She’s the widow of the dance master, and now she’s the master. That’s reenactor Sue Dupre’s character and story, and she’s sticking with it — she’s “Madame Dance Master,” experienced in instructing terpsichoreans in a variety of historic dances.
“Since my married name is ‘Dupre’ — French of course — my backstory is that my husband was the dance master when we came to the Colonies, but he got sick and died, so I took over from him,” she says.
Apparently, being a female dance master was unheard of in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dupre has researched and participated in historic dancing for decades and has found zero references to women in such positions in those times, so her character is revolutionary.
In addition to teaching, Dupre has been calling contra, square, and English country dances for more than 30 years. The caller is the person who calls or guides dancers through their steps in a colorful and rhythmic banter.
But see for yourself, when Dupre will teach and call the dances at the annual Colonial Ball on Friday, December 28, at the Historic Trenton Masonic Temple on Barrack Street. It’s one of the highlights of Patriots Week, which runs Wednesday, December 26, through Tuesday, December 31, throughout downtown Trenton.
The ball is an elegant tradition, a chance to mingle with the “soldiers” of the Battle of Trenton reenactment and learn their favorite dance steps. Dancers and non-dancers are invited, and though dressy attire is preferred (and period costume is adored), you don’t have to wear breeches or a bustle to participate.
A Lawrenceville resident, Dupre will be outfitted as an 18th-century upper middle class woman, beautifully but sensibly attired, in an ankle-length gown so students can see her feet and follow her footwork. In recent years, she has found the skilled tailors who make her custom gowns through www.etsy.com, including this year’s dressmaker, who is based in Ukraine.
Her activities with the Colonial Ball grew out of an 18th-century reenactment event in New Hope, called the Coryell Ferry Militia Christmas Ball, where Dupre called the dances for about 10 years.
“People who knew me from that event recommended me to the Old Barracks for a few events, including the 250th anniversary celebration,” she says. “Gradually, after Patriots Week became established, I’ve become the dance master for the ball.”
For this year Dupre has planned a repertoire of period dances, appropriate for the late 18th century, but adapted because some of the figures — detailed moves within the dance — are difficult for novices to pick up.
“I want participants to dance and enjoy and not fail,” she says. “So for some of the dances, I will take out a figure and replace it with something simpler. The dances are all period appropriate but they are not exact.”
Before the dancing begins Dupre will explain how partners hold hands, what the calling words mean, what to do with your feet, etc.
“I do explain this, but it’s a lot to take in, especially once the music starts playing,” she says. “There are usually 150 to 200 people at the ball, and some are reenactors who dance regularly, but the majority may only dance once a year. So I have to keep in mind accommodating that larger bunch of people.”
Dupre wants the curious to understand that you don’t need to study and know traditional dance to come to the ball — just bring your feet and your curiosity. And buy your tickets in advance — the event regularly sells out and no tickets are sold at the door.
Most of us are familiar with 18th and 19th-century dancing through films and plays: think of Mr. Fezziwig’s party in “A Christmas Carol.”
English country dancing was popular from the end of the 16th century into the early 19th century.
“That was its heyday: Jane Austen writes about it, for example, and it was what most middle and upper class people did socially through the 17th and 18th centuries,” she says. “English colonists brought their dancing to the Colonies, and contra dancing is what evolved from those dances.”
She notes that wealthier early Americans had professional dancing masters to come to their homes and teach private lessons. For the middle class there were itinerant dancing masters who traveled around, setting up in a city or town, hiring space at a local public hall and giving instructions there.
“The traveling dance master might stay for a few weeks,” Dupre says. “Young people would come to dances to learn, and at the end of the ‘semester,’ they would have a ball.”
“After the United States gained independence there were not so many dancing masters, but people still liked to dance, so they kept it alive among themselves,” she continues. “They remembered some of the (English-style) moves, but the figures got simpler and music got faster. ‘Contra’ dancing refers to this kind of American dancing in the early to mid-19th century.”
Dupre explains that contra dancing was and is done in long columns. However, the French decided to put their own mark on the English tradition and broke the lines up into squares.
“Because it was French, it simply became the rage, and that’s how ‘square dancing’ became a thing in the early 19th century,” Dupre says.
Growing up in central Ohio, young Sue didn’t imagine that she would someday dress up in period garb to teach and call historic dancing.
There was very little dancing and singing in her home, but Dupre loved to go outside under the stars by herself and dance and whirl in the dark to the music of her imagination.
She says her father had a steady factory job with Westinghouse, while her mother worked in retail in a variety of department stores, and that they were always encouraging of her precocious love for science.
Born in 1951, Dupre describes herself as someone who read about Sputnik in the “Weekly Reader,” zeroed in on the quote that “America needs scientists” and decided in first grade, “that’s it, I’ll be a scientist.”
When one grandparent in her family grumbled, Dupre’s mom defended young Sue’s ambitions, even when “astronaut” was a career goal.
“My parents were really smart people who wished they could have gone to college, so they were very supportive of me,” Dupre says.
Dupre went to Northeastern University in Boston, earning a B.S. in physics in 1974. She then got her M.S. from Purdue in 1977, majoring in bionucleonics with a specialization in health physics.
Dupre brought her specialized knowledge to central New Jersey when she became assistant radiation safety officer at Princeton University in 1978. She retired as senior radiation safety officer in 2017.
She first encountered historic dancing at a concert in Boston featuring music and dance from the Renaissance and was immediately captivated with the art form.
“I married my husband halfway through (studies in Boston), so we could go as students and watch dance concerts,” she recalls. “I had never danced before, but that’s what spoke to me.”
When the couple arrived in Princeton, Dupre sought out opportunities for period dance and found a regular group that specialized in Scottish country dancing.
“We had been in Princeton for a year or two, but we had no idea how to meet people,” she says. “I found Scottish country dancing on campus, so I tried it out and it was like being hit by a thunderbolt. I was wildly excited about it.”
Dupre admits she was not a bright prospect, however.
“I was terrible at first. My feet got all tangled up in each other, but I was so happy with the experience,” she says. “From that point on I would sit at work with music in my head, and I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come so I could dance again.”
Her new hobby blossomed into an actual side gig, and Dupre found herself as a featured performer at various dance festivals. She also became a staff member at week-long dance camps, including the Berea Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky; Country Dance & Song Society summer dance camps in Easthampton, Massachusetts; and the Bay Area Country Dance Society summer dance camps in Palo Alto, California.
Dupre writes in her online bio that, in addition to calling various kinds of dances, she is “passionately devoted to the promotion and performance of historic English mummers plays and ceremonial dances in American communities. I’m the founder and foreman of Handsome Molly, a molly dance team… I was the foreman for Shandygaff Longsword and Garland, and a former member of Griggstown Lock, a rapper sword team.”
Her husband, Bob, a retired software engineer, also caught dance fever after experiencing his first historic dance years ago.
“He’s as passionate about it as I am,” Dupre says. “He’s more of a singer now, though, and sings professionally in a duo called Liberty Tree, who specialize in 18th-century song, music, and stories.”
Bob Dupre is also involved in the annual reenactment of Washington’s Crossing as one of the soldiers who row across the Delaware River.
The couple has two grown sons who came along to dance camps and events starting in early childhood. Dupre thinks they still have a spark of interest and are handing it down to their own children.
In addition to Colonial-era events, Dupre calls at barn dances, hoedowns, and reenactor events from the Medieval, Elizabethan, Civil War, and Victorian eras. She can even lead a good old-fashioned Maypole dance.
But the Colonial Ball holds a distinctive place on Dupre’s dance card, and there are numerous reasons its hosts engage her teaching and calling talents each year.
“I believe it’s because the dancers like the repertoire I use, and the clarity and ease with which I teach the dances, as well as my energy and enthusiasm,” Dupre says. “Also, I never forgot what it’s like to be a beginner at dancing, and that’s one of the things that makes me good at this.”
Colonial Ball, Historic Trenton Masonic Temple, 100 Barrack Street, Trenton. Friday, December 28, 7 to 10 p.m. $25, $20 for Old Barracks members. www.barracks.org
Patriots Week. Wednesday, December 26, through Tuesday, December 31. www.patriotsweek.com
More on Sue Dupre: www.suedupre.com