15 May

Where are the square dancers?

Tomorrow, at least 5073 dancers in 113 organizations representing 60 unique dance styles will dance down Broadway and through Manhattan in the 3rd annual New York Dance Parade. There’s samba, salsa, ballet, Bulgarian, modern, circus streetdance, pole dancing (!!!), ecstatic, ballroom, belly; even our contra dancing cousins are joining in. But no square dancers.

Dance Parade Inc is a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is:

to promote dance as an expressive and unifying art form by showcasing all forms of dance, educating the general public about the opportunities to experience dance, and celebrating diversity of dance in New York City by sponsoring a yearly city-wide dance parade and dance festival.

They want to honor Dance’s historical roots, unite in respecting Dance’s diversity, support grasss-roots organizations, legitlmize Dance as a communicative, social form of expression, and invoke joy and brotherhood.

Maybe square dancers would look silly among all the myriad ethnic and current urban dance styles. On the other hand, if paired with the contra dancers (dance styles are together, in roughly historical order), it could be an interesting juxtaposition to show you can do a traditional dance style to modern music. And if square dancers aren’t there, and virtually every other social dance form is, what does that say about square dancing?

19 Apr

Contra dance caller on Wife Swap

Last Sunday, when I went to Glen Echo for their Sunday contra dance (skipping the DC/DC closing ceremonies), I danced to the calling of DeLaura Padovan and the music of Live Culture, which includes DeLaura’s husband, Steve Hickman.

DeLaura, Steve, and their two girls were one of the families in Friday’s Wife Swap. So I ended up watching Wife Swap for the first time. It lived up to my expectations of reality TV (that’s not a compliment). The Padovan-Hickmans came off pretty well (I wouldn’t want to live such an extreme off-grid life, but I’m not going to criticize their choices). As for the other family, or at least the other wife, Shannon Nicole…well, she may become a poster child for ugly materialism run rampant.

Dance relevance other than DeLaura’s contra calling? Well, a write-up about the show said something about DeLaura’s having a hoedown in the Burrough’s living room. Maybe she did, but if so, it got cut in editing.

Oh yes…the dance at Glen Echo was fun (loved the band!) and I ran into four people I met at Pinewoods last summer.

19 Feb

Contra article

Article on contra dancing from The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colorado:

Young, old, beginner and expert all twirl to contra beat at Club Tico
By KELLI LACKETT
KelliLacket at coloradoan.com

If you can walk, you can contra dance.

And no matter how well or how badly you do it, you’ll end up dancing with just about everyone in the room.

About 150 people showed up on a recent Saturday at Club Tico to move their feet to the piano, guitar, fiddle and mandolin stylings of the Northern California band the Fiddlerats.
“I love the energy and the crowd here,” said Amy Hancock, a 36-year-old massage therapist from Loveland who has been contra dancing for four years.
No Saturday night is the same, Hancock said.
“There are different callers, different combinations, different partners,” she said.
Contra dancing is a form of American folk dance set to jigs, reels and hornpipes. It is descended from English country dancing, which also became popular in France in the 18th century. Some people compare contra dancing to square dancing, but once you see contra dancing in person, it’s clear that they are different beasts.

You can square dance for years and still be considered a beginner. But learning to contra dance only takes an hour … theoretically.

I was among the few dozen people who showed up for free lessons an hour before the dance started. As the band tuned up, everyone shuffled around with their hands in their pockets, not knowing what to expect.

Finally, Randy Crump took charge of the lesson. Crump is one of the founders of the Friends of Traditional Dance, which has organized contra dances and other community dances in Fort Collins. The group hosts contra dances at Club Tico on the first, third and fifth Saturdays of each month. But there’s an opportunity to dance just about every night of the week somewhere on the Front Range.

Jonathan Feiman, a Fort Collins architect and project manager, was kind enough to be my partner for the lesson. Feiman had never danced before but he had a knack for it.

“I was looking for a way to learn to dance. I wanted to start with something that wasn’t terribly complicated” Feiman said.

We formed two long lines — men on one side and women on the other. Crump began to demonstrate steps such as the do-si-do, allemande, balance and the dizzy-making “swing.”

If you don’t master the steps with your partner, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to try them with others as you repeat the patterns as you move down the line of partners.

“What’s nice about contra dance is everybody is at different levels. If you have difficulty, someone will help you,” Feiman said.

For the rest of the night the dances were made up of differing sequences of the basic steps. The beauty of contra dancing is that your feet don’t have to do much except get you in the right place in the line. And the caller walks-through every dance before it starts.

“It’s really fun. And it’s pretty easy to do,” said 19-year-old Marie Johnson, who was contra dancing for the first time.

The regulars — who range in age from 19 to 90 — trickled in as the lesson ended and soon the floor was jumping with swirling skirts. No one who wanted to be on the dance floor was left out, though unless you’re in great shape you’ll have to sit one or two out to drink some water.

“You can come as a single and meet a whole community of friends. You can dance with the whole line,” said Longmont resident Linda Maguire. “Everybody is friendly and easy-going and will help you along.”

Maguire started contra dancing in 1998 to try something new while healing from separating from her husband.

“I laughed the whole time,” Maguire said.

Maguire was hooked. Whenever she travels, she finds a contra dance to attend and takes part in contra dancing camps around the country. She met her partner Brian Klock through contra dancing.

“You make lifelong friends,” Maguire said.

16 Feb

Contra and Politics

In my dance life, I straddle three worlds: gay square dancing, straight square dancing, and ocntra dancing. And I’ve often thought about the political and cultural differences between the groups, especially between straight square dancing and contra dancing. As David Franke, a self-described “religious agnostic and, in political terms, a libertarian, classical liberal, individualist, or radical—anything but conservative” notes, “in 15 years of contra dancing and all the conversations I’ve had with the other dancers when we’re not on the floor, I cannot think of one conservative among them.” However, he thinks this may be changing. Here are his thoughts in (Won by One):

While I love world music and African dance, my home base is traditional American music and dance. In particular, you’ll find me contra dancing every Friday. The odds are that you haven’t heard about contra dancing, so let me explain that its initial roots are in England, but by now it’s as American as, well, apple pie. When I’m on a contra line, I’m sharing that line with colonial Vermonters of the Green Mountain Boys era and every generation of Americans before and since. We dance to live music, with New England, Appalachian, and Celtic tunes being the dominant influences. Many of our dance moves are the same as in square dancing, though we are arranged in long lines of couples rather than squares.

This is a quintessential American experience harking back to an earlier era. Live acoustic music, not the DJ- and rock-oriented club scene. No alcohol or drugs—people come only to dance and socialize. We often share potluck meals or snacks. It’s truly intergenerational, with everyone from grandparents to teens and young children dancing with each other. Dance flirtation is encouraged, but try to go beyond that and you’ll be invited to find a different venue. At a contra dance weekend, everyone adopts the young kids by looking out for them so their parents can dance too. This is a uniquely American cultural community, found in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation.

Why do I bring this up? Because in 15 years of contra dancing and all the conversations I’ve had with the other dancers when we’re not on the floor, I cannot think of one conservative among them. Occasionally one will show up for one or two dances, but they don’t come back. I don’t know why, but from conversations with a few of my conservative friends who know of my strange obsession, I suspect they find it too quaint, too hokey for their tastes. They prefer the more fashionable forms of dance and partying that are popular in the suburbs, the synthesizer over the fiddle, the country club over the Grange hall. Heck, they don’t even know what a Grange hall is. So from my personal experience in social and cultural traditionalism, I’d say Weyrich and Lind have their work cut out for them, culturally perhaps more than politically.

But wait. All this was true in contra dancing until a couple of years ago. Inexplicably and spontaneously, at dances across the country, high-school and college students have discovered this ancient art form and taken to it with all the energy and enthusiasm you’d expect in their age group. Church youth groups are beginning to come together to our dances. And from conversations with the kids, particularly at rural dances outside metropolitan Washington, D.C., I know that a surprising number of them are home schooled. Being outside the cultural mainstream already, they have no problem with a dance form that might be sneered at by the “in” kids at school. And their parents certainly have no problem with the wholesome atmosphere at the dances.

19 Dec

Contra Dance Video

Here’s a great video of a contra dance: YouTube – Arizona Contra Dance 2006 May Madness.

It shows Albuquerque caller Merri Rudd and the band The Privy Trippers. The dance is The Devil’s Backbone by William Watson.

MWSD Note: If you watch the dancing, you’ll see that part of the dance includes the “exchange” part of Spin Chain and Exchange the Gears. See Colin Hume’s article, Dance Technique:Enjoy Dancing Better, where he notes that that move appears in other Scottish dances as well.

28 Jul

Contra in Albuquerque

Here’s a nice article on contra dancing in Albuquerque that was published in the Boomer supplement to the Albuquerque Journal on Sunday, July 23, 2006. I tried to find an online link to the article, but clicking on the Boomer link just took me to an error page (don’t know whether it’s the server acting up with Safari (although other special section links work okay)). So I scanned in the article and put it here. BTW, I’m in almost every picture, in a sort of “where’s Waldo” way.

25 May

Nice contra dance quote

After watching a good time being had by all, one has to wonder if perhaps contra dance is a perfect metaphor for a happy life: You can laugh at your own mistakes and when you get pointed in the wrong direction, some loving hand will be there to gently point you in the right direction. Most importantly, if you have to go around in circles, you may as well make it a dance.

Round and round we go

29 Apr

Interesting article about contra dance calling

Callers in step at folk dances – The Boston Globe: Article about contra dancing from the caller’s point of view.

Quote from Dan Pearl:

”The dancing I like to present is more nourishing to the soul,” he said. ”This kind of dancing, for some people, is a tonic. There’s a primal need for interacting with people that maybe we don’t get in our day-to-day lives.”

The article also quotes Sue Rosen and Rick Mohr.

29 Apr

Another article about contra dancing

Dance attracts diverse crowd: Here’s a contra dance article from Fairbanks, Alaska. The caller is 15 years old!

The whole article, in case the link disappears:

Dance attracts diverse crowd
By MELISSA HART, Staff Writer
While the name “contra dance” could conjure up images of armed militants dancing a jig, you won’t find anything too revolutionary at a Contra Borealis dance, held twice monthly at the Pioneer Park dance hall.
The “contra” is derived from “opposite,” as in the man stands opposite his partner. It’s a way to distinguish it from “proper” dances, where the men stand in one line facing the women in another line, said longtime Contra Borealis president Sue Cole.

The music and dancing styles encompass a range of genres, with mainly Irish, English and French-Canadian influences, she said. Think old English-style in the courtyard scene of “Braveheart.”

Stepping into a contra dance is like setting foot in the past. Not that participants dress up in period clothes to dance. The feeling comes from the warm welcome, reminiscent of when people still participated in civic and social functions.

“Anyone is welcome to show up and the group embraces beginners,” said Cole.

While the dances are scheduled to start at 8 p.m., the regulars usually trickle in, said member Barbara Braley, with attendance reaching as many as 100 dancers. Beginners should take note that being an early bird can be advantageous, as the first few numbers start with the basics and get progressively more complicated.

The group, which used to be known as University Contra, has been holding dances at the hall on the first Friday and third Saturday from September through May since the start of the millennium, Braley said.

At the April 15 contra dance, about 30 people gathered early and after a few minutes of greeting and chitchat, the band Celtic Confusion had tuned up and was ready to start.

Gary Newman has been playing music since the early ’90s.

“One thing I enjoy about playing is making people happy. When you play for performance, you get people moving,” he said.

Caller Amy Steiner put on her hands-free headset and brought the dancers into starting places.

The 15-year-old, who described herself as a “contra kid,” grew up going to dances and has been calling entire dances for about a year.

A lot of younger people were in attendance, some of whom were Northstar Ballet dancers and former students of Braley, a retired teacher.

“Kids like it because it’s family-oriented and there’s no drinking or smoking,” Cole said. “I tell people it’s for anyone 8 to 80. Our oldest dancer is over 80. He’s had two hip replacements and is still dancing.”

The rigorous dancing releases endorphins into the brain, Cole said. “That’s why you’re smiling when you dance.”

The movements involve plenty of partner swinging and square dancing-type moves such as “dos-a-do” and “allemande.” It’s important to keep an eye fixed on your partner’s face or shoulder, or else you might feel dizzy from all the swinging, Braley said.

Singles are welcome and need not feel self-conscious, as the dances switch rapidly through all the partners. As the women-to-men ratio can get grossly out of balance, neckties are provided for women who don’t mind pairing up.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said contra first-timer Jessica Jernstrom after a long night of dancing with friend Rebecca Johnson. The two took turns switching gender roles, which could get confusing, they said, but overall it was a fun time.

“My feet hurt, but it was worth it,” Jernstrom said.