Tag Archives: contra dance

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 (caroline@cdss.org) by next Tuesday, February 1st.

Oberlin Dance Blogging

Oberlin College has had a significant dance scene for some time. In addition to a regular dance series on campus, the Oberlin Contra Dance Club, sponsors an annual dance weekend. The 12th Annual Dandelion Romp is coming up in April. From conversations with alums, I gather there’s significant participation from both the students and the local community on the dance floor. The dance has also been an encouraging place for student callers and musicians, something that can be a key ingredient to having lots of student dancers.

Oberlin hosts student blogs and two authors have given fun posts about the contra dance. (They also both include some wonderful pictures.)

“Contra Dancing: What, Where and Why You Should Do It” from Aries Indenbaum ’09 focuses on an evening of dancing, in the process providing an approachable description of contra dancing. She also describes how the dance offers a social experience that can be unusual for college students. “I’ve gotten to meet some amazing people: not only other Obies, but folks from around Ohio. As I’ve been doing it since I was a wee first-year, I’ve gotten to see people change. One girl who started going when she was 12 has now hit puberty and talks to me about middle school — another partner has just fathered a child. It’s a different slice of life.” As enjoyable as the student life is, it can be isolating. Encountering the community outside the campus gates can be refreshingly grounding. As Aries notes, “As much as I love college students, it’s nice to be able to connect with someone who’s in their 50’s.”

In “How I learned to stop worrying and love Contra Dance.”, Harris Lapiroff ’10 writes about how contra dancing can be a transformative experience in relating to one’s own physicality. “Before I came to college, I was convinced that I was incapable of displaying any rhythm or smoothness of motion. The extent of my social dancing experience was a few graceless school dances,” he says, adding, “People who know me now might find this hard to believe.” Harris goes on to describe his “feeling of wonderment” as he began being in tune with his movements.

Overcoming the “body-mind disconnect” through dancing is,  I’ve observed, a powerful but common experience. There’s a strong I-can’t-dance mentality many of us develop and it’s quite empowering to transcend it (and so easily) at a caller-led social dance. It’s something that happens with many skeptical newcomers, but you can really see it in action at the next wedding dance you go to. It can be like watching a room of people discover they can fly.

Beyond breaking down body-mind barriers, Harris, like Aries, picks up on how the dance becomes a place to break down social barriers as well, noting how “[a]t Oberlin the dancers are largely students, but there are more than a few regulars from town as well as the occasional faculty/staff.” Experience tells me these kinds of barriers can be empowering to overcome as well.

— Max

A Week of Dancing on “Kentucky’s Backroads”

The Christmas Country Dance School at Berea College has been a place to celebrate and practice traditional dance, music, song and crafts since 1938. Lexington, Kentucky’s ABC news station did a nice piece on this year’s CCDS for a series called “Kentucky’s Backroads”. Read the story and see the video. (Or watch it fullscreen.)

The Berea Christmas Country Dance School on TV

As in my post on morris dancing, here’s an example of wider media (local news in this case), taking a look from the outside in. It makes me consider the role of extended events (like the week-long School). The piece looks at how the Christmas Country Dance School fosters and sustain broad geographic connection, something many of us experience. It also highlights something that isn’t discussed quite as much: that events like the Christmas School also offer a place for support and personal healing.

Caller (and CDSS board member) Wendy Graham of Colorado is featured in the story, along with her friend Julie Fishman from California. Relating how the Christmas School helped them heal from their experiences in New York City during 9/11, Wendy and Julie share a kind of story that I suspect takes place quite often. What is it that’s “therapeutic” about a week of traditional dancing? It’s an escape, but it is not isolated escapism, unlike so much of our “recreation”; it is communal. There is something quite special about the plunge into personal, physical connections and traditions — the giving and getting weight of community dancing. At times when we feel isolated and lost, a hand to literally hold on to offers special reassurance.

Three hours of dancing can deliver an intense feeling of community. Weekends and weeks can generate even more profound experiences, offering many more opportunities to connect both on and off the dance floor. This experience is continually renewed as coming together for a week a year becomes a tradition in itself, lasting “for decades to come”.

It’s a valuable thing and I’m glad we have it.

— Max

p.s. I can’t help but return to briefly marveling at the breadth of geographic connections. As the news piece observes, it’s remarkable how these traditions are strong enough to bring people together for events like the Christmas Country Dance School. A Coloradan and Californian reunite in Kentucky. And in the video they are dancing to Cis Hinkle of Georgia with music by Brad Battey and Debbie Jackson (also a CDSS board member) from Michigan. Quite amazing.

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

Seven Questions for Larry Unger

Larry UngerLarry Unger has more miles under his belt than just about any other contra musician. For more than 25 years, he’s been on the road playing countless dances and composing hundreds of tunes. Recently his band Notorious — with Eden MacAdam-Somer (fiddle), Sam Bartlett (mandolin), Mark Hellenberg (percussion), and Mark Murphy (bass) — released their third album, The Road to Damascus. I sat down with Larry recently and asked him a few quick questions….

1. What music are you listening to at the moment?

  • Ozarks Fiddle Music. I bought this great book and CD, It’s fantastic! There are a lot of tune books in the world, but this is well-done, I think.
  • Etta Baker: Banjo. I’ve been listening to it over and over again, recently. She was a blues guitarist that I knew and I used to visit her. She was known for her guitar playing, but I knew she played the banjo and thankfully there are enough recordings of it.

2. What are a few of your all-time favorite albums?

3. What’s one of your all-time favorite tunes?

Tour of Scotland by Randy Miller. When I used to play with Rodney [Miller], I used to always ask him for that because I knew he played it. Of course, depending on the fiddler, I always ask for the Opera Reel. And of course Money Musk when the opportunity presents itself.

4. What’s one of the all-time favorite tunes you’ve written?

Two Rivers. It’s an old one. It’s 25 years old. I still like it though.

5. What’s an instrument that you don’t play but wish you could?

Well I don’t play the fiddle all the time! [Laughs.] I hold it in my hands and scratch away. As far as something that I really wish I could play that I don’t play at all, that would be Tejano music, Tex-Mex accordion like Flaco and Santiago Jiménez play. I just love that kind of music. That and the Cajun accordion.

6. In five words, describe your musical style.

“Can’t. Be. Done. Not. Today.” [Laughs.] “A. Little. Bit. Of. Everything.” Someone once said something about me, in a newspaper article or something, and I think it’s pretty good. As far as contra dance playing, they said, I had “the right hand of an old time player, but the left hand of a Celtic player.” I like that, but that’s too many words.

7. Any cool plans coming up?

In January, [Eden and I] will be in London at the Cecil Sharp House and then the next morning we fly to Afghanistan, teaching kids at a school there. It’s going to be a big challenge. We feel like this is something that we’ll be doing that is good for the world. Playing for dancing is fun and does make people’s lives better, but this is important in a different way.

Larry Unger and Eden MacAdam-Somer will be leading our American Dance Musicians course at Pinewoods next summer.

To purchase The Road to Damascus and other Larry Unger CDs and book, visit the CDSS store. -Max

Tradition and Change

by Brad Foster, Executive & Artistic Director

I gave a keynote address to the Southeast Dance Leadership Conference in North Carolina in October of this year. I wanted to show the lively and innovative state of change of contemporary life, and to contrast that to similar change in the past. I chose three videos to make the point.

First, the Demon Barbers Roadshow, a performing group in England combining superb English clog, morris and sword with hip-hop:

The concept, as they say in the video, is “to try to see the similarity between traditional dance and modern dance, especially street dance and clog. Quite soon we realized that a lot of footwork was very, very similar.” This collaboration between traditions of dance — and, you’ll notice, music — yields a discovery that they aren’t so different. In a sense, of course, morris is street dance, too.

On our side of the pond, another kind of fusion is going on with contra dancing right now, as in this video from Seattle:

Techno contra: hard, driving beat, sampled music, glow sticks, hot and sweaty dancing, and new moves. In addition to great camera work from Doug Plummer, there’s another reason I highlight this video in particular. Techno contras emerged, as much as you can pinpoint these things, in the Asheville, NC area only a couple of years ago. Amazing how widely it has spread in that short time!

Techno contra is one current manifestation of taking tradition and playing with it, but here’s the 1964 version:

Nelson, NH with Dudley Laufman calling. It’s an encounter between generations of dancers: there are the old-timers and then there are the newer, mostly younger dancers. How joyful and familiar it is to watch their interactions, all contained within a single community. It’s essentially the same experience we have still. In the Nelson video, you can see some of the traditions that were changing back then, but you’re also seeing what’s happening now. I love how we now take for granted things I remember as radical to us 30 or even 20 years ago. Twirls of all kinds. The twos joining in Petronella!

The fact that we have fusion is nothing new. Often you are in the middle of it and you don’t notice it until something unexpected happens. But in truth, the unexpected keeps happening. Traditions will adapt. The forms will change.

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.”

I find all of this fascinating and exciting. The chaos that comes from all this change is a very good sign. It’s a sign our traditions are alive.

So, how does all this speak to your experiences? What changes and innovations have you seen? Which are on the horizon? And, of course, what aspects of our traditions remain unchanged?

– Brad