call a dance at the Whitefield elementary school for school kids. This was maybe 1994 or 1995?
I admit I thought I knew what I was doing but quickly found out I did NOT. I should have been calling “barn dances” but all I knew were duple dances. I struggled and basically it was “15 minutes of teaching for a REALLY rough 5 minute dance” sort of thing. It was happening but I was clearly unprepared. Then all of a sudden, Ted and his wife Jean walked in about halfway through the dance and joined in the dancing. I knew who Ted was and this did not put me more at ease. hah hah!! I struggled through it though, very much embarrassed. BUT… at the end Ted came up and congratulated me. He sensed what the deal was and was very supportive. Ted kept being supportive and I realized that was very much a part of who he was. It really wasn’t ABOUT HIM!
I immediately went out and learned a bunch of “family dance dances”. These days I probably call 4 or 5 times as many “barn dances” as “modern contra dances” and you might say Ted was part of the impetus for me to do that.
Playing for Ted, plus The Banjo
Back in the 90’s one of my bands, Scrod Pudding, had several opportunities to play dances with Ted calling, mostly for the 4th Friday North Whitefield dance. Ted was VERY organized about his dance programs. He always had a printed sheet for the band which had the dances in order and recommended tunes. Some times he would actually mail the program to us a week ahead of time!! He would always recommend a tune and add “or similar.” Well, we were playing medleys back then and sometimes we knew the tune he recommended and would fit it in, and often not, but we tried to figure out what he was aiming for and he always seemed satisfied. Scrod Pudding started out as an old-time band playing for an Appalachian clogging group (believe it or not). That is to say we had a banjo player, Jim Joseph, (who also played mandolin, button accordion and percussion). The first time we worked with Ted, he indicated a displeasure with the use of the banjo. A lot of our repertoire was old-time tunes back in the day so we sort of chuckled and kept on doing what we were doing. This subsequently came up several times but I never had the opportunity to ask Ted what “the deal was”. Maybe a “Yankee bias”? It’s not like a lot of the New England bands and orchestras didn’t have banjos in them! Maybe he just didn’t like the sound. Anyway, I remember the last time we played for Ted, Jim walked into the hall with TWO banjos! Ted saw and just smiled!! That was Ted!
Bill comments at the 2020 Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend
When Ted moved to Maine, they started the North Whitefield dance about 30 years ago, or 29, and I used to do sound and I would be back there and Ted would be calling the dance a lot, and he was always the most gracious and helpful person. He knew that I was a starting-out caller and he would hand me his cards and show me, “This is the important part, right here.” I consider him to be one of my mentors and he was a great friend.
What a fabulous idea to collect these stories and how can it possibly be 25 years already? I want to share a story about Ted and Olivia during my first year (ok, maybe my second? But I think first…) ever at camp. Steve had invited me and Olivia to Family Week at Buffalo Gap. It would have been 1992 or ‘93. I had no prior experience nor did Olivia.
We were in the pavilion on the side bench that faced uphill and it was bed time. Ted was sitting next to us, although I did not probably even know who he was, yet. And Olivia, who was three, did not want to go to bed. (Fill in the blanks about the quiet, attentive audience focused on the stage, the nervous first-time mom, and the melting down child…) What I remember is saying something like, “Olivia, come on, you’ve got to go to bed.” Then she half wriggled off my lap and locked her little fingers around the back of the wooden bench and shouted, “Oh no I don’t!” Then Ted, calmly prying her fingers loose one by one as I was working to stand up and get her out of there said, “Oh. Yes. You. Do!”
We were free!
(By the end of that week, Olivia became the kid who for years would race to our cabin 5 minutes ahead of the train with its whistle blowing so she could be in her pj’s standing and waving from the porch as she collected her goodnight serenade.) It was, among other things, a beautiful example of how it takes a village… how beautifully we create those villages at every camp… and how immensely that week would shape the rest of my life.
I will love Ted forever for being in that place at that time. ️♥
Ted Sannella – My memories
When I moved from New York City to Boston as a young man in 1973, Ted Sannella was already the dean of Boston area callers. (Ralph Page was alive and well in New Hampshire, but he was semi-retired from calling and had cut his Boston appearances from weekly to once or twice a year.) The Boston callers were so overjoyed to find anyone under the age of 40 interested in calling that they went out of their way to encourage me, but none more than Ted. He loved to talk shop with anyone, and he made it clear that I, the new kid in town, was not imposing on his time. More than once I was a guest at the Sannella home on Sunday afternoon, when Ted would show off his record collection to me; it was understood that I would stay for supper, which was always grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. At least once Ted invited me to tag along with him to a private party gig, so I could see first-hand how he dealt with complete novices.
When CDS Boston Centre decided to inject new life into their weekly square and contra dance, they asked Ted to be their regular caller. He told them he didn’t care to call every week, but he accepted the post of artistic director and agreed to call every other week. He suggested my name as the alternate caller, not necessarily because I was the best in town, but because my style and philosophy best matched his. At first, though, the continuity Ted envisioned from week to week didn’t seem to materialize: There were complaints that the quality of the calling was inconsistent. I have never worked so hard to improve as I did that first autumn. After a few months the complaints diminished and the crowds increased.
Ted Sannella, as much as any single person, was responsible for setting me on the road to success as a dance caller. The only way I can discharge my debt to him is to try to pay it forward, as I’m sure Ted would have wished.
I was honored to be asked by Ted to be on the Ralph Page committee
The Red Shirt
For many contra dancers, the sight of Ted Sannella behind the mic was a comforting one. Dressed in his trademark button-down, traffic-light red, long-sleeve shirt, Ted was knowledgeable, confident, friendly, and approachable. As a fledgling dance caller, I admired him enormously and attempted to incorporate some of Ted’s behaviors into my own developing style.
Shortly after Ted’s death, I was hired for a week-long dance camp in a New England state. They had a long history of offering many weeks of international folk dancing with a smattering of contra dance and English country dancing all in a beautiful country setting. Ted had been on staff at this camp many times, but I was a newbie, so I was briefed by the organizer on what to expect.
The campers, the organizer said, were essentially jaded New Yorkers. This did not bother me, as I grew up in New York, and I felt equipped to respond in kind to any jibes that might come my way. In dance camp situations, I try to let the material be the star, with my role as facilitator.
The camp began, and I did my slots in the one-track program. I did not get the expected jibes from the campers, but on the other hand, I felt like I was not clicking with them.
The days went by. I enjoyed the presentations and leadership of the other hired teachers. They all were popular and fun. I realized that they each had a larger-than-life personality and an audience-pleasing schtick. With nearly a half-century of experience, Ted could be just the kind of performer demanded by this – or any – situation.
Towards the end of the week, one husband/wife pair came up to me with a gift: a button-down, traffic-light red, long-sleeve shirt that they had obtained in town. Perhaps they saw in me some echoes of Ted in the way I looked (people observed that I looked like I was Ted’s son) and demeanor. I felt honored that they thought I deserved to wear the red shirt.
I still have it, of course. Whenever I see it, I think about Ted’s voice, his gentle manner, and his great leadership. I feel privileged to have been his friend.
Dan’s comments from Retrospective Session
Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, January 18, 2014
I remember my first dance, first real dance. I did some dancing in a summer camp. They had Karl Finger come in. I don’t know how many of you knew Karl, a folk dance leader. He came in and taught some dances to the campers, which was okay. But it really came alive for me when I first started dancing for real at the Brimmer and May school on the Tuesday nights that the dance was run by CDS Boston and the callers were Tony Parkes, Tony Saletan, and Ted Sannella, in rotation.
My first night was Ted Sannella. I can’t think of a better person to go to a dance to. Ted was welcoming to the dancers. He made things seem simple and it was just a really joyous experience. And probably that’s why I’m — I’m here today because of that first exposure to dancing with Ted.
If there’s a word that I could use to characterize Ted it’s perhaps generous—generous in many ways. He was always on the lookout for people to act as a protégé. I’m sure there’s other people in this room and certainly many others around the world who can cite Ted as a mentor. I kind of had two people fighting over me as mentors. I was pretty lucky to be in a place with a vibrant contra dance scene in the Boston area.
Certainly, Ted Sannella was one of them and Larry Jennings was the other. Larry approached contra dancing from this kind of the cerebral end of it — the analytical point — but you’ll hear more about Larry later. With Ted, you could always tell it was from the heart. He wanted to do what was best for the dancers and make it a connection with the dancers. And it was just a fine balance of the head and the heart with those two mentors.
Ted always looked for opportunities to kind of bring me along. Once he heard that I was starting to call dances, he kind of took me under his wing. He brought me down to the dances that he called and just had me watch, ostensibly to keep him awake on the way home from the gig. That was his excuse. I don’t believe it for a second now.
So we’d get in his car and traipse down to Westport Point, Massachusetts, on the South coast, a long-lived series, which happens during the summer and it’s still going on. And he showed me how he conducted the evening, ‘cause it was kind of a special, special event. And also it took me to his Newton series and on Cabot Street School. And had me lead a dance or two, which I wasn’t expecting. He’d say, “Dan, lead Alenulul.” Okay. All right, I’m ready. So I taught it and then he was always looking for ways to do that. And it was just a real thrill.
Even when not calling, he was generous. He allowed me to come to his house. Of course he loved to show off his record collection, his endless file cards of all the dances that he called to the records…. The hospitality offered to me and the other protégés was really boundless. You know, this was a visit to Wellesley, visits to his home in Wiscasset. It was just a really great, great experience and I miss him a lot. A lot of people miss his leadership, his influence, his voice, but we all have fond memories of his generosity. So that’s Ted.
I worked with Ted as a musician as well as a dancer and interviewer. And he was a perfectionist, as he says in our interview. He used to hire our band The Fish Family for gigs in the New York area, and he would have something in mind for some dance, and if we didn’t do it just the way he envisioned, he would give us a disappointed look, sometimes a dirty look. I feel I let him down a few times. One time we had this tune “Ronde des Voyageurs,” a very relaxed walking reel, that worked just right for a certain circle dance. And it was going so well that I decided to switch to another tune, to “up” the energy. So we switched, and I guess we speeded up a little bit on the second tune, and he turned around with a disgusted look and basically told us we had ruined it. If you achieved perfection for a rare moment, why in Hell would you want to improve it??
While we were working together I was also running around the world for CBS News, and a couple of times I was called out of town at the last minute. We had to improvise with a sub or just a smaller band — one fiddle instead of two. This was unacceptable to him, so he just stopped hiring us. I respected that, being a bit of a perfectionist myself.
Ted planned every detail of a dance — with backup plans for every contingency. He wore a red shirt so dancers could see him up on the bandstand, and he was fussy about microphones. A lot of callers, choreographers, musicians and dancers learned a lot from him — he was strict, but at the same time creative and free. A true New England genius.
I had the honor and the pleasure of working with Ted Sannella on a dance project years ago. I also attended his callers class at Pinewoods many years ago, and it gave me a greater appreciation for the work that he did.
I do have 2 memories of him that I want to share.
The first was when I introduced gender-free dancing, as a session, to NEFFA in April 1990. If my memory serves me right, I distinctly remember watching both Ted Sannella and Tony Parkes pairing up and dancing together during one of the dances, both smiling and chatting with each other about what was going on, on the dance floor during this session, while enjoying one another’s company. They were being quite playful with each other, and seemed to be having a great time dancing together. I knew who they were, and highly respected their work (and at that point in my life was really intimidated by both of them, particularly Tony Parkes!) So when I saw them dancing together it was a mind blowing moment for me, showing me an open side of themselves that I had not expected, while at the same time, making myself pretty vulnerable to a whole community of dancers who did not know I had been doing this work behind the scenes for a number of years at that point. It was a beautiful moment to watch different traditions, both old and new, coming together and being appreciated by people deeply steeped in our old traditions of music and dance.
The other memory was during one of my weeks of dancing at Pinewoods, probably the early 1990s. It was likely the summer that I took the caller’s class that Ted was leading at Pinewoods. At that time, I had started wearing skirts to many of the dances I attended, and was experimenting a lot with dancing in the opposite role. One evening, I was contra dancing with a woman and we decided to dance in the opposite role for that particular dance. Ted had been calling from the stage. We got part way through the dance when I noticed that Ted had jumped into the dance, was in our line and that shortly, he was going to be my next neighbor! I remember tensing up and thinking to myself, “Oh my god, it’s Ted Sannella. I don’t think he’s really gonna approve of this.” To my great surprise and delight, when Ted met me for a neighbor balance and swing, he grabbed me and gave me one of the best swings I had ever had, and he looked me straight in the eye and gave me one of the biggest most playful shit eating grins I had ever seen! It is a moment, to this day, that I will never ever forget, and become one of the many moments that I experienced in the traditional dance world that gave me the confidence and the courage to press on and continue the work I was doing, building bridges between the gender-free and conventional dance communities. Ted was very traditional in his philosophies and views of dancing, yet at the same time, he was a very respectful person, and someone with a good heart who believed in sharing his best with everyone he met.
I don’t really know much about him, so it’ll be nice to learn more. Kim had an amusing anecdote about traveling to Texas and being picked up by a local contra dancer, who was also picking up Ted. The contra dancer knew Ted, and Kim and Ted knew each other, so they all met up where Ted was arriving, rather conveniently, solving that problem in pre-cell phone days.
I began my calling career in 1986, and I had heard a lot about Ted Sannella through reading his book Balance & Swing and CDSS, and had danced to him at NEFFA and other venues. In addition, I had been calling many contras and squares he had written.
As I recall, one day I had the gumption to telephone him about some questions about the choreography of a few of his dances. He took an interest in me as a beginning caller and after a long talk, asked me to send him a tape of myself calling at a public dance for him to critique. I was thrilled that he would take the time to do this.
After he listened, he told me that he was impressed with my calling, but I needed to have more of a variety of inflections especially to emphasize either a change (like in a square) or the first time or two through the dance, to highlight a key moment (e.g., “Swing your partner!”).
After a long talk, he invited me to his house in the Boston area to spend a day or two. I couldn’t believe it! Not only was I going to spend time with my calling “idol”, but being a very dedicated runner who had run the Boston Marathon a few times, I could run on the course while I stayed with him.
During the daytime he was working full time as a pharmacist, so we talked about the “caller business” at night. One night, we went to the Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?) night contra dance at the YWCA (Cambridge or Watertown?), and he was the caller. Something that surprised me was the low turnout, maybe 30 participants, while I considered every moment in his presence to be such a privilege! What’s that saying about being ignored in your hometown? At all the out-of-town dances and festivals the hall would be packed.
A side note…. the World Series was in Boston that night. My favorite team — NY Mets vs his favorite — Boston Red Sox. As we drove to the dance, we could see the lights of Fenway Park. When we got home we saw the end of the game. A great night for me to watch my team beat his, but he was pretty upset!
During this visit, he showed me the programs for all the dance evenings he had called throughout his career. This was fascinating. He typed out a list of up to 15 dances, with easier or more difficult alternatives for a few dances when he felt unsure about the mix of experience levels for that occasion. In this list, he also included names of tunes which he felt would work perfectly for each dance. For the musicians whose repertoire he knew well, he listed tunes they either played, or alternative tunes which were common enough that they would be able to choose something with the same feel.
One of the fascinating revelations of looking through his programs was the preferences of the dancers going back to the late 1940’s. Some of the programs had amazing variety. Several squares, some circles, maybe one or two contras, some international folk, and a few couples dances. Up to that point, I had just assumed an evening consisted of mainly contras and squares, a couple of waltzes, a polka, a Scandinavian dance, and maybe Salty Dog Rag. And nowadays, many contra evenings have only contras and waltzes.
One of his favorite dance events of all time was a contra dance with Swallowtail in Princeton, NJ. He was so thrilled to be calling with them, he decided to record (cassette) the entire dance. He played that recording for me, and then made a copy for me to keep! Now I have to find that valuable tape as well as a working cassette player! When I became director of the Dance Flurry Festival, I decided that I would book Ted and Swallowtail as soon as I could get their schedules to mesh. That came to pass in 1991.
Another honor for me was hosting Ted and his wife Jean at my house when he came to call a dance with George Wilson and Selma Kaplan (I made a cassette recording of that full evening) in the late 1980s.
Not only was he a great role model for callers on planning programs, teaching and technique, matching music to dances, but also enjoyed having fun! One of my favorite memories of dancing to his calling was being in a square when he called the Merry Go Round square dance at the NEFFA Festival. I remember laughing so hard to the point of tears at his whacky calls (e.g., “swing your partner’s corner’s partner”) with his exuberant spirit throughout. My face hurt so much that day from laughing, and we all bonded in uncontrollable laughter and appreciation for Ted. I believe it was a tradition for him to call that dance every year at NEFFA.
Another special memory was dancing on June 11, 1988, at the Round Hill, CT contra dance in which Ted was reunited with the first fiddler (George Gulyassy) he ever worked with at least 30 years later. As I recall (with the help of David Millstone’s memory) Ted worked with this fiddler at the Westport Point MA dance series.
Bill Olson adds:
And on the “Merry Go Round” he would have that little delay: “swing your partner’s, corner’s…….. PARTNER” !! His timing was always perfect so that the dancers would have try to change direction JUST as they started moving in the “wrong direction”: hah hah…
Sylvia Miskoe adds:
Now I have another side to this story. I don’t remember the setting but Ted was chatting about something. He mentioned hosting Paul Rosenberg one April. “The Marathon went right by my house. Paul was a runner as well as a caller. He was in 7th heaven, to watch the marathon and stay at my house.”
I met Ted at Whitby Folk Festival in North Yorkshire, UK. He did some great workshops and dances, and as an enthusiastic caller, I wrote down a lot of the material and we became friends. He was also interested in the dance technique workshops I was doing, and copied out the wall chart I had made. I am not sure what year this was, but it was before ‘Balance and Swing’ was published. Late 1970s? He loved the English 3 couple dances like Fandango that had been adapted from 18th century triple minors, and these inspired the triplets. Great transatlantic cross-fertilization. He describes being inspired by Fandango in the book.
Subsequently Ted and Jean stayed with my then husband and me in Lancashire – I would think that would have been another year, but I cannot now remember. We organised several dances and workshops for the local clubs.
He was a beautiful dancer, and a real gentleman. I have a signed copy of Balance and Swing with a lovely dedication. It’s a brilliant book, and I still use it at callers’ workshops to show how to notate dances – the instructions, then the dancing tips, comments and background.
When I was first learning to call for dancing in the 1980s, Ted Sannella was one of the great callers on the scene. I admired his meticulous preparation, flawless teaching, depth of knowledge, humor, and unaffected style. I studied his books religiously, both for repertoire and for teaching tips and insights. I still frequently consult my well-worn author-signed copy of Balance and Swing. And to this day, when newer callers or musicians ask me for resources, I never hesitate to steer them to his books Balance and Swing and Swing the Next.
Ted was one of the original organizers of The Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, an annual event that is unique among contra dance events in the way that it connects past and present. I know the intent of the weekend was to honor the contributions of Ralph Page, but I can’t help thinking of it as exemplifying Ted’s legacy. It was Ted Sannella who so expertly and thoughtfully made connections between a classic traditional style promoted by Page and evolving dance traditions, and that has been the niche the weekend has continued to fill.
Other contributions to these Ted Sannella stories capture his genius as a teacher, mentor, and caller. I want to focus on the area where Ted has had the greatest influence on me, namely his groundbreaking choreography. Throughout his career, Ted not only led New England-style dancing; he continually made new dances.
Ted’s first love as a choreographer was square dancing. He wrote many squares firmly rooted in New England quadrille tradition, but he took it to a new level with compositions like Fluid Drive, Follow the Leader, and Quadrille Joyeux. His squares were wide-ranging and imaginative, and consistently satisfying. I recall him teaching his dance Merry Mix-up, in which gents progress and ladies remain in their home place, unusual at that time. Just before the final promenade he asked, “Gents, are you home?” Concern spread through the dancers and there was a chorus of “no….” With a characteristic grin, Ted said, “Good! Promenade once around to the lady’s place.”
Ted also wrote many, many amazing contra dances. These frequently drew on the chestnut contra repertoire but expanded on that classic “vocabulary.” One of his many masterpieces is a dance called Fiddleheads, the first widely danced contra to recycle the Petronella spin. Similarly, he borrowed Money Musk geometry for his dance King of the Keyboard, but in a unique and clever way that gave it new life.
Ted imported figures from different dance traditions as well. He borrowed the “old side door” chase figure from Appalachian square dance for his contra dance, New Friendship Reel. Several elements of English country dance also found their way into his compositions. Newlywed’s Reel (composed in 1954 during Ted’s honeymoon), includes a half figure eight to complete the progression, which was suggested by his bride, Jean. I would say that the mirrored actions in his extraordinary dance, The Butterfly, have an English character. Heys-for-3 found their way into a couple of his triplets (numbers 23 and 34), and his dance Kennebec Contra used a hey-for-4. In every instance though, he was careful to re-cast the “borrowed” figure in a New England style. Style and tradition were important to Ted.
Ted wrote straightforward dances like the Elbow Hook Mixer or Scout House Reel, and mind-benders like Contravention. He sometimes wrote dances with a particular teaching agenda in mind. For example, to introduce the basics of contra dancing to newcomers he wrote a graded series of four dances. (The first was “One for the Money,” and you can infer the other three titles.) A few of his compositions—most notably CDS Reel—included dancing directly from one swing into another, smoothly and seamlessly. Ted was the smoothest of dancers and was personally fond of this move. So, he featured it as a treat for dancers he thought were up to it.
Ted composed dances in more different formations than anyone else I know. As well as squares and contras, Ted produced 41 “triplets,” the three-couple longways form he imported from English country dance and made his own. He made circle mixers, scatter mixers, Sicilian circles, four-face-four dances, threesomes, double quadrilles, and a Tempest-formation dance. His contras include proper and improper dances, double progression, Becket formation, and triple minor dances.
Ted’s influence on later choreographers is difficult to calculate. Contra dance style has continued to evolve, and his dances are no longer the latest thing. However, just as I continue to use the contra chestnuts that were popular when I first started dancing, many Ted Sannella dances have remained staples in my repertoire, as well as inspiration for my own choreographic experiments. I would encourage anyone interested in widening their repertoire to mine this rich vein of choreography.
Ted was instrumental in my becoming a dance caller. When I moved to Michigan and looked for dancing there was some traditional square dances, but no good contra dancing so I decided to start one in Lansing. Friends suggested a caller and got some musicians from Elderly Instruments and had our first few dances. I thought the calling was not very good and decided I would like to try. Laura was still living back in the Boston area and I would go home every few weekends. I started taking notes of the dances I went to and talked to Ted and Tony Parks about how to begin. Ted invited Laura and I over to his house and let me look through his dance card collection and copy down all the dances I was interested in. Tony told me to get book of Canadian squares which showed how to time the calls to the figures and the music. So I started calling the dances in Lansing. Each year for many years we would drive back for the NEFFA weekend and I volunteered to call dances by Midwest authors. Often Ted would watch me call and give me invaluable feedback.
I remember one dance at the Scout House where Laura and I were in a square right in front of Ted who was calling. We did the walk through and just as the music started we all switched gender roles with our partners. Ted quickly looked for another square to watch.
Ted Sannella was the first calls I heard. Community Boating, in the Charles River basin, Boston. Circa 1976/77. Contras and squares were completely unknown to me. Ted showed up, I think it was a holiday. There was party, and some people became intoxicated. Ted bought a little, portable, record player. Plugged it in, and called square sets in the boathouse. Only two, maybe three sets, almost entirely inexperienced. One couple was so drunk, we, literally, had to pick them off the floor to drag them through the figures. That may have been when I got my first lesson. Leaping about, thinking that was part of the fun, a person, passing in the square said “don’t bounce“. A lesson I have repeatedly taught, since.
Some time later, during this time, I went to International dance, at, I think, Park School. Not a dancer yet. Just imagined I could fake it. Not true. The only dance I managed to enjoy was called by Ted Sannella. A contra set, where my partner and I went from one side of a hall, with about a dozen, or more, sets, to the other, and back again. Also going from top to bottom. Never did that one before, or since. I bought Ted’s book, “ Balance and Swing “. Could not comprehend it. By the time I took up dancing, Ted was deceased. His book, though, taught me a standard form of balance, which I still use, and teach. No doubt, Ted Sannella, in his way, was a great man. Any time I hear a dance is by Ted Sannella, I am especially grateful. Thanks to all the callers, and dancers, he inspired. They continued a tradition, the participation in which, I count as one of my greatest blessings. Met my wife on the contra dance floor. The world is better, because of contra dance, and squares, and the other ones we do. Ted Sannella helped many, many , people know “it is good to be alive.” May God grant Ted a blissful, musical, Eternity.
Tom(maso ) Still
Scout House dancer
Many other halls, now, the last, Sacramento , California
We were fortunate to dance with Ted in Porter Square every Friday night for about 5 years. Stephen and I met there.
Back in the 1980s, I was at every Tues. Night Dance in Brookline, where Ted often called. That gym was jam-packed with New England style contra dancers at all levels. Ted’s calling was clear, concise, authoritative. But I recall so fondly how much kindness and plain good humor always came through his voice. It permeated his life, his calling, and traveled through the crowd. SO MUCH FUN!!! I love you, Ted.
PS. Waltzing with Ted was sheer joy, smooth as silk, among the many waltz partners I have had, Ted was extraordinary, and I am grateful to you for calling up the memory of being held in his arms. Words fail.
When we lived in Iowa in the 90s, we attended Folklore Village in Wisconsin a few times. Jane Farwell liked to have food and decorations to go with the dancing theme for a weekend. One of the times we went, Ted Sannella was the featured caller. The meal included Indian pudding and I’ve forgotten what else. Jane asked Ted, Thelma and me about decor traditions in New England. It was hard to come up with anything unique to New England, and Ted bowed out of the discussion. Finally, I suggested a simple roll of white butcher paper down the center of each table, which is what I’d seen done at many church suppers. Jane wanted more color, so we added candle-holders made of apples with the core taken out. Ted took me aside, and said, “I’ve never seen that before, but I think you convinced her.” It was a great weekend, and for a time we felt transported back to New England.
My brain has been so full of other stuff that stories were not percolating. However, just now, as I was writing Paul Lizotte to say yes to playing a concert for the Ralph Page Weekend, I realized that I have a favorite Ted memory that is a little supernatural:
The summer after Ted died Keith and I were hired to play for the Buffalo Gap dance week. Susan Kevra was calling, and she decided to call Ted’s dance, Fiddleheads. At the beginning of the dance, she asked me to introduce the tunes we would play. I said something to the effect of, “the first tune is the kind of tune Ted would have asked for this dance, a good classic French Canadian tune, but then we’ll go into a more modern Dm tune, well, we’ll see what he thinks of that”. Wouldn’t you know it, but soon after we changed tunes, there was an incredible crash of thunder and lightning, and the power was knocked out. We were literally silenced. I guess Ted got the last word on that one.
You asked about Texas… Ted was the first person to hire me to travel somewhere in the US to play. He brought me down to Texas, to Jimmy Drury’s camp, outside of Austin, I think. The camp could only afford to hire one musician to come with Ted, so I was in thrown in with a group of local musicians to play for him. It was pretty funny working between tunes that Ted wanted to have us play, my repertoire and the locals’ repertoire.
Allison Hicks was the “great find” of my time in Texas. The very first night I was playing for the dance, I was asking the back-up players for different tunes, but none of them played by ear, so any tune I mentioned, they would go scrambling through their 3X5 deck of notecards, that looked like the cards callers would use… Since I was coming from New England, and they were their own community of players, you can imagine that while we knew many standard NE tunes, not all of our repertoire was in synch. I asked for a particular tune, Bouchard’s perhaps, and none of them had it… At that moment, Allison walked in the door. They were all saying, I bet Allison could play it! So without time to catch her breath, she was whisked to the piano. She played beautifully from the start, her demeanor quiet and full of concentration, her playing strong and inventive. What I had not known was that she had never played this music by ear before, she also used to go around with her deck of cards, and had not really known this particular strength that she had!
As the weekend wore on, the music got better and better, and Ted managed to weave a spell. There was a unity and playfulness on the floor that still stands out in the midst of so many dances I’ve played for over the years. After the weekend was over, I remember Ted sharing some of the tapes that he made of the dance. He commented on how good he thought the music sounded. Well, that was a real wake up call for me, I had to strain to hear the music over Ted’s punchy calls… 😉
Ted was willing to try new things, sometimes, even when he wasn’t convinced it would work. After much discussion, he let me go through the painful process of finding a change tune for Money Musk. I found a 24 bar, three part tune that I thought would be great. And we tried it, but boy did the dance sag to the other tune. Perhaps Ted knew I needed to learn the hard way.
Ted also introduced me to one of my all time favorite tunes, Lady Ann Montgomery. You have to learn this one, he said, and he was right.
I feel forever grateful that Ted had the confidence in my playing to hire me to go down to Texas. It was a great learning experience for me.
There was one point where Ted joined his daughter Janet with her husband Dan at our house for dinner with Naomi and me. He told us that the best thing about being a grownup was that he could eat dessert first if he wanted to. I don’t remember if he actually ate dessert first that night or not.
And of course, no one can forget when he would call a Ted’s Triplet and everyone would cheer for whatever number it was.
At every NEFFA, it doesn’t matter who is calling Merry-go-round. The voice I hear is Ted’s.
I was at many Ted Sannella dances during my early dance and calling years. After catching the bug during the summer in New Hampshire, I looked up dances in the Boston area. There was Ted. He was a regular in the rotation of the CDS Tuesday Night Drop-in dance at the Cambridge YWCA. On 2nd Saturdays it was the Concord Scout House. The monthly NEFFA Contra Dance, he was there too!
Ted provided two very important learning opportunities for me. He invited me to bring my harmonica and sit in with the band at a community dance. He suggested that I pay attention to the program to learn about calling for a ‘one night stand’ dance. It was hugely beneficial. Who knew you could do a whole evening nothing more complicated than a do-si-do? The lifetime framework for simple dances was born.
Ted invited me to his home and his calling ‘office.’ As I recall, this was in preparation for calling the dance in Westport MA. Ted called every summer Saturday Night in Westport for a very long time. He was well-loved. There were generations of dancers attending all summer. On this occasion, he could not call and asked me to cover the evening. There were two steps of preparation. Step one was preparing to call to recorded music. I was blessed and up until that time, had only called with live music. We discussed the ins and outs of calling with recorded music. One funny story, he recalled a caller who brought one record to an evening. The caller just kept flipping the record during the evening. The dancers had a great time and did not seem to notice. The moral of the story was two-fold: dancers are not very aware of the music, so not to worry too much. If you only have one record, make sure it’s a good one!
Step two was to join him and attend a dance before it was my turn. Wow! What a surprise the evening turned out to be. There were a number of traditions, most notable the grand march between the kids’ part of the evening and the adult dance, which started at 9. It was a wild affair, dancing was energetic and with a degree of abandon not often seen or encouraged in Cambridge. Ear-to-ear grins from as many as 3 generations in attendance. I loved it. I learned another tradition too. On the way home, he always stopped at Howard Johnsons (I think) for an ice cream Sunday. Ted’s trip to the country.
During the course of visiting his office, he shared his data collection, Ted’s history. He had records of every dance he ever called, the tune played and comments on the results. I was floored. That was Ted and one of the reasons he was one of the activities giants in his time and beyond.
The CDS Tuesday Night Dance at the YWCA dance committee changed the schedule in 1977 (I think) drastically. There were two callers, Ted and Tony Parkes and a core band with guest musicians. Smart, the dance blossomed and ballooned. It was an exciting time. In addition to frantically writing down the dances called, I remember on a couple of occasions Ted would signal me to play harmonica into his microphone, during a promenade in a square. I would run back and join the dance again and he would pick up the call. He was a brilliant technician, who never forgot to have fun too.
Ted embraced life. After he retired, he made a point to visit me and my family in Arizona on his USA tour. He presented us with one of Jean’s weavings as a gift. He left many gifts and memories during the decades of our acquaintance. Dance and I are blessed and better for it.
The gigs I did with Ted were so long ago I don’t remember a lot about them other than the fact that we all had a good time. As I recall he had a dance program planned out beforehand with all the kinds of tunes he wanted. I appreciated that.
Aloysius Francis Yanas II
In 1989 when I first passed him in the Contra line at Neffa he said dancing like that you’re never gonna make it through the whole weekend. At the experienced Ted’s triplets workshop I said after, those were all easy dances
I first remember meeting Ted at a contra dance in my early days as a caller and composer. As a matter of fact, it was an evening I was debuting the dance I had written in memory of Ralph Page that I called ‘With Thanks to the Dean”.
After the evening Ted came up and told me that he liked the dance but also told me why he would not call it. In my original version a “ladies allemande right” was followed by a “partner balance and swing”. Ted pointed out that therefore the partner balance would be set up as a left hand figure and said that he would therefore not call it. A balance should be executed with the right hand he explained. Ted suggested dropping the balance all together as a solution, and I was wise enough to follow his advice.
Within a few weeks I had reports from friends that a new dance by me had been called in North Carolina, and also in California. I learned that in both cases they had been brought by Ted so I was glad he liked the version that he had inspired!
I appreciated so much about Ted: his history, his talent, his enthusiasm, his preparation and precision, and his unwillingness to compromise in his beliefs about good dancing. He was a great person to watch and learn from, always eager to help someone who was learning the craft, and not shy about giving you his honest opinion.
And, just for the record, I believe Ted’s dance “Fiddleheads” is one of the best compositions I know of to this day! (and an inspiration to the name we gave our cafe in 1997).