19 Apr

Bay Area Queer Contra Dancing

Sweet write-up in the Bay Guardian for the queer contra dancing in San Francisco:

And then there’s something completely different. Blow Up’s the go-all-in, but also this weekend’s let-it-all-out. Believe it or not, square dancing just got fierce. Seriously. Pimping itself as a “thriving

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, boisterous DIY alternative to the queer bar and circuit scenes” (thank you!), the San Francisco Queer Contra Dance may just be the perfect antidote for today’s style-fatigued clubbers. At the very least, it’s a return to what we loved about going out in the first place: meeting up with like-minded strangers at someplace new (a church, even) to dance new dances to music you can’t hear anywhere else— attitude free. Contra dancing’s a venerable form of folk dancing, all whirling skirts and changing partners and whatnot, and while it may seem goofy — well, look what you’re wearing, hot stuff. Everything’s goofy right now, and in this case it’s also sweet. The monthly event has taken off (even organizer Robert Riley has been shocked by the unbridled turnout), and Saturday marks its second anniversary. Dances will be taught, punch will be imbibed, and new friends will be made. Kilts and Mohawks encouraged. All bored robots welcome.

Hope they get a big crowd!

14 Feb

Contra Calling Article

Here’s a newspaper article about contra dancing written from the point of view of contra callers: It’s all right if you’ve 2 left feet . A snippet comparing contra and square dancing:

Contradancing is similar to square dancing

, but there are a few major differences. First off, square dancing tends to use prerecorded music, while contra relies almost exclusively on live musicians. Also, contradances tend to incorporate more styles and formations, with music based on Irish jigs and reels or Scottish and French Canadian influences, Rosenberg said.

Hmmm…by more styles, do they mean “musical” styles?

Here’s the whole article, in case the link goes away:

It’s all right if you’ve 2 left feet
Caller Paul Rosenberg once dreaded hitting the floor; now he enjoins others, including kids, to learn

First published: Monday, February 13, 2006

When Paul Rosenberg was in his 20s, dancing scared him worse than almost anything else.

“I used to hide in the bathroom during weddings so I wouldn’t have to dance,” Rosenberg said.

That all changed in 1980, when Rosenberg met a girlfriend who dragged him to contradances until he finally got out on the dance floor. He soon fell in love with it.

Soon, he found himself wanting to move beyond just dancing. He had had some experience as a master of ceremonies at running races, and thought he could translate that into dance calling. Now, 25 years later, Rosenberg makes his living as a dance caller.

The Capital Region is home to a vibrant dance culture that celebrates everything from contra to swing to square dancing. And at the center of that culture is a handful of very busy callers.

Many callers, dancers and musicians will be on hand for the annual Dance Flurry, which is held in Saratoga Springs each winter and has become the most popular of Capital Region dance festivals.

The event, which runs Friday through Sunday, features a variety of dance styles and regularly draws more than 5,000 people from across the country. Dances taught include New England contra, African conga, swing, Lindy hop, salsa, tango, polka, English country, Balkan, Cajun, Zydeco, Quebecois, country western, ragtime, reggae, klezmer, rock and roll, Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, Romanian, Israeli and hip-hop.

“It’s the prompter who teaches the dance and gets the dancers to go through it a few times


,” said Andy Spence, founder of the Old Songs Festival of Traditional Music and Dance, which regularly holds dances in the area. “There are some singing callers who sing squares and Kentucky running sets.”

Most of the local callers started out as dancers and have been honing their craft for decades.

“I was going all the time, and eventually I got recruited to help run the dances,” said Rich Futyma, 52, who has been dancing for more than 20 years. “Then I started calling. It’s not all that hard to do it.”

Contradancing is similar to square dancing, but there are a few major differences. First off, square dancing tends to use prerecorded music, while contra relies almost exclusively on live musicians. Also, contradances tend to incorporate more styles and formations, with music based on Irish jigs and reels or Scottish and French Canadian influences, Rosenberg said.

Dances can come from a variety of sources, Futyma said. Sometimes callers write their own dances, but there also are published books of calls, and callers can pick them up from listening to each other.

The dances and songs tend to stick to a standard length so they can be interchangeable. For example, tunes usually are 32 bars of music, which are broken up into eight-beat segments.

“The music essentially tells you when to stop one movement and start another,” Futyma said. “You and your partner dance that set of figures one time through, and then do it with another couple.”

One of the main reasons Rosenberg decided to become a caller was because of what he saw as an elitism among the callers who populated most of the dances in the 1980s.

“I was noticing that the callers were all coming from out of town and they were not paying attention to the beginning dancers,” Rosenberg said. “They were calling all of these complicated dances and there were always beginners who were floundering.”

The problem of elitism among some callers and dancers still pervades, Spence said.

“If they come to the dances early, they can get some instruction. Otherwise, it’s trial by fire,” she said. “If they expect dances to survive, they have to help the new people.”

Rosenberg has taken his love of teaching dances a step further and today travels to many schools to instruct children.

“I love doing it because everybody is smiling and getting into it,” Rosenberg said. “It’s especially fun for someone like me who had so much trouble learning to dance.”

Danielle Furfaro can be reached at 454-5097 or by e-mail at dfurfaro@timesunion.com.

07 Jan

A Contra Story

Here’s a nice story on contra in a cross-cultural context: CITIZEN-TIMES.com: Teens’ experiment with contra dancing offers a moral in cultural acceptance

My 2-year-old daughter loves musical instruments. In the warm months when she is downtown, she stops for every street guitarist and saxophonist, wiggles her hips to their tunes and then walks my dollar to the tip can.So it wasn’t surprising recently when she got excited at a West Asheville restaurant after a couple of musicians pulled out their instruments. She stared so intently at the guitarist tuning his instrument that I offered to take her away if she was breaking his concentration. When the violinist squatted down and offered my child the chance to pluck a string, she backed off and curled up against me, as if it were too much to contemplate touching that magical thing.

As an adult, I’ve lost a lot of my ability to be awestruck by the regular miracles of life, like musicians giving birth to melodies. But I was amazed by something else at the restaurant. Let me explain: I was there because it was the site of a Christmas party to which I had been invited. The party was for Latino teenagers, members of a Buncombe County Schools club called AIM whose goal is to help students reach their scholarly potential. The guitar and violin were there for the evening’s entertainment, which was to be a lesson in contra dancing.

As the musicians got ready, I thought to myself: This is going to be a disaster. I looked over in the corner, where the teens kept switching out tropical beats in a little boombox. These kids want to do a hip dance like salsa, meringue or cumbia, I thought, wondering how the party organizers could not know this. In Spanish, contra means “against” — and I figured these kids were going to be against something that looked like square dancing.

Oblivious to my fears, the teacher for the night, a genteel Southerner, softly announced that everyone was about to learn a new dance, that the boys should turn to a girl to be their partner, which she explained was a risk-free endeavor since the girls should then accept such a kind invitation.

But the boys grimaced a little and shuffled their feet, not showing any inclination to find a partner. I was right, I said to myself. Now, I thought, just put the instruments away, insert a compact disc from a 21st century artist in that box, and this party will survive.

But the teacher politely said, “OK, boys, get in a circle” — which they did. Then she told the girls to make a circle around the boys — which they did. Then she said, boys, turn around and look at your partner — which they did.

Then the teacher talked them through the basics: how to turn, grab hands, do-si-do and a few fancier moves. The violinist and guitarist got the melody going, which grabbed my daughter’s attention, but I was fixated on the dancers. These kids started moving and swinging and spinning. And they were pretty good.

But what was even more mesmerizing than their skill was their attitude. They were smiling and laughing when they did well and when they messed up. They were enjoying this thing. I felt like the Grinch on Christmas Day, watching Whoville residents enjoy what they had instead of whining about what had been taken away from them.

Of course the Christmas season is not about the Grinch. It’s the time we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus. As a Christian, I think his main message was to not be too wrapped up into what we look like or what group we belong to, but to love and accept others no matter who they are.

In 20 minutes, these teenagers, many of them relative newcomers here, had not only accepted but embraced a part of United States culture. In this tale there was a contra — again, the Spanish word for “against” — but it was the young people going against my expectations. They were into contra dancing. I found out later they knew the evening’s entertainment would be something different

, perhaps uncomfortable to learn, and yet they had insisted on trying it out.

Even though I’m not particularly sentimental

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, I found their enthusiasm for this new thing lovely and moving. My wish is that the entire Asheville community could see them dance. And then take the time to let them teach us non-Latinos how to do the cumbia. I think it would make a nice Christmas story.

Joseph C. Berryhill, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at UNC Asheville. He lives in Asheville.

09 Nov

Cool Contra Video

Check out this home video of a contra dance: In His Image: Contra!. Here’s a direct link to the video (.wmv) file itself.

It shows a walkthru of the dance, a complete sequence, and then various shots of the dancers. There are men in shorts, men in jeans, men in skirts…and ditto for women. Lots of twirling and spinning. It’s a little disconcerting with a musical background that’s unrelated to the dance itself, but it’s a good overview of a zesty contra with lots of younger people (it was shot at a college). Enjoy!

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24 Aug

Contra Marathon

So here’s a report on the benefit (for Heifer International) contra marathon:

Sunday I was involved in the worlds longest documented contra dance. It lasted 7 hours, and man was it fun. It was soaking hot, but the creek or some water body was right beside the building where we were dancing, so most people jumped in whenever they felt too hot. The first time I put my bathing suit on. After all the dancing was over I just jumped in fully clothed. The way it worked was that the music kept going and the callers kept going. When it was time for relief the new participants joined in while the tired folk slipped off the stage. The callers would just say, “Listen up,” or, “Ok ready, this time…” and change the sequence of steps. The dancing never stopped, but you could come and go out of the lines as you pleased. When you got to the end you could turn around and go back down, or just walk off. If a caller saw the lines getting sparse they’d holler for people to get back in there. It was interesting because knowing at 11am that we’d be dancing all day, I didn’t dance too hard. I’d generally go up and down the line a couple of times then drop out, get water and a bit of food. Once though I was dancing with Sloan and he traded me off to Owen mid dance then Diane Silver turned the contra into a double contra into a square and back into a double and into a single contra line, so there was nowhere to drop out. I just about dropped of heat and exhaustion. But it was a blast. Being so hot and tired made for a kind of ultra-euphoria. At the last half hour we made a line of all the loony dancers

, Dr Frank and the like, and swapped genders and partners and generally reeked havoc on the tradition. It was a ball. Then we all ran to the water and jumped in. We all squealed and laughed as our muscles contracted in the icy water. I barely stayed awake for the drive home. Once I walked in my house I went straight to my bed where I slept for 13 hours. Yeee haw!

08 Jan

A political contra dance

Four More Years

A contra dance by Steve Recchia, of Reno, NV
from the CDSS (Country Dance and Song Soc) News

Four More Years
Duple Improper

Suggested tunes:
Poor Blood for Oil
Let Them Breathe Cake

Circle Right

Circle Right

Circle Right

Circle Right

Circle Right

Circle Right

Circle Right

Circle Right.
Face same neighbors.
Do not progress.

An appropriate dance for January 20.

Note: Some dancers may wish to sit this one out.

Contra dancing has many similarities to square dancing. The dance is a fixed sequence of figures

, announced by a caller. Typical contra tunes can be divided into two parts, each of which is repeated. (Hence the A1/A2/B1/B2 divisions above.) One major difference between squares and contras is that instead of dancing with 3 other couples, you and partner progress along the set to dance with many other couples. The couple you are currently dancing with are your neighbors. (This dance does not progress.)
Also, while “circle right” is a simple figure, it often feels uncomfortable in the dance — it’s more likely than most figures to be part of a sequence that doesn’t flow well. (That just seems to happen to poor old circle right.) This dance is going to make some people dizzy

07 Jan

New contra dance article

New article about contra dancing in the Smokey Mountain News:

Contra spirits: English cousin to square dancing attracts hard-core fans
By Zach Laminack

Shake your booty

Cathy and Ron Arps host contra dancing the second Friday of every month (except July and August) in the Old Webster School on N.C. 116 in Webster. No experience is necessary and all ages are welcome. A $5 donation is suggested. For more information, call the Arps at 828.586.5478, or call Kathy Calabrese at 828.497.4709.

Contra dancing is held at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown most Tuesdays from 7 to 8 p.m. The school also offers a Learn to Contra Dance Weekend April 8-10, 2005. Call 1.800.FOLKSCH or visit www.folkschool.org for more details.

Just before Christmas, Cathy Arps was adding ingredients to several mixing bowls, whipping up a batch of goodies, but she couldn’t concentrate on the recipe — she had contra dancing on her mind.

“It’s to the point now that when we go on vacation we look up the local dance schedule,” she said with a laugh. “In fact, we’ve even led contra dance tours in New Zealand. We’ll do anything to contra.”

Arps and her husband, Ron, are organizers of a monthly contra dance held at the Old Webster School in Jackson County. A hodge-podge collection of contra die-hards, the Old Webster Dance group boasts live music and basic instruction for those new to the dance.

“The dance community in Webster is not large, but it is very loyal. There are always some veteran contra dancers there, but usually new people too. It’s not a big dance, it would be great if it was bigger, but it’s well established nonetheless,” Cathy said.

The dance itself bears similarities to square dancing — a comparison the Arps will often contest, as it often shares billing with more traditional English dances.

“It’s basically a group of people organized into two lines, men on one side, women on the other,” Ron said. “The person across from you is your partner. The first two couples form a group of four. This is called taking hands four. Then the second two couples below them form up, and so on. These groups of four then dance figures together.”

The four people in the group are called partners and neighbors, and a caller organizes the figures, a contra dancer’s word for the called moves. Before the dance begins, the caller tells the band to start playing, then gives the instructions for the dance in time with the music. For example, the caller might say “circle left,” then on the sixth beat of an eight-beat phrase, the caller might say “swing your partner,” allowing those extra two beats as time to anticipate the move.

“The dance that the groups of four do together usually has about eight figures or so because it matches 32 bars of music,” Ron said. “And the neat thing about it is that the dance is written so that the last thing the groups of four do is move up or down the hall. The couple facing down the hall moves down and the couple facing up the hall moves up. The first couple then would meet the number four couple in the original configuration, and then they would dance the next repetition and so on until everybody has danced with everybody else.”

This sharing of dance partners, is one of the two special ingredients that make the contra dance different from its square cousin. The other is the music.

“Contra dancing almost always has to have a live band. They could play any kind of music, really


,” Ron said.

However, Cathy prefers to stick to the basics, drawing from fiddle tunes, old-time Appalachian music influenced by traditional Scotch and Irish jigs and reels. This adherence to tradition doesn’t necessarily hold true with all contra bands.

“Nowadays bands are becoming more eclectic in their selection,” said Bob Dalsemer, contra dance aficionado and director of the music and dance programs at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. “You might hear Latin American rhythms, themes from TV shows, occasionally even classical music. It really runs the gamut. It can get pretty wild.”

The Folk School is another source where contra junkies can get their fix, holding a free introduction to contra most Tuesday nights and some week-long dance instruction classes.

But be warned, long-time dancers like the Arps — who have been hitting the contra dance floor for nearly 20 years — caution that an introduction to contra may prove all consuming.

“For some people it’s sort of like a religion,” Ron said. “There’s something about it that’s very connective. I teach the beginners that there’s a connection, physical of course, but after a while I think there’s a spiritual connection between people, a real oneness to it; even though everybody is doing variations of the moves all the time, there’s still a sort of gestalt that holds everybody together. You have to experience it to really feel what it is.”

21 Dec

Another Nice Contra Dance Article

Check out Step lively — give contra dancing a whirl.

I’m quoting it here, just in case it disappears:

Step lively — give contra dancing a whirl
The easy-to-learn folk dance is a bouncy, sweaty, friendly mix of movements.

By Jenny Hontz, Special to The Times

The sounds of live fiddle and banjo music instantly transported me back in time as I strolled into South Pasadena War Memorial Hall on a Friday night. I was there to experience my first contra dance, an American folk dance derived from English country dancing that has been popular since Colonial times.

As a dance begins, long lines of women wearing flowing skirts stand shoulder to shoulder across from parallel lines of men in jeans, khakis and tie-dyed shirts. Ranging in age from 8 to 83, the dancers move in time with the band at the direction of a caller: “Swing your partner round and round, ladies do-si-do.”

The dance makes for vigorous exercise and initially looks complicated, but the basic moves — allemandes, sashays, ladies’ chains — will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried square dancing. Contra dancing is also easier than it appears because dancers repeat the same sequences of moves many times while progressing from partner to partner up and down the line.

Unlike square dancing, this means you don’t need to bring your own partner, and just about anyone can jump in right away without taking lessons. That’s exactly what I did. Within a few minutes of my arrival, a gentleman asked me to dance. I told him I was a novice and had no idea what I was doing, but he assured me I shouldn’t worry.

Sure enough, the caller walked us through the steps of each dance before the music began. During this mini-lesson, we swung with our partners, keeping one foot steady on the hardwood floor and moving the other around in a circle. When the band Swamp Mamas began playing, we sped it up, stomping, clapping and swinging to old-time music, weaving an intricate pattern across the room.

Contra dancing involves quite a bit of twirling your partner and circling in groups of four, holding one another’s hands, wrists or arms. I got dizzy almost immediately, which made it tough to remember where I was in the dance. “Look in my eyes,” my partner told me when I started feeling woozy. That didn’t really help, but I was having such a blast it didn’t matter.

Even though I got lost a few times, the contra dance community is extremely forgiving. The unwritten rule is that you switch partners every dance, so you meet a lot of great people, and veterans can help the newcomers along. By the third or fourth dance, I stopped worrying about the moves and just got into the spirit of it.

“When you get going, it’s almost like flying,” says Jim Spero, a caller and dance composer who co-edited the book “Southern California Twirls.” “It’s just so fun and energetic. People get a very good vibe out of it.”

The songs often tell a story or have tongue-in-cheek names such as the “male chauvinist’s jig,” which, incidentally, calls for women to take the lead at one point in the dance. I couldn’t stop smiling during one Virginia reel-like dance in which we sashayed across the floor and ducked under the arms of another couple.

Most people dance the whole night through, from 8:30 to 11:30, without sitting out a single song. Half-hour lessons are offered before the dances, which are held on alternating weekend evenings in Brentwood, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Sierra Madre, La Verne and Santa Barbara. The entire night of live music, dancing and a break of lemonade and cookies, sponsored by the California Dance Cooperative, costs $8. If you’re willing to let go and get into the good, clean fun of it, the experience is infectious.

A sign at the entrance to the dance says it all: “Warning: Contra Dance Is Addicting.” Once people start, they often move on to attend 12-hour, all-night “dawn dances” or weeklong dance camps. Contra dancing took off in California in the 1970s, and some of the hippie peace activists from that period are still at it today. My friend Janine, who introduced me to contra dancing, started as a child and has been dancing for 30 years.

Because contra dancing requires a steady focus on the present to keep up, it becomes all-absorbing, and people lose themselves. In fact, I didn’t realize how great a workout I was getting until I slowed down for the break and had to mop the sweat from my forehead.

Dancing burns about 200 calories an hour, and most people wear washable, loose-fitting clothing or bring an extra shirt to change into. “It’s a great way to get yourself in shape,” Spero says. “On New Year’s, you dance for six hours straight. That will take off the pounds.”

Barbara Stewart, 56, of Tujunga, lost 14 pounds when she started contra dancing a decade ago. “I had never done any exercise before,” she says. Suddenly “I was dancing once or twice a weekend because it’s so much fun.”

Spero actually trained for the L.A. marathon by attending a 12-hour dawn dance two weeks before the race. “It really helped build my stamina,” he says. “The most I ran before the marathon was nine miles, and I was able to run 26.”

You certainly don’t need to be a competitive athlete to dance, though. The walking pace of the steps makes it welcoming to people of all fitness levels. “I’ve obviously got osteoporosis,” says Ruth Bates, 83, of Alhambra, who wore a dress of green, white and red ruffles to the dance. “I’m supposed to be active, and I figure why not do it with something I enjoy?”

People tend to have such a great time that they go out together afterward or make movie dates with their dance friends. Stewart found the community to be as healthy for her psyche as the exercise was for her physique. Before she started contra dancing

, “I rarely laughed,” she said. “Then I’d come here and be in hysterics.”

Romances are not uncommon either because the dance is “exceedingly flirtatious,” Spero said. One move, the “gypsy,” calls for dancers to gaze into the eyes of their partners, circling around each other without ever touching. Much like the dance, the romance scene appears to be one of wholesome, old-fashioned courtship, though, so the environment feels safe for those who just want to move.

“It’s a community that supports the general art of flirtation,” says Marcia Neiswander, 54, of Alhambra, who met her husband contra dancing. “They’re open to the idea that a dance is just a dance, flirtation is flirtation. If you’re single or married, it doesn’t matter. There’s an openness about this community.”

One piece of advice: Wear flat shoes. Most people go with Birkenstocks, sneakers or jazz shoes. I made the mistake of dancing in high heels, and my toes and ankles ached afterward.

But not even sore feet could sour the good times I had contra dancing. So grab a partner, jump right in and do-si-do till you drop.

13 Sep

Contra Analness

Last night was the Second Sunday Contra and English Country Dance (for experienced dancers). The band was Cypher and the callers were Noralyn Parsons, Larry Daughenbaugh and me.

I’d asked Larry what dances he planned to do so I could work out a tentative program and choose my dances to avoid duplication. He was tentative on Chorus Jig, because it would depend on whether the band could do it. It turned out that the band could do it…if they brought the music, but they didn’t so he didn’t. I’d worked out two programs based on the Chorus Jig question. That was because a dance that I wanted to do (Hats off to Larry, by Penn Fix…I admit it, I wanted to do it because of the name…) is heavily asymmetric with a complicated figure (double figure eight), as is Chorus Jig (contra corners).

So I’ve been looking for a way to keep dances in my online database (an expanded, customized version of the Filemaker database available at American Country Dances On Line, and have them with me when I call. So far, I’m uncomfortable with using my Tungsten T3, although I have the database there, and it’s great if I need to quickly find some other dance. I’ve tried using the save as HTML option and then printing the resulting the webpage. Looks great, but a little cumbersome at the dance. So I worked up a print option that results in a double page spread that I can print up in a folded over, stapled booklet, custom made for each dance. An inside spread page looks like this:

Cal and Irene double page spread
On the front page

Kauf von Levaquin

, I put info about the dance, including the tentative program. Inside are all the dances I might do, in the order I might do them. The dance is on the left hand page, the notes and comments are on the right.

At the dance, I discovered some additional benefits (other than being fairly compact and easy to read and handle). I could write notes for announcements on the back page. I could add notes at the dance, ready to be transferred into the database later. And a disadvantage: the other callers now know fer sure what a total nerd I am. Oh well.

At 7 pm, the scheduled start time, we had 8 people. I hadn’t planned on doing a square, but that seemed the most appropriate thing to do in that situation, so I did a MWSD-type ad hoc square featuring Star Thru. Before I started, I taught Star Thru by having the heads step in and face their corner (Pair Off in MWSD terms). I then did several Star Thrus, until it looked like they could do it relatively reflexively. Imagine my surprise when I called Heads Star Thru during the dance, and the dancers paired off before doing a star thru with the sides. Hmmm…. Then I had them in facing lines, and I said Ladies Chain (expecting two ladies chain across) and all 4 ladies chained, as in a square. I have to work really hard to get MWSD dancers to do that move from facing lines! So it was a learning process; I had to learn how to change my calls to get the dancers to do what I wanted. So I called until enough people wandered in to form a reasonable contra line and then quit. The people who were there on time got the reward (punishment?) of the square.

The rest of the dance went according to my (non-Chorus Jig) plan, although the last dance turned out to be different than I thought (my database had a dance called Gypsy Star by Adam Carlson, but Larry used a dance called Gypsy Star by Cary Ravitz). I think it was a fun dance…at least I had fun; it’s nice to work with other callers so one has a chance to dance as well as call.

In other contra news, my contra calling mentor, Merri Rudd, has a new website: merridancing.com. I’m sorry I’m going to miss her 50th birthday party next week at the FolkMADS dance, but maybe I’ll catch up with her at Boo Camp (PDF) or the Fire Ant Frolic