Category Archives: Arts & Tourism

Contra Dancing in Mexico—The Adventure Begins!

by Linda Leslie

Mérida Dance Week, January 16-23, 2016

270392de7e10d5176ca365b1f029cd36It is a testament to the joy of contra dancing, that some folks will go to great lengths to make sure that they have opportunities to dance. Take Brooks Hart as a prime example. I had the good fortune to meet Brooks when he was involved with Village Contra in New York City. He volunteered many hours for that dance, and even did some calling. Since those days, Brooks has moved to Mérida, on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. He is very happy there, but he missed contra dancing. He realized that the only way to do some dancing close to home was to start a dance. So he did just that! For the last year, he has offered a dance series in Mérida, and some occasional dances in Oaxaca. Despite the challenges of finding good dance space, and the ups and downs of attendance, he has remained true to his vision of having contra dancing in his new home town.

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Brooks Hart

Along the way, we started a very enjoyable email conversation, which included sharing dances, thoughts on music, suggestions for programming, as well as teaching, and lots of encouragement. As luck would have it, Brooks shared a dream he had of offering a dance weekend to which folks in the U.S. might be tempted to participate. His thought was that the influx of experienced dancers would be great for all his new folks, and the dance series might grow as a consequence. In addition, visitors would have a great colonial era city to visit and enjoy. This idea seemed wonderful to me, and I encouraged him to move forward with it…..and volunteered to help out by being his caller. Thus the Mérida Dance Week was born!

After considering various options, Brooks decided that, rather than a weekend, the dance sessions would be spread out over a week, allowing visitors to have their contra dancing, but also more options for exploring the cultural and historic offerings of Mérida and the Yucatan. And what a week he chose! The dates coincide with a three-week long Arts and Culture Festival, which celebrates the founding of Mérida in 1542. Here is an outline of what the city has to offer, during the Festival:

  • Dance: contemporary dance, as well as traditional dances and events.
  • Theatre: presentations, workshops and visits to various communities.
  • Conferences: talks, lectures and conferences with leading characters.
  • Literature: lectures, seminars, and presentations of books and magazines.
  • Visual Arts: movies, documentaries, exhibition of paintings, photographs and handicrafts.
  • Music: concerts, serenades, trips, dances, and traditional events.
  • Children: events directed especially for the whole family*

Brook’s plan is to have 2 or 3 contra dances, a waltz workshop, and a musician’s workshop during the week of January 16-23, 2016. To sweeten things even more: Amy Larkin (fiddle), and Linda Henry (piano), will also make the trip, so that we can enjoy fabulous live music!

We are really looking forward to this trip! Since I speak Spanish, it will be fun to teach the dances in both Spanish and English. Brooks has been actually calling the dance moves in English. This seems to be the decision made by a number of folks who have begun contra/square dancing groups in locations outside the U.S. For example, in Denmark. The idea is that dancers can then dance in many more places, if they know the calls in English. As a result, a number of Danes have attended Pinewoods Camp, and had a great time!

Brooks attended the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) in 2015, and brought a friend from Oaxaca (who fell in love with all things Balkan!), one of the contra dancers from Mérida, and her good friend from Louisiana. They all had a great time! We hope to tempt an even larger group from Mérida to join us at NEFFA 2016. I have offered hospitality to any who might be tempted, so we hope that dancers come and enjoy our Festival.

We hope that as many dancers as possible join us in Mexico for this adventure. You can be kept updated, and discuss travel, lodging and excursion options, by asking to join the FB group, which is called: Mérida Contra Dance-January 2016 or you may also email me directly: laleslierjg@comcast.net.

Saludos! Linda Leslie

* Festival schedule, in Spanish

Talking Square

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Rima (3rd from right) representing CDSS at the 2015 National Square Dance Convention (photo by David Millstone)

We had the privilege of participating in a national organization panel at the National Square Dance Convention, late last month in Springfield, MA. Colleagues on the panel represented: CALLERLAB (http://www.callerlab.org), Contralab (http://www.contralab.net), Alliance of Round, Traditional and Square-Dance (http://www.arts-dance.org), United Square Dancers of America (http://www.usda.org/), Roundalab (http://www.roundalab.org), and the Canadian Square and Round Dance Society (http://www.csrds.ca). CDSS was invited to be on the panel and we were represented by Executive Director, Rima Dael.

Topics of discussion included:

  • What are the challenges facing folk dancing today?
  • What does your organization consider the greatest priorities to address?
  • Are there possibilities of sharing and coordinating projects to address these issues together?
  • What are your near term goals (next five years)?
  • What needs to happen so that we can expect active participation in the various forms of dance for the next 100 years?

Rima shared that we think the biggest challenge for our dance, music and song communities is time and money. With enough of both, all problems or challenges could be solved, but given that both time and money are scarce resources for all nonprofits and volunteer groups, we focus on three ways to help our communities be resilient:

  • building a pipeline of dancers, callers, musicians and organizers
  • problem identification/problem solving through sharing common issues and best practices
  • communication best practices online and offline

(These are three areas CDSS has identified through the Strategic Direction and specifically articulated in the “CDSS Theory of Change” section in our recent Education Report.

All the panelists shared concerns around time, money and cultivating volunteers needed to help keep our organizations going, and involving the younger folks in stewarding our art forms. Ironically, with many questions raised about how to involve youth, none were present in the conversation. Rima posed that we need to ask our younger constituents how to better engage them, and to consider defining what we mean when we say “youth”—in some instances, it could mean 40 or under, or students K–12, or young adults.

There was a lot of discussion around involving next generation and youth participants. CDSS was the only organization on the panel that promotes intergeneration programs and has weeklong summer camps that teach kids, youth and young adults dance, music and song skills.

It was an interesting discussion as the national organizations represented are all arts service organizations that serve their membership with programs and services from insurance to skill-building and best practice workshops. One thing we can learn from the Modern Western Square Dance groups are how connected many of them are with their local/regional Tourism Boards and the use of assisted hearing devices that are in sync with the caller’s microphone; these are two areas CDSS would like to investigate more. David Millstone, CDSS President, also in attendance at the panel discussion (and, in his teacher/caller’s role, leading several dance workshops at the Convention), shared with the panel and audience the new New Hampshire Art Council social dance map, based on West Virginia’s Mountain Trail Dance Map.

It was great to see so many folks in downtown Springfield, from all over the country, dressed in their formal square dance attire. This was the Convention’s first visit to New England; we look forward to seeing them again soon.

 

Trad Dance & Music Exhibit Opens in New Hampshire

by Lisa Sieverts

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Image: mid-1850s Dance Prompter’s Notebook

Interested in the history of contra and square dance? Come to Peterborough, New Hampshire, to view an exhibit opening on January 24, 2015:  “Gents Bow, Ladies Know How: Traditional Dance and Music in the Monadnock Region 1750-2015.”

“Gents Bow, Ladies Know How” traces the long history of traditional dance and music in southwestern New Hampshire from Colonial times to the present, with an emphasis on the 18th and 19th centuries. The Monadnock region of New Hampshire is one of the few places in the country where these dances have been done continuously since the mid-1700s.

The exhibit features artifacts, documents, instruments, photographs and audio recordings.  In addition to the on-going exhibit, there will be a series of presentations scheduled monthly beginning in February.

“Gents Bow, Ladies Know How” will be open to the public through May 23, 2015. The Monadnock Center’s regular hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM, and admission is $3.00 (free for Monadnock Center and Country Dance and Song Society members). The exhibit takes place in the historic Monadnock Center building in Peterborough, New Hampshire at 19 Grove Street.

Two local organizations, the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and the Monadnock Folklore Society, have partnered to develop this exhibit. Generous grant funding was received from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. In addition, the Animal Care Clinic-Monadnock has sponsored the exhibit—the owner is the grandson of the caller Duke Miller.

The Country Dance and Song Society was the inspiration for this exhibit—the idea arose as the Monadnock Folklore Society brainstormed how to participate in the celebration of the CDSS Centennial.

For more information call 603-924-3235 or visit http://www.MonadnockCenter.org.

The Monadnock Center for History and Culture is a community museum that has been dedicated to preserving and celebrating local history and culture since its founding in 1902. The Monadnock Folklore Society was founded in 1980 to increase the visibility of folk dance and music events in southern New Hampshire and provide educational services in the folk arts to the community.

Lisa Sieverts is an experienced project manager and facilitator, and owner of Facilitated Change. She is a longtime contra dancer and caller, and a regular caller at Nelson, NH’s Monday night dances. Lisa is a CDSS member and a member of the Monadnock Folklore Society’s board.

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Monadnock region of New Hampshire, named after Mount Monadnock

 

 

How to Photograph a Contra Dance

by Doug Plummer

Doug Plummer is well known in the dance community nationwide as that guy who takes all the dance photos and videos and puts them all over Facebook and in a calendar. Since 2012 he has self-published the Contradance Calendar, a premium wall calendar that captures the best contra dance moments from around the country. To get a 2015 calendar, support the Kickstarter campaign for it, which is live from now until September 11, or buy one from the CDSS store come November.

South Coast Folk Society contra dance at Green Acres Grange Hall, Coos Bay, OR

South Coast Folk Society contra dance, Green Acres Grange Hall, Coos Bay, OR, 2014 (Doug Plummer)

There is no such thing as a photograph of a contra dance. The only thing we can capture is a moment in a dance. So the first thing is to identify that: a moment that might be captured.

Actually, let’s back up. The first thing is to identify how we feel at a given moment. When we dance, we go through a series of fleeting emotions. There’s the cordial greeting of a hands four. There’s the ramp-up anticipation of a balance. The connection of an allemande. The dramatic feeling of a wall of you convening and receding in a great long line. The delight of a new neighbor. The alarming stare down contest of a gypsy. The consummation of a lovely, long swing with your beloved partner, until you dump her for the next dance.

Contra dance, AmWeek, Jones Gulch YMCA Camp, CA.

Contra dance, Bay Area CDS’s American Week, Jones Gulch YMCA, La Honda, CA, 2014 (Doug Plummer)

When you watch a dance, those moments and feelings have physical expressions. There are bodies in contact and in connection that you can isolate and capture. That is the reason to have a camera at a dance—to more deeply connect with those significant, fleeting moments full of feeling, and to maybe stop and hold one.

So, given that, what do you do to take a photograph that holds all that ambition? The first trick is to watch for just a single moment that you emotionally connect with. Shoot only that. Thirty-two beats later, it comes around again. Keep whacking away. How you feel inside is your signal that you might be getting closer.

Here is maybe the most important advice to becoming a better photographer. Don’t stare at the back of your camera at what you just did. Don’t pay any attention to the results of your shooting. It only takes you away from the moment. All that investment in getting connected with the dance, with the dancers, with the beat and rhythm and the energy surrounding and carrying you away—look at the screen for longer than a second and you’ve left the room. It takes great effort to reenter. Edit when you get home.

Another tip: get close. Get within elbow dodging range. Make people know you’re there. Be engaged with them. If someone doesn’t want you there, you’ll feel it and you can adjust. But that rarely happens. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t feel you have to be a wallflower in order not to be one. Everyone notices the person trying to photograph unobtrusively. If you’re in the middle, you disappear.

The first thing I tell my workshop students is, go forth and fail. You have great aspirations to capture the perfect moment, and mostly you won’t. That’s part and parcel of the creative process. You flail and you fail again and again, and then, you get a glimmer of something that’s starting to work, and you chase that and see if you can do it again. It doesn’t matter a whit what kind of camera you use. The process of creative growth doesn’t care.

Wasatch Wiggle, Utah

Wasatch Wiggle, Salt Lake City, UT, 2013 (Doug Plummer)

Photography, especially in the digital age, is an act of great profligacy. That’s not to say that you shoot indiscriminately and without intention. Just the opposite. It takes a great deal of attention and effort to stay deeply connected with the moment, and from that connection comes the urge to click the shutter. It might happen a lot of times in a few seconds, particularly in the complex, dynamic environment of a contra dance hall, as a feeling hits. I rarely come away from an evening of photographing a dance with fewer than two or three hundred exposures. And I don’t sit out that many dances.

And when you do sit at your computer that night, posting on Facebook? Don’t post the two dozen variations of a single move that are pretty good. Post only the best one. The fewer shots you post, the better photographer people think you are. And it indeed makes you a better photographer.

This article is in the Fall 2015 issue of the CDSS News in both print and online versions.

Handing on the Tradition

by Zoë Madonna

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Outside the dance hall (Photo by Zoë Madonna )

The 2014 Ralph Page Legacy Weekend’s Saturday dance was buried in eight inches of wet, heavy snow that started falling at about ten in the morning and did not stop till late evening. Fortunately, the gym of the Memorial Union Building at the University of New Hampshire was heated enough to keep everyone comfortable. The kind of vigorous dancing that makes dancers sweat through their shirts was nowhere to be found at Ralph Page; even after three hours of dancing, I was hardly tired. The tunes were played at a moderate pace, some dances didn’t have partner swings, and one of the staff callers tells me he’s never used a calling card in his life.

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The past into the future (Photo by Zoë Madonna)

The Ralph Page weekend is more of a celebration of social dancing history and tradition than it is a modern “dance weekend.” A loop of David Millstone’s documentaries on Dudley Laufman and the history of contra in New England played in one room, where dancers could rest their feet. Memory books about now-deceased Ralph Page mainstays were laid out on a table. Workshops and dance sessions were themed around the past; a retrospective of mentors (Bob McQuillen, Larry Jennings, Ralph Sweet, Marianne Taylor), a program themed around one of Ralph Page’s Tuesday night dances at the Boston YWCA, and a session of “contras and squares that folks think ‘Dudley doesn’t know.’” “Dudley” is Dudley Laufman, who made immeasurable contributions to getting youth involved in contra dancing in the 1960s. He still plays fiddle and accordion, calling while he plays.

I was there because I’d gotten a calling scholarship, so I was in attendance at Dudley’s workshop on the “dos and don’ts of calling.” He hadn’t come with any dos and don’ts past “don’t ask at the beginning how many people are there for their first time” and “don’t let the band boss you around,” but the other attendees had plenty of questions for him and he had plenty of stories to tell, like the time he and his wife Jacqueline played a gig on a Boston Harbor yacht for a convention of insurance salesmen, during which they had to wear full colonial dress and were  not allowed to speak to their fellow performers or the audience. Dudley is in his 80s and had heart surgery recently, but that isn’t stopping him from calling barn dances. These days, a Dudley set usually consists of a few chestnut contras, some circle dances, a New England style square, and a Sicilian circle or two. Moves that have become commonplace in modern contra, such as the hey for four and gypsy, cannot be found in Dudley’s sets.

Dudley also had plenty of questions for me, whipping around with surprising speed for someone his age every time he remembered something he wanted to ask. “If a bus full of Girl Scouts, no, if a bus full of people with Down’s Syndrome pulls up and everyone comes in, what are you going to call?” I puzzled that question over for a minute before saying I’d call the simplest circle mixer I know. “Would you have them change partners?” asked another caller. I didn’t know what to answer. I still have a long way to go.

The defining moment of Ralph Page for me happened during lunch on the final day. As I was walking through the cafeteria, the jam session that had been playing struck up Money Musk. Two couples set up at one end of the cafeteria aisle and called for a third; I grabbed a partner and we three couples started dancing. No calls were needed. We all knew this dance. By the time my partner and I were waiting at the top, the line was at least twelve couples long. By the time the dance ended, there were at least twenty couples on the line: a good quarter of the people at the weekend, dancing Money Musk in a cafeteria for fifteen minutes with unabashed joy.

The Ralph Page Legacy Weekend was created in 1988 to recognize the contributions that caller Ralph Page (1903-1985) made to contra and New England folk dancing. It’s held the weekend before the third Monday in January (MLK, Jr. Day), at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH and sponsored by the New England Folk Festival Association.

A singer, dancer, musician—and Oberlin junior―Zoë Madonna is interning with CDSS this month.

Legislative Testimony

by Rima Dael, CDSS Executive Director

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Rima and Sen. Connor Ives

This past Friday, Pat McPherson, Director of the CDSS Education Department, and I provided testimony to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. State Representative Cory Atkins (D-Concord) and Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives (D-Newburyport), Co-Chairs of the Joint Committee, are traveling around the state with fellow committee members to solicit ideas from the arts, cultural and tourism communities, and the general public, to help the Committee develop policies that strengthen arts, culture and tourism in Massachusetts.

Tourism is recognized as the third largest revenue producing industry in Massachusetts with a $3.6 billion payroll across 124,700 jobs. In 2011, 21.3 million people visited the state and spent $16.9 billion, according to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. Tourist surveys consistently indicate that arts, culture and history are among the top reasons for choosing to visit our state. Nonprofit cultural organizations employ nearly 18,000 Massachusetts residents, generating $28 million in payroll taxes and $1.2 billion in annual in-state spending.

“Tourism and the arts bring Massachusetts to life,” said Atkins. “People come from all over the world to visit Walden Pond, Tanglewood, the Freedom Trail and our other internationally renowned destinations. Our artists, dancers, and musicians produce captivating works that produce jobs and showcase the creativity of our Commonwealth. On this tour, our Committee will explore the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Massachusetts, its impact on our economy and our communities, and ways the Legislature can help sustain it for future generations.”

Our primary goal of providing testimony was to raise the visibility of traditional dance, music and song in Massachusetts and showcase the good work of the Country Dance and Song Society over the past 98 years.

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Rima and Rep. Andrews

“I look forward to visiting different parts of the state and working with the Regional Tourist Councils to promote these areas and the attractions that they offer in an effort to encourage economic growth throughout the Commonwealth,” said Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives.

Senator O’Connor Ives and I shared a fun moment as fellow alums of Mt. Holyoke College. Rep. Andrews, a member of the committee, came up to ask advice from CDSS on thoughts and resources for bringing dance to a community in her district and engaging children and their families in participatory dance. Also in attendance were Linda Henry, CDSS Outreach & Grants Manager; Lynn Nichols, CDSS Webmaster; and CDSS member Alex Krogh-Grabbe of Amherst.

CDSS is working on creating toolkits to provide to members with best practices to engage local elected leaders to increase the visibility of traditional dance, music and song, and provide testimony on the value of our participatory arts in our communities. We thank the Massachusetts Cultural Council for their on-going support of our work and thanks to the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development for their time visiting towns around Massachusetts.