Monthly Archives: June 2013

Montreal Monsters: Making the “Pretty Boy” Video


Still photo from the music video “Pretty Boy” by Luke McCutcheon

Guest blog by Sean McCutcheon

A music video featuring contradancing—the first to do so, as far as I know—has just been released.

Music videos originated as clips shown on TV to promote a recording. Now, though still associated with songs, they have become an art form. As tools for producing them have grown cheaper, and web-based distribution channels such as YouTube and Pitchfork grown larger, they have become the means by which many young film makers hone their chops, reach wide audiences, win prizes, and launch careers.

After recording their fourth and latest album, Young Galaxy, the Montreal-based indie band, invited my son Luke to make the official video for the album’s lead song, the dance-pop anthem Pretty Boy.

According to Stephen Ramsay, co-founder of Young Galaxy, this song was inspired by reading Just Kids, the autobiography of Patti Smith (the godmother of punk), and her story of finding love with fellow misfit Robert Mapplethorpe (the iconic queer photographer).

The chorus of Pretty Boy goes:

“And I know you feel isolated
And I feel what you won’t say
I don’t care if the disbelievers
Don’t understand, you’re my pretty boy, always.”

Luke decided to make a video exploring “the uncanny valley, that space where something looks human but is just slightly off.” The term ‘‘uncanny valley’’ was coined to describe a curious feature that appears when you chart our emotional response to robots. The more they become human in appearance the more we like them. When they look and act almost but not perfectly like us, we start to feel revulsion, and the chart dips into the so-called uncanny valley. Finally, as they become indistinguishable from us, our responses become positive once again.

In the video, shot during a hectic weekend in Montreal, two weird, lost characters (a wrinkled man and a blank beauty; the actors were wearing very tight, uncomfortable latex masks), meet in a bar, sadly shuffle around a dingy, snowy city, and end up dancing together at a contradance, all in slow motion.

For the final scene, a dozen or so dancers came colorfully dressed to a church basement rented for a Sunday night and there, as the camera changed angles and the two weary actors busted their moves, they cheerfully repeated a few dances over and over again.

Since being released this Spring the video has racked up more than 50,000 views on YouTube. The reviewers like what one called “the story of a winter friendship between a pair of ugly ducklings.” Several see it as a twist on Harold and Maude. A few detected the models Luke actually had in mind: the film Trash Humpers and the video for the song “Pass This On” by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife. All see the relationship that blossoms between the creepy monsters, and their happy integration into the contradance, as sweet and redemptive.

What’s surprising about this, to me, is that it was my son who made it. Once, when Luke came to the contradance we organize in Montreal, he declared, with glaring illogic, that clearly none of the dancers had ever had sex. And when he was a willful adolescent our most effective deterrent was the threat of waiting for him after school, dancing on the sidewalk with signs identifying us as his parents.

To the adult Luke, however, contradancers represent “a spirit as wholesome, provincial, and non-sexual as cookies.” And thanks to his dancing parents, he happened to have access to this welcoming dance community, the perfect antidote for urban monsterdom.

Sean McCutcheon lives in Montreal and his interests include music and dance.

Caroline says: My thanks to Sean for writing this article, and thanks as well to Nils Fredland who shared Sean’s email with me a short while ago, alerting me to the video. When I first watched it, I spent most of the time thinking “What is this about?”, and by the end I was thinking, “Absolutely.” Tell us your reaction.

Preserving the Life’s Work of Keith Blackmon, Part II

Nils Fredland and I have been working on the book of Keith Blackmon’s singing squares for over two years, on and off, and we’ve just published it! Pretty darn exciting.

A funny thing happens when you’re working on a book – the words take over. The constant decisions you make are all about commas, hyphens, and semi-colons; typography and spelling. Or you are thinking, and making decisions, about vertical space, indents, and page dimensions. The list-making and checking things off the list does not stop until the book is in your hands.

So, when Nils and I drove to the Ralph Page Weekend in February 2013, a few months ago, I was very much in the midst of that mindset. I had danced during the Keith Blackmon Memorial Weekend, held March 2012 in Keith’s home community near Bradford, PA. I was excited then to see the Bradford and Crook Farm dancers, and to talk with them about their long dance lives. Many had grown up in families where community life was integrated with square dancing in schools, kitchens, and upstairs at community halls. Keith was the carrier and preserver of this tradition. But on our way to Ralph Page, almost a year later, I was out of touch with the dances as living things.

So, picture this: At Ralph Page, Nils is presenting a session on Keith’s dances. I’m in a square with seven others. And Nils starts to talk about meeting Keith; his experience of him as a man and caller. It’s moving. And then we start to dance Pony Boy.

I’ve studied the words of Pony Boy; can’t tell you how many times. I’ve proof-read the music; can’t tell you how many times. What I read is: “Giddy-ap, giddy-ap, giddy-ap, whoa,” and what I think is: “Really? Is it giddy-up or giddy-ap? Is there a hyphen between giddy and ap? What did Keith write?”

But now I’m dancing it and singing along. My partner’s arms are around my waist in a star promenade. I love this figure. We pivot counterclockwise as a pair. That’s fun to do. Right into a ladies right hand star. Nice smooth transition. And then we swing. I’m smiling. I’m in the dance and Pony Boy takes life. And this is what I have been missing.

Nils and I drive home from Ralph Page. We are enthused by the dancing, the wonderful people, and the opportunity to share Keith’s dances. I am ready to go to work again. I understand the words and now, I understand the dances.

New River Train, the just published book of Keith Blackmon’s singing calls, is available from CDSS here.

~ Pat MacPherson

Using Technology for Board Work

by Brian Gallagher

briangallagher-8fea1617As I start my final year as a member of the Country Dance and Song Society governing board, I reflect upon some of the things that have happened in my time serving, beyond big policy issues. One of the items I’m proudest about has been my involvement in the efforts to utilize technology better in the work that we do.

The board meets in person once a year. Various committees, including the executive committee, meet in person several times per year, but the vast majority of the board’s work is conducted outside of these in person meetings. When I started on the board, a lot of that work was conducted via email and teleconference using a free teleconference service.

There have been several people who have pushed us into the technology age, so this is not about giving credit. This is about the neat things we use.

First, we have a great webpage that hosts all of our board-related documents and resources. This site is great—it allows the office staff and board to store documents. When it comes time for the annual meeting, we post all of the board reports on the site. It is also an easy place to upload the most recent copy of the agenda.

Next comes the video conferencing. We do use Skype sometimes. We have found this is an effective tool if you want to do a video conference between two people. I have been known to have a quick video chat with fellow board members. It also functions as a great way for me to connect with other board members and really talk through a question or concern.

The bigger conferencing tool we are using is called Go to Meeting (G2M). (This is not meant to be an advertisement for the company at all.) While working to figure out what software works best for our needs, Jill Allen (and a few others) and myself sampled 6-8 different video and audio conferencing software. We settled on G2M for a variety of reasons.

There are moments when it is pretty fun to be in a meeting spanning multiple time zones. Favorite memories: one board member in Greece or a committee member in Ireland, with the rest of us all over North America. It gives a whole new meaning to “how are things by you?”

I’m glad that I have been part of this small change in how the CDSS board operates.

Brian Gallagher joined the CDSS governing board in 2008; he lives in Carbondale, IL.


Mondays in Nelson

Happy Friday CDSS friends!  On this first day of summer I’m happy to share with you my final school project, completed during my recent semester at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.  While there I learned both radio and video production as well as some photography.  It was wonderful to develop these skills while working with a community near and dear to my heart: the Monday night contra dance in Nelson, NH.   Please enjoy this six minute video portrait of this gem of a community dance.

I also wish to extend my warmest thanks to the many people who helped make the project possible including: Lisa Sieverts, Gordon Peery, Don Primrose, Kelly Strauss, Val Van Meier, Al Stoops, Jenny Maxwell, Rachel Fouchet and all the Nelson dancers, callers and musicians.


~ Mary

[ylwm_vimeo height=”400″ width=”600″ class=”MYCUSTOMCLASS” portrait=”false” byline=”false”]66125030[/ylwm_vimeo]

Preserving the Life’s Work of Keith Blackmon

blackmonpromocardFrom the Introduction of New River Train: Singing Squares from the Collection of Keith Blackmon:

Since my first meeting with him, Keith’s spirit has been with me as I have worked to bring his unique singing square dance repertoire to a wider audience of square dance enthusiasts.

I came into Keith’s life with a sole purpose — to create a polished book, published by CDSS, of singing squares from his collection amassed over 70 years as a dance caller. While many of the squares in Keith’s collection are well-known and frequently called in the region where Keith lived, a CDSS publication would put the squares in front of a much broader audience of dancers and callers, ensuring a long and well-traveled life for the dances themselves, and preserving Keith’s legacy and life’s work as a collector of dances. There were lots of things that Keith and I talked about in our initial meetings, but everything in our conversations eventually led back to the square dances. I came to understand, and really feel, how important it was to him that these dances survive as a vital, growing, and changing participatory art form. Faced with the end of his own life, Keith handed me this piece of himself and trusted me to do something big with it.

I’m really proud of the book. It is polished, and it’s an excellent collection that showcases elements of the regional square dance tradition of the Twin Tiers, and lets readers experience a sense of Keith himself. I am deeply humbled that he allowed me into his life, and that he chose to provide me with the content to create an interesting and useful dance resource. I hope that the book succeeds in giving him the gift of a larger audience for the square dances that he loved so much.

Keith’s spirit has indeed been with me through this whole process, and I can imagine his pride and joy every time I share a dance from New River Train with an audience new to the Blackmon collection.

Buy, enjoy, and use the book! Get to know a very fine man by learning some of his favorite square dances.

New River Train is available from the CDSS store.

~ Nils

Celebrating the Spirit and Legacy of Nat Hewitt

by Chrissy Fowler

Nat Hewitt

Nat Hewitt

The contradance diaspora mourns when an important person passes, especially when the death is untimely. When Nat Hewitt died of complications of cancer in November, the loss was keenly felt by dancers, musicians, and callers across the world, and particularly in Maine, where Nat was the much-loved house fiddler for the Falmouth dance series. Over many decades, he also appeared regularly at dances around the state, in places like North Yarmouth, North Whitefield, Belfast, Rockport, Trenton, Freeport, Kittery, and Eliot; was on staff at Maine Fiddle Camp; and several times was a featured performer the annual DownEast Country Dance Festival.

In November, Maureen Costello (an early Falmouth organizer) catalyzed the idea of a memorial dance event in Maine.  A quartet of us began to plan the event: Maureen, Nat’s bandmate Glen Loper, current Falmouth organizer Barry Magda, and myself.

I was motivated to be part of it because I’m grateful to Nat for our various connections over the years. He did innumerable gigs with me, starting early in my calling practice, he passed on useful nuggets re. calling and self-employment, his musicianship lent credibility to dances I organized, he provided memorable late night hilarity at Pinewoods and elsewhere, and he was such a damned talented dance fiddler.  Who else could pull off playing Wizard’s Walk for the dance Haste to the Wedding at a Bat Mitzvah?

We decided to run the June 1st Falmouth dance as a fundraiser for a CDSS scholarship in Nat’s memory, invited many callers and musicians to volunteer their time, and started spreading the word.  Musicians and callers in Maine jumped right on board, and a few folks from “away” committed to come (including NEFFA leaders Dan Pearl & Linda Leslie, fiddler Jaige Trudel, and another of Nat’s bandmates Adam Broome.)  One dancer volunteered to assemble a memory book and brought supplies, various photos, and some anecdotes and memories that people had shared online in the wake of Nat’s passing.  It all came together, coincidentally, just 2 days before Nat’s 55th birthday.

And it was amazing.

The day was hot. Really hot. We should have been on the water in a sailboat, not in a steamy hall. But there we were, having what Maine native and Oberlin student Ness Smith-Savedoff labeled “a mystic sweat lodge experience.”

The floor was full of longtime Maine dancers and new faces. Nat’s mother Elizabeth watched from the side of the hall, taking it all in. The musicians and callers exulted in each other’s contributions, whether listening onstage or whirling around the dance floor. As Linda Leslie succinctly stated, “the dance was very special.”

Each caller did 2 dances, and the bands played separately and then combined forces for a couple of sets. DEFFA president Pam Weeks observed that this format illustrated “the diversity of styles we have in our little community.”

Eric Weest Johnson at the sound board

Eric Weest Johnson at the sound board

Eric Weest Johnson was the superstar of the night. He brought his 24 channel board and a ton of gear – even pre-labeling a cable for every single musician. He did an initial sound check of each group during our pre-dance potluck, and this meant that the bands could just plug and play. When the whole group launched into their first mega-band set, the mood was jubilant.

Much appreciation to Glen Loper, Maureen Costello, Barry Magda, Maggie Robinson, Bill Olson, Kim Roberts, Linda Leslie, Dan Pearl, Jessie & Greg Boardman, Frigate (Steve Muise, Glen Loper, Fred White), Adam Broome, Jaige Trudel, Jeff Raymond, Henry Road Band (John Pranio, Jamie Oshima, Glen Loper, Toki Oshima), T-Acadie (Pam Weeks, Bill Olson, Jim Joseph, Jay Young), Edward Howe, and Eric Weest Johnson on sound, but special thanks to all of the dancers and the folks who tossed in extra money above and beyond admission.

We netted nearly $1,400 given generous contributions of time and money from the dancers, performers, and organizers. Wow!

But, more importantly for all of us, it was what Pam Weeks described as a “celebration and amplification of Nat’s spirit and legacy in dance music.” And the bonus was the way our community pulled together to make it happen. I think every one of us was seeing Nat’s impish smile and devilishly sparkling eye, and hearing his fiddle in the mix of the traditional music and dance that we all cherish.” Being together and remembering together our old friend Nat, through celebration, was uplifting and cathartic and brought its own richness,” reflected Adam Broome. Such richness is at the core of our traditions. We celebrate them as we celebrated Nat.

~ Chrissy Fowler

More photos and a short video are on Dropbox

Folks may still donate to CDSS online, noting that it’s in memory of Nat Hewitt.

Chrissy Fowler is a dance leader and a board member of the Belfast Flying Shoes Dance Series and DownEast Friends of the Folk Arts (DEFFA) – both of which are CDSS affiliates.