Larry Jennings was a dancer, caller, dance organizer, author, and dance philosopher who had a nationwide influence through his writings, series of discussion sessions attended by callers and organizers, and individualized critiques of dance callers over a period of 50 years. He was the originator of the phrase “zesty contras” and promoted a style of contra dancing, first learned at Ralph Page dances in the 1950s, featuring strong connections between dancers, meticulous phrasing, vigorous swings, and smooth transitions from one figure to another. This style of energetic contra dancing, modeled in part on the monthly Sunday “Zesty Contra Series” that Larry helped initiate and shape in 1974 at the Cambridge (MA) VFW, eventually spread around the country.
Larry served as a board member on many Boston folk organizations, most notably the New England Folk Festival Association (NEFFA) and the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston (FSSGB). In 1974-1975 he was the Program Chair for the NEFFA Festival, bringing in more folk music and musicians as an integral part of the program, making sure that all events were listed, and presenting events on time with leaders policing themselves to stay within the schedule. In 2004 the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) presented Larry with its Lifetime Contribution Award, its only other awardee at the time being Helene Cornelius, an English country dance leader.
A 1951 graduate of MIT and a physicist by profession, Larry brought his analytical mind to bear on everything he did, including dancing. He was the author of Zesty Contras (1983), a book which marked a turning point in contemporary contra dancing. In it, he collected some 500 dances and introduced them with what he himself termed “a provocative explanatory text,” a series of 14 mini-lectures that examining various aspects of contra choreography, organization, music, and instruction. “You may not have always agreed with Larry,” said one New England caller, “but his strong opinions forced you to examine your own ideas and to think more clearly about what you were doing.” With Ted Sannella and Dan Pearl, Larry co-authored a “Contra Connection” column in the CDSS News from 1988 to 1995. He also created a handout, describing Almost All You Need to Know to Enjoy a New England Style Dance. In 2004, NEFFA published his long-awaited second book Give-and-Take, which contains 628 dances. Included are more provocative remarks as well as “exhortative essays and arcane analyses.” In fact, fully half the contents are essays and minutes from discussion sessions.
Larry Jennings died of congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s Disease in June 2005.