Monthly Archives: June 2011

Crossover Contra Dancing: A Recent History

Alex Krogh-Grabbe

We are very pleased to present a guest post by Alex Krogh-Grabbe, wherein he traces the recent trends in electronic music and contra dancing.

In the first post on the CDSS blog last December, Brad Foster wrote about Tradition and Change. He closed by musing about the future of traditional fusion:

Are techno contra and hip-hop morris part of our future? In both cases I’m sure the answer is “definitively maybe” or “sort of”. It’s likely some elements will make their way into the run-of-the-mill, as happened with swing moves in contra dancing. Both will influence our traditional arts but won’t become those arts. Even techno contra is morphing, with people saying, “That’s nice, but I want to try taking it in yet a different direction.”

He’s right. That “different direction” is emblematic of the living traditions we all hold dear. The folk process is always at work. For decades, bands have become popular for energetic fusion between traditional music and other styles. Even Dudley Laufman’s Canterbury Contra Dance Orchestra recorded with electric guitar in the 1970s! The most recent manifestation of our vibrant and evolving history is integrating electronic music into contra dancing, often referred to as “techno contra”.

The Name

One of the first questions you run into discussing this nascent genre is, “What do we call it?” As mentioned above, the most popular term is probably “techno contra”, which conveys energy and club dancing even though much of the music may be pop, celtic fusion, or electronica rather than strictly techno. The fact that a number of these dances contain low lighting lends to the club atmosphere. Other terms include “alternative music contra” and “crossover contra”. Personally, I prefer “crossover contra” which is more accurately descriptive, despite being a bit vague and arguably not adequately sexy. “Crossover” is the term I’ll default to here, referring to specific events by the terms their organizers use.

The History

For several years, I’ve been fascinated by the emerging proliferation of contra dances to electronic music. I set out in this post to uncover what I could about this movement and its history. Corresponding with a number of people involved, I’ve traced back some of the history and learned more about how the people involved view their events and their role in the dance community.

The first instance I unearthed of prerecorded electronic music being used at contra dances was in 2001. Lisa Greenleaf and Clark Baker (two Boston-area callers) had a brainwave while listening to celtic rock music. Starting with the music of Scottish “hypnofolkadelic” band Shooglenifty, the two of them began mixing. Lisa debuted the result with friends at small parties where she was trying out new dances. In 2006, she held an alternative music fundraiser dance at the Concord Scout House, and by this time the repertoire had expanded to include such styles as latin, rock, and world beat music. While she initially had exclusively called live at alternative music dances, by the time of the first Scout House fundraiser, she had recorded calling tracks for each musical set. These events have proven popular, but it took an event further south to light a crossover contra fire.

The movement quickly dubbed “techno contra” seems to have begun at the Whipperstompers Weekend in South Carolina in June 2008, a dance weekend organized by Able Allen catering to young dancers. At the end of the weekend, after many attendees had already left, an impromptu dance was called by Taija Tevia-Clark to techno music from someone’s iPod. A brief video from the end of this dance was posted on YouTube, and has been viewed more than 5,000 times:

In attendance at the Whipperstompers techno contra were two dancers who went on to be influential in the early spread of crossover contra. Forrest Oliphant of North Carolina was inspired by the Whipperstompers video to create something similar, but with more planning. He got his opportunity at the inaugural Youth Dance Weekend (YDW) in late September 2008. He organized a techno contra after the scheduled dances were over, and shot two takes of two sets dancing to Adam Tensta’s “My Cool”. The resulting techno contra video has been viewed more than 20,000 times on YouTube, and has inspired many dancers interested in dancing to this sort of music. Since the creation of this video, it has become common for crossover contras to produce videos, and that has become a primary channel through which organizers learn from each other.

Forrest’s “My Cool” video:

Also in attendance at both Whipperstompers and YDW was Jordy Williams of Asheville, NC. Seeing the potential in the dances at those two weekends, Jordy was inspired to organize similar events of his own. He has put on invitational techno contras in Asheville every few months since the first one in June 2009. While most crossover contra dances up to that point had been in the traditional 10-15 minute per dance format, Jordy structured his differently, with techno tracks strung together in 90-minute medleys. At the second YDW, in September 2009, a late-night techno medley was coordinated by Jordy. He continues to organize periodic techno contra dances in Asheville, including the first fully public one on New Year’s Day, 2011.

Since late 2009, there has been a proliferation of crossover contra events all over the country. Special events have been organized in places such as Bates College in Maine, in Boulder, Colorado, and in Seattle, Washington.

In the Triangle region of North Carolina, Peter Clark and Eileen Thorsos have begun using celtic fusion music heavily edited to fit contra, a style which they dub “electrotrad”. Since late 2010, a monthly series (Contra Sonic) has sprung up in the DC area. Now, in the summer of 2011, crossover contra events are being organized faster than I can keep track of them. The proliferation and draw of these events underscores the energy and potential present in crossover contra.

The Vision

Every organizer of crossover events has a different take on the legacy of the tradition, but those I spoke with express great respect for typical contra dance evenings. Jordy Williams, whose events differ most drastically from a normal night of contra dancing, told me, “I have been extremely cautious in not letting it interfere with regular dancing. I treasure contra dance and don’t want a night of canned music to step on the toes of regular musicians in any way.” Peter Clark sees crossover contra as “a way to provide variety and compelling events to draw in a wider portion of the public.” Another major motivation for crossover contra is voiced by Dana Ouellette, an organizer and dancer in western Massachusetts: “I certainly appreciate and love the traditional music, and would never want to turn away from that completely, but having the option to play around with new musical influences keeps me that much more excited about being a part of the community.” Crossover events serve to both keep experienced dancers excited by the variety they provide, and also to expose a broader swath of the population to the joys of contra dancing.

Alongside the events using recorded music, there are a few dance bands blurring the line between live and pre-recorded music. Perpetual e-Motion from Maine, formed in 2003, has gained popularity for their heavy use of electronic effects and looping, allowing them to build complex arrangements on the fly with just two people. According to Perpetual e-Motion’s John Cote, “An important thing for us is that we don’t use pre-recorded music. But now everything, even the feet, goes through electronic processing in some way.” Another duo pushing the form, Double Apex, debuted in December of 2010. They combine recorded samples with live traditional music. According to Julie Vallimont of Double Apex, “For us, contra dancing is both about respecting and maintaining a longstanding tradition and having fun with contra dance and experimenting with a living tradition. Our basic idea is to use fiddle tunes as a base to keep the phrasing and energy of the dance, and add techno beats, synths, loops, and samples.”

A recurring ideal crossover organizers express is to have an experienced DJ who is either personally able to call or who has a strong working relationship with a caller. Peter Clark of North Carolina writes, “I see the future of crossover contra being led by live producer DJs who contra dance themselves.  I see them using computer programs which allow for on-the-fly changes to respond to the energy on the dance floor and to tailor the music to specific dances.” Double Apex and DJ Improper (of the Contra Sonic series) are some of those beginning to work with these possibilities.

It has become common practice to produce videos of crossover contra events and share them online. The Whipperstompers and 2008 YDW videos began this trend, and it has been continued at many crossover dances. While the YDW video was planned with filming in mind and featured multiple takes, more organic products can also achieve a similarly high level of quality. More important than the videography, though, is sharing the video online, because that has become one of the primary means of discourse among crossover contra organizers.

Recently, Ryan Holman of the DC area has been compiling the excellent Contra Syncretist, a blog/website resource for crossover contra in its many forms. (The most recent post: “Calling to Hip-Hop (and Other Alternative Music)“, thoughts from Maine caller Chrissy Fowler.)

Crossover contras are new and distinctive in their own way, but their connection to more traditional contras is strong and close. This new music has been used in contras for only the past ten years or so, but its growth over the past several years has been meteoric. Not only has its expansion been fast, but it has been organic. While the content may be new, the process is old. I hope that this movement – linked with tradition, while bringing new perspectives — continues in a direction that appeals to all members of the dance community, from newcomers to experienced, from dancers to performers, and from young to old.

— Alex Krogh-Grabbe

Alex Krogh-Grabbe is a dancer and organizer from Amherst, MA who is pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at Tufts University. His blog is located at www.alexkg.com.

Do you have thoughts about or experiences with crossover contra dancing you’d like to share? Please post ‘em in the comments.

Harmony of Song & Dance: A new week at Pinewoods

A message from Peter Amidon, co-director of Harmony of Song & Dance week at Pinewoods.

Peter and Mary Alice Amidon

I studied, and loved, instrumental classical music through and after college, playing piano, guitar, cello and viola da gamba. Then, when I was 25, and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was introduced to traditional song and dance. It was an epiphany; I loved the physicality of the singing and dancing, and the fact that it was participatory. I loved that it came from and was for the common people. I sold my viola da gamba and bought a fiddle and a banjo.

I met my wife Mary Alice at a contra dance and in 1976 we went to CDSS’s Folk Music Week at Pinewoods. I went into Pinewoods to learn more fiddle tunes, and I came out a singer who also played fiddle. It was a life-changing experience. Over the last 35 years many CDSS Pinewoods weeks — Folk Music, Family, English & American Dance — have helped define who Mary Alice and I are and what we do.

Now we are honored to be chairing The Harmony of Song & Dancethe new CDSS week for singers who love to dance and for dancers who love to sing — with a dynamic and diverse staff of dance and song leaders.

Kim and Reggie Harris

We are bringing together some of our favorite music and dance activities…

  • group harmony singing by ear and from written arrangements
  • English folk songs
  • Appalachian ballads
  • shape note
  • secular and sacred gospel singing
  • contra, English, and ritual dance
  • work songs and sea songs
  • tune sessions and playing in a dance band

…with some of our favorite people…

  • dynamic and gifted singing leaders Kim & Reggie Harris
  • Cambridge Revels music master George Emlen
  • master singer/instrumentalist Keith Murphy

    Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy

  • profound bass and dance caller Nils Fredland
  • delicious English pianist and humorist Karen Axelrod
  • elegant and graceful fiddler/singer Naomi Morse
  • master English dance caller and choral singer Brad Foster
  • sublime yet powerful dance fiddler Becky Tracy
  • steeped-in-traditional-music-since-birth singer/banjo player/clog dancer Leela Grace
  • Master of All Ceremonies and leader of songs from across the pond (Scotland & England) and ritual dance Alistair Brown
  • brilliant Irish flute/whistle player/singer Shannon Heaton
  • innovative guitarist and singer Matt Heaton
  • inspired leader of joyful song Mary Alice Amidon
  • and pretty good singing leader Peter Amidon (me).

This would be our dream staff, except they are all really coming!

I believe that the act of singing and dancing together creates a powerful and joyful synchronicity. It is a foundation of Mary Alice’s and my lives and the foundation of the Harmony of Song & Dance.

We hope you will come join us for what we are expecting will be an extraordinary week.

— Peter Amidon, June, 2011

Harmony of Song & Dance at Pinewoods will take place July 23 – 30, 2011. There is still space available! To find out more visit www.cdss.org/harmony.

There are also still scholarships available at this writing. To inquire, please e-mail camp@cdss.org.

Help us share the week by telling your friends and visiting the Facebook page and event or by clicking the Facebook button below.

Compiling the CDSS Square Dance Resources

Since I became an official member of the CDSS staff last year, the projects that have landed on my plate have been mostly square dance related. I couldn’t be happier about that, since traditional squares are a particular passion of mine. After working closely with Ralph Sweet on the publication of On the Beat with Ralph Sweet in 2010, I shifted my focus to bringing some structure to the vast amount of square dance resources already existing on the Internet; the CDSS Square Dance Resources — available at www.cdss.org/squares — is the result.

My initial idea was to provide links to video examples of full square dance figures; indeed, my first effort at information gathering found me sitting at local coffee shops in my hometown of Keene, NH, headphones in place, pouring through square dance footage on YouTube and Vimeo. I found a lot of really great stuff, like this:

It quickly became clear that there was plenty of useful video footage out there that didn’t quite fit my first set of criteria. So I created a new category called “General Interest Video” for clips like this:

Then I stumbled across some great audio clips of square dance calling, like this one from Portland, OR caller Caroline Oakley:

“Push Pa, Shove Ma” called by Caroline Oakley (mp3)

After that I discovered a great article on square dance calling (pdf) by Carol Ormand, and I explored Bill Martin’s excellent website on the topic of Southern squares, and I read several of Phil Jamison’s articles on Appalachian square dance from the online archives of the Old-Time Herald magazine, and I looked through some of the square dance articles in the online version of Ralph Page’s Northern Junket, and…well…the CDSS Square Dance Resources were no longer going to be limited to video examples of full square dance figures.

At this point, collecting new links for the resources was bordering on obsession. It seemed like I was creating new categories and folders for storage on a daily basis. Finally, the collecting stopped (thanks to Brad Foster and Pat MacPherson for talking me down), and I turned my attention towards tying all the information together. Enter an excellent team of consultants: Bob Dalsemer, Tony Parkes, Jim Mayo, and David Millstone on the topics of square dance history and square dance styles; and lydia ievins and Pat MacPherson on design, layout, and implementation.  I wouldn’t have been able to see the project through to completion without their valuable knowledge, expertise, and generosity.

So, take a look! I hope you all find the completed CDSS Square Dance Resources as useful and enlightening as I do. Thanks, as always, for your support. Keep dancing squares!

— Nils

The CDSS Square Dance Resources are part of our growing collection of online Advice & How-To resources.

Nils Fredland runs American Dance/Music Projects at CDSS.

Fresh New Look

Frequent blog-readers may have noticed that the blog has a fresh look and is better tied in with the rest of cdss.org. You can now find a convenient link to the blog at the top of our Main Site. Other than that,

You may also have also noticed a lack of posting the last few weeks. After a bit of a wait, however, we’re finally ready to start posting with this new set-up. Upcoming are posts from Nils Fredland about compiling our new Square Dance Resources pages and the much-awaited History of Techno Contra.

Thanks for you patience. Hope you enjoy!

— Max

Our OLD look.

Our NEW look.