Contra Magic

By Jeff Spero

Contra DancingThe piano sets the groove. The mandolin adds its frenetic energy. The fiddle soars above it all. All around, the hall is a blur of movement and smiles.

The band reaches its peak, the dancers whirl with excitement — and it’s over. Time to find a new partner and start it all over again.

People are having these joyous experiences more and more often these days. Contradance has spread throughout the nation and beyond from its New England origins. In Southern California, there are as many as seven dances, with approximately 350 attendees, in any given weekend.

But for the unfortunate few who have yet to experience a contradance, a description may be in order. Contra is a community dance, and during a dance event it is likely that everyone in the dance hall will have a chance to greet each other. Many movements are familiar to anyone who did the often obligatory square dancing in grade school: allemande, do-sido, swing. Through the years, many other patterns have found their way into contradance (some via other folkdances, some completely unique to contra), creating a melting pot of movement that models its American heritage. By watching the dance, it is easy to see the similarities to square dance. But mix in the live music and a dash of flirtation and this becomes folkdance — supercharged.

Although a description is a good starting point, it isn’t an adequate definition. As with most art forms, defining contradance is an unusually difficult proposition. In fact, there is an in-depth web page solely devoted to this effort. But foolhardy as it may be, here is yet another attempt: the convergence of caller, musicians, and dancers to create magic.

Magic? Well, other descriptions have included “it’s like falling in love” or “it feels like flying.” If magic means “producing extraordinary results as if by supernatural means” (and it does... I looked it up), then falling in love or flying while dancing a do-si-do certainly qualifies as magic. But how exactly is that magic accomplished? Let’s take a look at the three essential ingredients.

The caller is the glue that holds the three elements together. As the one who prompts the dance, the caller is the most visible person in the hall. He (or she) is also the person with the most balls in the air. For most callers, the job of preparing for a contradance starts hours, if not days, in advance. Dances must be chosen and programmed into an order that takes into account a beginner’s learning curve and at the same time is rewarding for the experienced dancer. Once at the dance hall, the caller must properly instruct each piece of choreography and work with the musicians to select music that is appropriate for each individual dance. But above all, by providing a fun attitude, the caller initiates the character of the dance and sets the tone for both the dancers and the musicians.

From there, the musicians take over. Bands either rehearse in advance or are certain that most members have a similar repertoire of tunes. Once the dance begins, the musicians communicate with the caller to determine what tunes they will play. These tunes are not just accompaniment for the dancers’ feet, but serve as a guide to how the entire body moves. Tunes may evoke incredible bursts of enthusiasm. The tempo may vary from dance to dance, and the musicians will often shape the rise and fall of energy throughout an evening. Whether it’s a smooth, flowing melody with an arpeggiated back-up, a feverish lead with a salsa beat, or anything in between, the music sends signals to the dancers to alter their movements into gliding, walking or even strutting.

And by their movements (along with enthusiastic whoops and hollers!), the dancers give immediate feedback, which serves to energize both the caller and the band. Specific movements may turn from smooth to bouncy depending on the dancers’ interpretations of the music. Dancers also interact with the musicians in how they fill up musical phrases with an extra turn or a glance at their partner. Some interactions with the caller are obvious — the caller teaches and the dancers respond. But the dancers also communicate with the caller in their attentiveness and excitement with each dance.

There are many volunteers who contribute to the overall effect of a magical evening: the people who produce the event, those who cook, bake, or shop for the refreshments, and those who choose to volunteer to collect admission at the door, among others. These contributions help shape a dance community and should not be overlooked. But once on the dance floor, the rest of the world seems to fall away, leaving the caller, the musicians and the dancers. The synergy between these three elements and the excitement that it builds creates the magic that dancers have enjoyed for many generations.

Jeffrey Spero has been a contradance caller, musician and dancer in southern California for over 20 years. He is also a member of The Syncopaths and Rhythm Raptors.

Click here for THE listING of all SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Contra Dancing happenings.



By Valerie Cooley

When I was in 9th grade journalism, I wanted to work for Life Magazine when I grew up, traveling the world with nothing but a Leica and a battered typewriter. In 10th grade journalism I hated the teacher and changed my mind. I kept taking pictures, though, nothing brilliant but fun. That is, they were until I tried capturing the joys of contra dancing. I got hundreds of pictures of happy people in colorful, idiosyncratic clothing, engaged in earnest but incomprehensible chaos, but nothing to show my aunt in Ohio why it was fun. The only thing I ever caught that looked like exuberance was posed.

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  1. Devon Léger Of Hearth Music

Originally published in No Depression

I've long thought that contra dance bands would make great performance bands. Actively blending popular traditions from Celtic to Cape Breton, old-time to bluegrass, with hints of Scandinavian and French- Canadian influences, contra dance bands should have laser precision and the ability to turn on a dime. Of course, the problem is that most contra dance bands are used to playing 15 minute long medleys of highly repetitive tunes, so some work has to be done to adapt a contra dance band to a concert stage. Here are three bands that have developed musical styles so tight and compelling that if they're not playing concert venues now, I hope they will soon.

Next generation contra dance band, Night Watch, come from the heartland of the tradition, New England, and sound like they've spent many a night playing for swirling lines of dancers in old, vintage dancehalls. Night Watch is one of a growing number of bands that have made the transition from dance band to concert band. Or at least, their debut album, Splendid Isolation, proves that they've got the chops to show just how powerful contra dance music can be for listeners, rather than just dancers.

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