What are Chestnuts?
The term chestnut refers to something old and familiar. In the early 1980s the term was applied to some of the old — as in 100-200 years old — contra dances that were still being done in New England, the birth place of contra dancing.
Here are some characteristics of contra chestnuts:
Most are in proper formation
There are a few contra chestnuts in improper formation but most of the dances are proper.
Starting in proper formation doesn't necessarily mean staying in proper formation. In some proper dances the very first move has the actives cross to their opposite-gender neighbors.
They are very unequal
In many of the chestnuts, the ones do most of the dancing, are called actives, and are expected to show off. The calls are to the actives only unless otherwise specified. In some dances the actives never stop moving while the twos (“inactives”) hardly move at all.
The inactives are expected to dance their part and assist the actives without being told what to do, and when not moving have an important role to play by keeping the structure of the set. It's not as easy as you may think.
Dances that have everyone moving most or all of the time are recent inventions.
We usually do modern versions of most of the dances.
In this case “modern” is a relative term that refers to dances after 1870 or so!
There's a story that young dancers in North Carolina — a state known for hotshot, cutting-edge contra dancing — were thrilled to be introduced a few years ago to a new, cool, and challenging formation: triple minor!
All contras were originally triple minors, were proper, and had no swings as we know them. The term swing meant a hooked-elbow turn or a one or two hand turn. In the middle and late 19th Century, some dances were converted to duple minors and ballroom-position swings were added. It's those “modern” versions that are often done now. Still, expect some chestnut dances to be triple minors and some to have no swings or swings for the actives only.
Follow this link to see one dance, Lamplighter's Hornpipe, evolve from the original triple minor to a version that might be danced today.
They don't always flow smoothly from one move to the next
The concept of flow in contra dance is very new.
They can be more challenging than contemporary contras
This is especially true for beginners, but even experienced contra dancers who are used to modern contras struggle with cast offs and same-gender rights and lefts.
Some have their own tune
And some don't.
Book and Videos
David Smukler of the Syracuse Country Dancers wrote a book on the chestnuts called Cracking Chestnuts: The Living Tradition of American Contra Dances, available from CDSS. Along with David Millstone, he assembled videos of several chestnuts and has posted them with descriptions on the SCD website. See the Related Links below.