Category Archives: Publications

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.

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

“It’s Fun To Hunt”

by David Millstone

photo by Nikki Herbst

Ralph Page gave this title to a regular column in his Northern Junket magazine, in which he shared information he had gleaned from looking through old newspapers in New Hampshire and Vermont. For those of us interested in dance history, he’s absolutely right.

Late last month, CDSS member Karen Mueller-Harder heard a wonderful story on Vermont Public Radio. In it, VPR reporter Steve Zind tells about John Stone, who in 1956 recorded a dance in Newfane, Vermont. Stone recently donated his tape to the Vermont Folklife Center, which digitized the recording. (Dance caller and CDSS youth intern Mary Wesley has worked at the VFC—small world!) Zind’s story describes how listening to the tape brought back a flood of memories for Stone.

Karen sent a link to the story to Steve Howe, at the CDSS office, who shared it with fellow staff members. Pat MacPherson in turn passed on the link to me and to Bob Dalsemer, one of my colleagues on the Square Dance History Project (SDHP). It was, indeed, a lovely and evocative story.

The VPR story included only a few snippets from the actual dance recording—the focus is Stone’s reactions to hearing the music once again—but I was interested in hearing more of the source material. I went to the website of the Vermont Folklife Center and spent a frustrating time trying to locate the original, without success. I turned to Google and easily located VFC’s posted file of the recording, a beautifully preserved digital file. A few minutes later I added a reference to this audio clip of three singing squares (the Dick Perry Orchestra and caller Ira Huntley) to our SDHP website.

But wait! There’s more! I wasn’t familiar with all three dances, and Bob quickly identified one as “Belle of the Ball,” which he knew from the calling of Otto Wood. Otto (fiddle) and his wife Marguerite (piano) hailed from Michigan, but were regulars on staff at Pinewoods and at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, as they made their way to and from Florida each winter. Bob’s e-mail included a typescript of Otto’s calls for that dance and an appreciation of the Woods on a website celebrating Michigan fiddlers.

It turned out that Belle of the Ball was just one page from a larger collection of Otto’s dances that had been prepared by storyteller and occasional dance caller Donald Davis, working closely with Marguerite sometime after Otto’s death. (Donald Davis has been a frequent staff member at our CDSS family camp at Ogontz, and he will be on staff again this summer; “Otto and Marguerite” is among his vast repertoire of stories.) After a few more e-mail exchanges we had his permission to post the complete set, so we’ve added Otto’s calls for 17 singing squares and Marguerite’s music to the SDHP website.

All in all, a very enjoyable and productive few days. It’s fun to hunt!

Editor’s note: See more about the Square Dance History Project in earlier blogs: SDHP Update (1/10/13) and SDHP Launches New Website (10/2/12)..




CDSS Sings!

by Caroline Batson, Promotion & Periodicals Director

CDSS staff singing, 12.5.12

As you may know, CDSS is joining in a regional e-philanthropy event next week on 12.12.12. We invite you to support our work with a special gift that day (or you can schedule a donation anytime between now and then). Since not everyone who’ll be giving that day knows what we do here at CDSS, we’re showing them. We’ll have a blog up tomorrow about an event last night, and on Monday we’ll be videotaping us doing the Abbots Bromley Horn dance for folks in our building. Check back again tomorrow and early next week to watch.

In the meanwhile, SING ALONG WITH US NOW! The words are — “You are welcome, you are welcome, you are welcome in this place.”

Video: Steve Howe. Singers, L to R: Mary Wesley, Robin Hayden, Linda Henry, Pat MacPherson, Nils Fredland, and Caroline Batson. Kathy Bullock led the song last summer at our Harmony of Music and Dance Week.

Okay, everyone ready? Sing!

Square Dance History Project Launches New Website

by David Millstone

A group of square dance enthusiasts has launched a digital library and website that takes a broad look at square dancing now as well as the historical antecedents of today’s squares. Please share this news and the link with others who might be interested!

The project’s primary focus is to collect good examples of moving images—more than 400 videos so far—that document square dancing in its many forms. This includes New England dosido and western docey-do, barn dances and hoedowns, stately quadrilles and rip-roarin’ squares of the 1950s, as well as modern square dance programs from Mainstream to Challenge. The site also includes interviews, text, photographs, audio files, and much more.

Among the many treats awaiting you:

• Rare footage of the Lloyd Shaw’s Cheyenne Mountain Dancers, plus a black and white silent film (1955) showing square dances in Central City, Colorado
• A set of 100 high-definition videos filmed in 2011 at the Dare To Be Square weekend at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, with six nationally-known square dance callers, and a set of 25 additional videotaped interviews.
• More than 150 items related to MWSD, including an article by Jim Mayo looking at the early years, illustrated with live recordings from the 1940s and 1950s
• Elizabeth Burchenal’s silent footage of southern Appalachian mountain squares from the early 1930s
• A curated assortment of more than 400 videos showing dancing from Newfoundland and Quebec to the American Southwest
• Exhibits showcasing items in the collection, on such diverse topics as the pioneering work of Lloyd Shaw in Colorado to an in-depth look at dances from Maryland Line, Maryland

The site is a work in progress, and additional material will be added regularly to the collection. The home page offers a way to contribute additional items; the organizers are especially interested in locating home movie footage from decades past.

As part of its financial contribution, CDSS co-sponsored the Dare To Be Square weekend and provided funding for the weekend’s documentation. This includes the videotaped dances plus the CD-ROM disk (syllabus and complete audio files) that is in the CDSS store. CDSS also administers the fund that supports the project; the other fiscal supporters include the Lloyd Shaw Foundation, CALLERLAB, and The ARTS (Alliance of Round, Traditional, and Square-Dance).

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 — 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.

Square resources page: Nils’ sneak peek

Nils on the trombone.

Nils Fredland, our American Dance/Music Projects director, has been at work on some square dance resources to be available on our website. He’s posted here — on his own wonderful blog (which usually features reflections on an evening’s calling) — with a sneak preview.

As he says, “One early aspect of the project was to create a set of broad definitions about the various styles of square dancing,” which is what he shares with us in his post.

An excerpt:


A style of dancing rooted in the French courts and English high-society. Most traditional New England squares are in this style. The quadrille (upon which today’s American quadrille style squares are based) was an 18th century French invention, but by the early 19th century these dances had swept both Europe and the Americas. The early quadrilles were five or six-part, carefully choreographed sequences danced in four couple square sets.

So take a look at Nils’ post for a short-n-sweet overview of square dance styles and be on the lookout for the full resources available at in the near future.

On the Beat

— Max

Find other resources in the Advice & How-To area of our website.

Nils previously worked with caller Ralph Sweet to produce the wonderful book on singing squares, On the Beat with Ralph Sweet, available at our online store.

Our newest publication: 21 Easy English Country Dances

Our newest booklet is 21 Easy English Country Dances: Dances Selected from The Playford Ball with Music Selected from CDSS Archival Recordings.

There are two people who were especially important to the production of this booklet: Gary and Rowena Roodman.

Rowena is the CDSS Sales Assistant; as part of her job, she helps people find the right CD or book for their needs. Until now all she has had to offer people who are either beginning teachers, dancers or both, has been the cassette Juice of Barley: Simple English Country Dances (CDS9)–outmoded technology–and The Playford Ball (CDSS, 1994)–wonderful resource but daunting to the beginner.  Rowena remembers meeting an enthusiastic elementary school teacher at a CDSS week at Pinewoods Camp, who really wanted to teach English dance to her students — she needed music and she needed an introductory book of accessible dances. Rowena has also taken many calls at the office from folks who have seen the beautiful dancing in one of the recent “Jane Austen” films and want to be either Gwyneth Paltrow or Colin Firth (useful as it is, I really can’t say this booklet is going to help with that…).

Gary and Rowena at Pinewoods

Gary Roodman, Rowena’s husband and a well-known choreographer of English country dances, is a good friend to CDSS. Gary’s first encounter with English dance was at Pinewoods Camp. He and his family were vacationing on Cape Cod and had the opportunity to take part in CDSS Family Week. Gary told me about his first evening at camp: he was walking towards the main dance pavilion, C Sharp, and heard this sound! Gary remembers  standing on a bench and looking down on the dancers, moving gracefully on the floor. He felt he was seeing a vision of his future. Gary said, “Every time I hear the music on the CDSS recordings, I am reliving that experience; and all my early dancing is connected to this music.” When the CDSS recordings  started to come out in the late 1970s, it was the first opportunity to take that sound home.

Gary’s mission in helping with this booklet has been to preserve the music on the CDSS recordings (CDS 1-9). Gary took all the cuts from CDS 6-9 plus selected cuts from CDS 1 and Country Capers (Arabesque Records; Marshall Barron, guest artist) and created WAV files, for archival and re-publication purposes. Selections from this new archive are on the CD which accompanies the new booklet.

I’m happy to say that the new booklet has Rowena’s and Gary’s stamp of approval: it is easy to use, it is beautifully executed, and Rowena says it is all you need for your first two years of teaching and dancing. If you are able to do the 21 dances in the booklet, then you can move on to our next planned publication: Classic English Country Dances, with music on CD culled from CDSS recordings.

— Pat

Read the full description of 21 Easy English Country Dances and get one for yourself at the CDSS store.

Newsletter Highlight: Dance Revitalization in Palo Alto

Deadline: The deadline for our next issue (April-June) is February 1st, next Tuesday. We’d love your submissions.

We’ve also posted a few articles from the current newsletter online and I wanted to highlight one today. Joyce Fortune wrote a wonderful piece entitled Revitalization: How Do You Make a Dance Come Back to Life (pdf) which looks at some of re-energizing strategies used by the Palo Alto dance to increase their attendance. I recommend reading the whole article, but here are some of the points that caught my eye.

The Food. Instead of selling snacks, the Palo Alto community added a regular potluck table at the break, something that can be surprisingly effective at strengthening a community. It’s great to have something outside the dancing itself, food especially, that facilitates conversation. A predictable potluck also creates an opportunity for people to contribute something and strengthen their community ties.

The Welcome. The Palo Alto dance “mix[ed] up the faces at the front desk… asking for multiple people to sit out only one dance.” It sounds like this did a lot for relieving organizer burnout. Like with food, more door-sitting shifts created “an easy volunteer job that people can do and feel like they are contributing to the dance community, which they are.”

The Talent. The dance makes an effort to showcase a variety of musicians, callers, and sound people. While fun, accomplishing this can require some legwork finding talent, as well as some care getting everyone on board. It can be a matter of balancing: familiarity and predictability can be assets, but so can variety and risk. I’ll add that making space in your schedule can also be a part of a long-term investment in creating more new callers and musicians. In turn, I’ve seen frequent anecdotal correlation between more new talent on stage and more new dancers on the floor.

Post-dance connections. As well as creating an e-mail list for the dance, they have been making sure to connect with new faces. Joyce notes she has “made a point of talking to newcomers and getting their email address to send a follow-up email to them as well as adding them to our regular list.” This takes effort from the organizers but really pays. I note they have an active Facebook group, with several posts a month. These include information about the upcoming dances, photos, and videos. They also advertise their quarterly follow-up potluck and meeting, which is fabulous.

Fostering a newcomer-welcoming dance culture. Having lots of new people is, happily, a familiar circumstance. Unfortunately, so is wondering why many don’t return. In addition to talking with them and sending them a follow up e-mail, Joyce and others took it upon themselves to make sure they had a good time on the dance floor. “We actively help them to learn how to ask people to dance,” she notes, “and make sure they are only sitting out voluntarily.”

The process. Perhaps most of all, the process by which these changes came about. Joyce cared about the local community. She identified that the organizers were getting burnt out and needed help. She did her research about other dances. She asked for advice from other organizers. She brought others on board (“six committees with eighteen people”!). They identified their goals and effective ways to address them. They also took some risks and expended a lot of effort. It was the right kind of effort — not the kind that wears you down, but the kind that you can build on.

It’s great to hear about.

– Max

Don’t forget we want to hear from you. Send your newsletter submissions to our editor Caroline Batson ( by next Tuesday, February 1st.