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Mr. Mac

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Bob McQuillen is a living legend in New England contra dance. He's been playing piano at dances for over 60 years, and has composed more than 1300 dance tunes. By day, he was the shop teacher at Peterborough High School; he lives in Peterborough and, well into his 80s, still plays at least one dance per week. Here's an excerpt from his story. 
 

His posture is stooped, his legs are bowed, his gait just a bit unsteady. His body is thin -- scrawny, really. His big hands are well-worn, his face bears witness to his eight and a half decades on planet Earth. But he's full of joy and energy; he fairly vibrates with excitement, especially when he's playing the piano. If you ever want to argue for the healing properties of music, Bob McQuillen can be your Exhibit "A." 

 

Hard to say how things might have turned out if he hadn't gone to that dance in 1946. "Somebody said, 'Go to a dance,' so I went to Francestown with friends, and that's when I got into the dance scene and the music and all." 

 

He'd spent three years in the Pacific Theater, and had no idea what to do with the rest of his life. He wouldn't figure that out for another decade or so. But he found an anchor, a purpose, in the close-knit world of New England contra dance. He learned the music straight from the master, Ralph Page; then he lived long enough, played often enough, and wrote enough tunes, to earn a spot alongside Page in the pantheon of contra dance. 

 

Not that he'd ever admit it himself. The notion is met with a hearty laugh. "Well, what in hell did I do, you know?" he says. "All I do is I'm an old-fashioned New England contra dance piano player."  

 

What has he done? He's written more than 1200 dance tunes, published in a series called Bob's Note Books. The National Endowment for the Arts gave him a National Heritage Fellowship for his contributions to traditional culture. He's been given a Governor's Arts Award, and represented New Hampshire at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  

 

 

Bob's full story is told in my book, including his years with Dudley Laufman and the Canterbury Dance Orchestra, and his personal setbacks in the 1980s.

 

Read excerpts from our 2008 interview.

 

Listen to my 2002 NHPR interview with Bob McQuillen.

 

 Read my story "The Lure of the Dance," about the weekly contra dance in Nelson, NH. originally published in New Hampshire Magazine.  

 

McQuillen has recorded several CDs on the Great Meadow Music label; his "Bob's Note Books" of dance tunes can also be purchased through Great Meadow.  

 

If you're interested in more information about contra dance, contradancelinks.com is a great resource.  

Contact me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.