28 Apr

Nice Contra Dance Article

The Oberlin College Dandelion Romp contra dance weekend just occurred. This Live Journal entry has a complete article on it, with a lot of background on conta dancing in general. It will be published in the school’s newspaper, but how many of have access to Oberlin’s newspaper?

I’m going to add one quote to my quotes database. Doug Plummer says “It’s ecstatic spiritual practice masquerading as recreation.”

And here’s a paragraph on calling:

Often the impressions of “calling a dance” that spring to mind are raucous microphones and blaring voices. However, much of the time during the Dandelion Romp the callers would sing along to the music, harmonizing with the fiddles and making impromptu rhymes. “A lot of the professional callers have rhythm with everything they call,” said Beau Mahurin. “There’s usually that rhythm, that almost auctioneer-ish rhythm. They’ll find tunes, rhymes—make sure that everyone not only can follow the instructions, but keep them memorable, and in time with the music.”

25 Apr

Boston Globe article on Gender-Free Contra Dancing

The Boston Globe has an article on gender-free contra dancing today: At dance, any can lead and all are welcome. This article will probably disappear in a few days; here’s the text:

At dance, any can lead and all are welcome

By Avi Steinberg, Globe Correspondent | April 25, 2004

As a four-piece band strikes up a rendition of the folk song ”Handsome Ladies,” a man wearing a long tie-dyed skirt and a full beard locks hands with his neighbor, a smiling middle-aged man in khakis. It’s Saturday night, April 17, and tonight’s band, Bill Smith & Friends, seems to be just getting warm. Twice a month the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers, a group of about 60 people of all ages, meets in the parish hall of the First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, to laugh, to schmooze, and most of all to dance.

Traditional New England contra dancing — which is similar to square dancing — requires a clear delineation of gender roles. But posted outside the church, a sign bearing Susan B. Anthony’s words sets a different tone for the evening: ”I go for anything new that will improve the past.” All dances during the night’s 3-hour session are ”gender-role free.” Here, dance roles are signified only by a rainbow-colored armband; anyone may take any role.

Founded in the late 1980s by experienced ”contra maestro” Chris Ricciotti, the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers, one of the first groups of its kind, has become a model for others around the country.

As the group has grown and expanded, it has also been discovered by increasing numbers of heterosexuals. A warm and noncompetitive bunch, Boston’s gender-free dancers demonstrate a rare mix of technical skill and openness to outsiders. Straight dancers have also shown up over the years, group member Dean Allemang, 43, of Boston, explains, partly because switching roles helps dancers understand the experience of their partners and thereby improve.

The attraction to this type of dancing is immediately apparent. The caller speaks softly but forcefully over a flute riff: ”and left-hand star.” Dancers immediately form two lines, which then intertwine and detach. The pace picks up. Now the lines morph into a dynamic harmonious figure. Suddenly the lines collapse and reverse themselves; dancers stomp to keep a quickening beat.

By the end of the number, most dancers have swung with or grasped the hand of nearly every person in the room. The dance, which has the appearance of a complex self-tying knot, indeed binds its dancers to one another.

”You dance more as a community than as a couple,” says Michael Cicone of Waltham, a 50-year-old veteran caller. In gender-free dance, Cicone says, ”the concept of [dominant and passive] ‘roles’ and of ‘coupleness’ is downplayed.” The focus of the dance turns from private relationships to ”the dances themselves, the beauty of the figures, and to the total effect of the group.” To Cicone, the communal aspect is central.

A caller himself, Allemang understands this communal emphasis. But he says he is also drawn to the ”coupleness” of the dance. An expert in English folk dance, Allemang is experienced in mainstream contra dance. He admits that he ”got tired” of the dance until he moved to Boston in 1996 and discovered the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers. ”I thought, ‘ah, now I can dance with boys.’ I had always wanted to do that!” The possibility of real attraction infuses dancers with energy and makes the dance work, Allemang says.

Allemang is drawn to the dance partly for its subtle style of ritualized courting. He says the dance is everything that a bar is not.

”You walk into a bar and what do you have? Noise and darkness. And you say, ‘I’m supposed to meet somebody special here?’ ”

Older dancers, some of whom are founding members, have a slightly different perspective on the group. When the group first started, dancer Doris Reisig, 53, of Roxbury, explains, it felt radical.

”There was certain excitement in what we were doing because nobody else was doing it,” she said. ”That’s not completely true any more.” What attracts Reisig now is not the freshness of the experience but the stability of community. ”It’s the closest thing I have to going to church,” she says.

For some young participants, the dance still offers a fresh perspective. Gillian Stewart, 15, of Lexington, says the dance’s ”small and cozy” environment is ideal for a young person trying to come out. The age difference isn’t a problem, she explains, but rather an advantage, since older dancers are often better dancers. A young person exploring his or her identity will receive dance guidance here but, in the process, will also discover a group of older gay role models.

After the dance, a large group of dancers reconstitutes itself down the street at J.P. Licks. Dancers laugh and swap stories between gulps of milkshakes; the bonds forged on the dance floor are manifest here.

As the night finally winds down, Allemang recalls a scene he once witnessed at a dance. An elderly dancer, physically unable to execute a figure-eight step, stood still on the floor, dancing only with his eyes — maintaining close eye-contact with his younger partner as she whirled around him. The man was probably the best dancer in the room, Allemang said, because he was able to transform his situation into a personal expression, while seamlessly maintaining the integrity of the communal dance. Christopher Dean, 43, of Roslindale, known to his friends as Spike, pipes up excitedly, ”he was able to rechoreograph the dance on the fly, and that’s pretty cool.” The others nod their heads — they know all about revising old dances.

The next meeting in Jamaica Plain of the Boston Gay and Lesbian Contra Dancers is May 8 at 7:30 p.m. (Linda Leslie calling with band Heathen Creek). First Church is at the corner of Eliot and Centre streets. Beginners are encouraged to come early. For more information, see www.lcfd.org/jp or call Janet 617-522-2216 or Peter 617-971-0828.

25 Dec

The Grinch that Stole Contra

I’m preparing for a contra dance that I’m (partially) calling tomorrow night. Since it’s Boxing Day, I thought I ought to do at least one dance that includes a box the gnat. While googling “box the gnat contra,” I found a page on the Chattahoochee Country Dancers website which includes two Dr. Seuss takeoffs, “Green Legs and Jam” and “The Grinch who stole Contra”.

The box the gnat reference?

Perhaps you’d like to Box the Gnat?
Right hands, trade places, just like that
I do not want to Box the Gnat
Where’s the fun in something like that?

And from the Grinch:

All were glad to see him, Fiddler took up his bow
They said thank you Grinch and then don’t you know
They invited him in and asked him to dance
The Grinch thought, What the Hey, I’ll take a chance
So the Grinch joined the dancers and danced with delight
And they danced hand in hand late into the night.

10 Nov

Contras on Sunday Nights

Last night, I called contras (again) for the second Sunday contra dance for experienced dancers. William DeRagon called the English country dances, since I know nothing about those. The band was Della O’Keefe (keyboards) and Gemma DeRagon (violin).

William started with a lively English country dance, which included skipping and slipping, so I was a trifle out of breath when I got up to call The Emptied Crack by Al Olson (listed here, but the link no longer works). It involves a lot of interaction along the line, all the way to Neighbor #3.

I danced the next English, and then called Mid Winter Gypsy by Bob Dalsemer and finished the first half with Rockin’ Robin by Rick Mohr. The band rocked and the dancers rocked and got into the veer left, veer right movement.

After the break, William called two smooth English dances, and I finished up with two: Caught in the Act by Donna McAllister and Me and My Shadows by David Kirchner. The dancers had fun with both; it was great to watch them ham it up with the chasing action in Caught in the Act. I chose Me and My Shadows to end it up (even though it’s a Becket with a somewhat vague progression) because of the Right and Left Grand along the line; it seemed appropriate to treat it like a “good night right and left grand”.

Note: I didn’t call a square. One person asked about it.

11 Oct

Newsweek mentions contra dancing

This is from Newsweek, but it’s not in the web edition, as far as I can tell. It’s from page 5 of a special advertising section in the October 13, 2003 Newsweek. The page is titled “Fall Into Fitness” by Beth Howard, and suggests contra dancing (along with Pilates and cyclilng) as an exercise:

What it is: Contra dancing is a type of American folk dancing whose roots can be traced to English country dancing. Although it started as socializing, contra dancing (which resembles square dancing) provides a lively workout, offering benefits such as better cardiovascular health and improved muscle tone. Contra danciing is generally performed in lines with women on one side and men on the other (contra is Latin for “opposite”). No lessons are required because a caller directs the dance–if you can follow directions, you can do it. Expect to find people of all ages and skill levels.

Who it’s for: People who like to ocmbine their social life with exercise or who don’t want a prescribed program.

Who it’s not for: Those who like to do their fitness solo.

How to start: Many community centers, schools, houses of worship and gyms offer contra dancing. Check your phone book and local entertainment listings, or type “contra dancing” and your city into your internet search engine.

14 Jul

Contra Calling Adventure

I called half of a combined contra/ECD dance for experienced dancers last night. It went pretty well, although there were some issues in the last dance. I called the contras and Noralyn Parsons (no web presence) called the English Country Dances.

I was planning to start with a dance called Halliehurst by Gene Hubert, because it looked very smooth but had an interesting progression in the A1 section. However, we had a short line, I noticed two beginners sitting on the sidelines, and people were still coming in, so I switched to Solstice Special by Tony Parkes. I tried to cajole the beginners to join the line, but no luck. Without them, I probably could have called the dance with no walk thru, and for people coming in, it was a no walk thru dance.

After an ECD (sorry, I don’t remember the names of the dances), we did Batja’s Breakdown by Tom Hinds. It has a smooth sequence (at least from my perspective as a MWSD dancer) in B2: Swing Thru, Cast Off 3/4 into an Allemande Left. (In contra-ese, that’s Allemande Right 1/2, Gents Allemande Left 1/2, all Allemande Right 3/4, Trail Buddy Allemande Left.) However, a long-time contra dancer/caller noticed that the ladies use their right hands twice in a row (Allemande Right 1/2, pause while the gents turn half, and then another Allemande Right). In MWSD, that just wouldn’t be an issue; the lady’s right hand is available and there’s been a pause while the gents do something, so for us, we wouldn’t count it as two rights in a row. Now, what we would object to and contra dancers do routinely is a single-faced line bend the line to a ladies chain. Yuck.

I expected to only do two contras before the break, but there was room for another, so I threw in Halliehurst. People had a little bit of a problem with the initial progression (ladies allemande right 1/2, with neighbor allemande left 1/2, step ahead to new neighbor and swing). It was very fast, and some people got disoriented. Fortunately, the neighbor swing made it pretty self-correcting, at least for experienced dancers.

After the break, I called a hot hash square. It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped; even experienced contra dancers aren’t used to listening and responding quickly to “random” calls, even when they’ve done them a zillion times in contras. But they seemed to have fun, and I made it pretty short. The band (Gemma DeRagon and Della O’Keefe) had practiced a medley at a faster tempo than they’re used to playing, and the music was fun.

Then Noralyn called The Fandango, which was pretty complicated, but looked like fun (I started out in a 3-couple group, but then noticed another dancer sitting, and let her take my place).

We ended it up with Mary Cay’s Reel by David Kaynor (you can find a description in this .doc file. This was my biggest disaster; I had to stop the band and start over because the progression wasn’t clear. I had worked it out with checkers, but checkers dance in ways that people often don’t, so there were issues. One of the issues that I have with many contras, especially beckets, is that the dance descriptions don’t clearly describe the end effects. Also, since I just used checkers for four couples, I didn’t really see what was happening in the middle of the line during the progression. So, chalk it up to a learning experience; next time, I’ll know the trouble spot, and know that I need to make it clear during the walk thru. Other than that, it looked like a good dance, and people seemed to get into it.

All of the dances (except Solstice Special and the square) were beckets. Probably not a good idea, although I made a joke out of it (you know, I’m a square dancer and we like to start next to our partner…).

So, next up, FolkMADS on Saturday, with Merri Rudd and Steve Thornton.

12 Jul

Contra Crossovers

Isn’t this a great domain name: dancerhapsody.com?

I’m preparing for calling contras to advanced (contra) dancers. But because of my crossover background, I think it’s appropriate that I use a couple of dances that incorporate modern western square dance moves. Which led me to Seth Tepfer‘s Dance Rhapsody site. He organized a Modern Western Squares for Contra Dancers weekend, called by Dan Sahlstrom (description here), and has written a couple of contras using flutterwheel and spin the top.

So it sounds like he’s a crossover contra caller->MWSD dancer (like Lisa Greenleaf and Laura Johannes (both C1 dancers). I’m a crossover MWSD caller->contra dancer (like Clark Baker). I think it’s fascinating to talk to people who do and enjoy both…such different evolutions of similar dance forms.

17 May

Contra in New Hampshire

Contra Dancing in New Hampshire

Clark Baker posted a reference to a New Hampshire public television show with a 5-minute segment on contra dancing. The whole show is online as a RealMedia video. Here’s a direct link and you can find it here by following the 5/15/2003 Filmmaker Ken Burns link (at least for a while). The contra dance segment is about 20 minutes into the video. Sure looks like they’re having fun!