Category Archives: Store

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.

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).

Interview: Photographer Doug Plummer and the 2012 Contradance Calendar

A truly wonderful holiday gift for dance family and friends. Also available in bulk, a great way to fund-raise for your dance.

Doug Plummer has taken some of the greatest photos and videos of contra dance out there. This year, in conjunction with CDSS, he’s put out the 2012 Contradance Calendar, which collects some of his photography into a beautiful wall calendar.

I’ve been using mine and every month makes me smile. It’s a truly wonderful holiday gift for dance family and friends. Order it at the CDSS store. (Order by December 20 and get a free upgrade to expedited shipping.)

I love both Doug’s photos and this calendar, so I asked Doug a few questions about how it both came about.

– Max

What inspired you to start taking photos at dances?

DP: I’ve been photographing contra dance as long as I have been a dancer, which is to say, decades. As a newly single 30-something, I I fell into the Seattle contra dance scene in the mid 1980’s, and it came to be my primary social life. I was starting my professional photography career then too. I was moving out of being an assistant to commercial photographers and starting to get my own clients. I’d always shot personal work, and dancing was the most compelling event in my personal life. It was inevitable that it would be a major subject for me. By now there are probably 60,000 dance images in the archive.

Why did you decide to do a dance calendar?

DP: The calendar project came about because of my friend Joanne Lauterjung Kelly, a designer and a dancer. Back in 2010 she asked about using my work in her annual calendar that she sends out to her clients and friends. It was a small, modest project, but I ended up declining the offer (she really likes cropping photos, and I wouldn’t let her crop mine). Nonetheless, we talked about producing something I could live with for the next year, and that’s how it began.

Doug Plummer getting the perfect shot.

We posted hundreds of photos on a wall in her office, and we winnowed the possibilities down to what seemed like the ones that could survive scrutiny for a month. I kept the semi-finalists posted in my office and, over a couple months, found the ones that survived my scrutiny. And then I looked for the small photographs that supported the large image. I tried to have each month be a theme, often about the location of the dance. So there’s a Nelson month, a Concord month, and an Asheville month. Unavoidably, there are several Pacific Northwest months, but I tried to have them look different from each other. There’s a close-up-of-hands-on-musical-instruments month.

Why do this project in conjunction with CDSS?

DP: I’ve been talking with CDSS for years about some sort of joint project with my photographs. I’ve wanted for a long time to do a book of my dance work, and I’ve been approaching publishers about this (no takers yet, and I have not been willing to self-publish.) A calendar, however, seemed like a lower risk venture that I could fund myself and that would have a well defined audience. CDSS seemed like the obvious gateway to that audience, and I wanted to structure the finances so that it would benefit them and their local affiliates. We discussed the project early in the year, jointly arrived at a price point that they thought would work, and what the potential audience might be for it. I wanted the imprimatur of CDSS as a way to say, this is more than about me and my photographs. This is about the community of dance, and a way to share and support that.


What’s your approach to taking dance photos?

DP: There’s a kind of bifurcated quality to my approach to dance photography. On the surface, it’s obvious that I’m making a document of a particular kind of social event. But the real drive for me were the photographic challenges to find and make a compelling, coherent image in a complex, dynamic environment. This, now, was back in the days of slow transparency film. It was a big technical challenge, and I figured out a style that included combining ambient and strobe lighting, movement, and a visceral attentiveness to the compelling moment. I remember seeing one similar body of work in an issue of Aperture Magazine on swing dancers, but I don’t think anyone else was mining this particular landscape for photographs the way I was.

Now, of course, you can’t go to a dance without seeing a whole lot of people taking photos or making videos. I was at the Peterborough Fall Ball a couple months ago, and the number of people wielding high end DSLR’s, with strobes, was startling. Every dance has multiple Facebook albums of it posted the next day. Photographs are part of the social currency of the dance scene now.

What have you learned about taking good dance photos?

DP: The subject of how to take better dance photographs and video is a long one, and I have a lot of suggestions and opinions. Let’s save that for another blog post.

What are your hopes for future projects like this?

DP: What I hope for the calendar is that this becomes a regular fixture in the community, that I will produce it every year and it can help support the community and support my travels to document it. This year’s calendar I have to view as the initial steep slope of the learning curve and as an investment in a longer term project—which is another way of saying that it’s going to lose money. Next year I’ll probably launch it as a Kickstarter project and fund it in advance.

One ancillary benefit that I hadn’t anticipated is that I discovered there is a demand for high quality photos and video to promote events. I went to the BACDS American Week and posted photos and video on Facebook every day while I was there. I’m the ePublicity person for next year’s camp now. I’ve gotten invitations to come to other dance camps and do the same thing, and they’re putting me on staff to do it. This is how I’m going to get the content for the 2013 calendar.

And what else are you working on?

DP: I’m doing a lot of video work these days. At the moment I’m working on a series of 8 short documentaries for Northwest Folklife Festival documenting various music and dance communities in the Northwest. They’ve ranged from Scandinavian to Hindu to Hawaiian to Gospel to Old Time to Shape Note Singing. They’re about to launch a new site just for these, but for now you can go to Northwest Stories.

Doug Plummer is a photographer from Seattle, WA.

Read Doug’s blog on the 2012 Contradance Calendar:

Buy the calendar at the CDSS store. ($18) Free expedited through December 20.

Bulk orders for fund-raising. Tell your dance organizers! The calendar is also available in at discounted bulk rates. Buy a bunch of them to sell at your local dance, and your group can keep the profit. Buy 5 to 25 calendars for $15, 26 to 69 calendars for $12, and a full box of 70 for $10 each. E-mail or call 413-203-5467 x 103.

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.

Tony Parkes on a Caller’s Talents

What is “talent” when it comes to calling dances? What makes a talented caller? These are perhaps not questions one can fully answer in a sitting, but I’d like to share one pretty good stab at it.

Tony Parkes, Boston-area caller of contras and squares, recently published the 2nd Edition of his landmark book, Contra Dance Calling: A Basic Text. This book is “the first comprehensive entry-level book ever written on contra dance calling.” It’s exciting that it’s back in print in a revised edition after being unavailable for some time. I got my copy and was struck by, among other things, his observations on talent and calling.

Tony breaks the somewhat abstract talent of “calling” into its constituent parts, each of which contributes in some way to being a good caller. His list contained a few things I wouldn’t have considered (spatial sense!), but which make perfect sense upon reflection. Everyone, of course, has a different set of these and Tony’s advice for adapting to your own individual skills is quite helpful. I found this overall approach insightful and a little inspiring, too — whether applied to calling or a host of other concepts.

Here’s an excerpt:

Your talent is a gift from God. It’s appropriate to be thankful for it, but you don’t need to be apologetic about it. A caller needs a moderate amount of many different talents, rather than a great deal of just one (see the list below). We’re given talents in varying amounts, but we have the ability to develop them. It’s important to be honest with yourself about your talents. Then you can be thankful for the ones you have in greater measure, and willing to work on your weak spots.

Don’t get discouraged just because you have those weak spots. No one, not even your favorite caller, has a full measure of every possible talent. One of the finest callers I know has what some people might think an insurmountable handicap: he is not at all musical. He has compensated for this over the years by learning everything he could about the structure of dance tunes and by making careful notes on what tunes work well with each dance that he uses.

Another caller suffered from near-terminal shyness when he began his career. He dealt with it by treating his calling as an act, in which he could relate to people under a different persona from the one he used offstage. Little by little the act became a genuine part of his personality, and now he is only moderately shy.

Here is a list of talents or qualities that are helpful to the caller. Some of these apply more to the professional than to the casual caller; others will come in handy in any calling situation.

• Self-confidence
• Patience
• Good judgment
• Emotional balance
• A sense of rhythm and timing
• A pleasant speaking and/or singing voice
• Good diction
• Musical ability
• Good memory
• Spatial sense (ability to see what’s happening in the set)
• A love of people and a desire to see them happy
• A delight in bringing order out of chaos
• Perseverance in the face of disappointment and frustration

Remember, no one has all of these to the same degree. If you’re lacking in some, you’re just as well off as anyone else who’s starting out. If you feel you lack nearly all of them, though, you might reconsider your decision to be a caller.

Above all, you must enjoy what you’re doing. If you do, your dancers will too.

Contra Calling: A Basic Text by Tony Parkes
Each of the points in Tony’s list is worth an essay in and of itself. I’m sure we could also append interesting qualities and sub-qualities worth considering. A few that came to me:

  • Sense of humor
  • Creativity
  • Appreciation of fiddle music
  • Ability to speak the “musicians’ language”

Are there yet others that come to you? Is this list any different for English callers? I find it pretty absorbing to consider how this approach applies to musicians. As always, your comments are welcome.

Thanks to Tony for allowing me to quote his book so extensively. You can buy the book here.

– Max