While I was talking to Penelope Weinberger
, Dance Chair of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and founder of the Contra Sonic series, I asked her about the T-shirts she had begun to sell earlier in 2012 with the dJ improper logo on the back and big block on the front reading, “Dance with who’s comin’ atcha!”
“Those are a completely independent, [non-FSGW] thing,” says Penelope. “But here’s what the shirts are: so I’ve been contra dancing for a really long time, and I’ve seen...you know, when you come to the Friday Night Dance at Glen Echo, you have this lesson that has like eighty people in it, and every week that’s true, but the dance doesn’t grow by eighty people every week. So something’s happening with those new dancers...they’re trying it once and they’re not coming back. I think that contra dance does attract young people -- not at a really great rate -- and a lot of the young contra dancers are the children of older contra dancers.”
“There are two parts to the shirts: one is the part where there are new dancers that end up on the wrong side accidentally -- like right when they progress and they end up in the wrong position. And I have, so many times, seen experienced dancers who think they’re being helpful reach across to try to pull them into the right position instead of just dancing with the person who’s in the position that you’re supposed to dance with next. And so the shirt is about dancing with the person who’s in the position you’re supposed to dance with next, whoever they happen to be, whether they are there accidentally or whether they are there intentionally. And I think that old-school contra dancers, or mid-range contra dancers, tend to be a bit uncomfortable dancing with whomever they are confronted with or whomever they are presented with. And the ‘dance with who’s comin’ atcha’ notion is that it’s about dancing, and dancing contra is about being in the right place at the right time, and if you’re at the wrong place at the right time, then that should become the right place. If you’re dancing as a new couple and you open up in the wrong direction, and the woman is on the left, then you should dance with the oncoming person. There are a lot of places in a figure to fix that, and right when you’re meeting up with the next person is not it.”
“Just let people figure out what they’re doing -- if it’s a new couple and they’re dancing with each other and they end up dancing up the whole line in the opposite position, oh well. That’s the dance, that’s how they danced it. Either they’re going to dance that way forever, or they’re going to fix it on the next dance, or they’re going to fix it somewhere in the line, or they’re going to fix it on the next couple, or they’re not going to fix it. But the bottom line is, this is figure dancing, and when you dance the figure, you dance the figure with the person in the position that you’re supposed to dance it with, and you don’t take that extra time, or make people feel awkward, or scowl at them, or condemn them, or condescend to them because they screwed it up. Just smile and dance. So part of it is about dancing with people and welcoming them in a more graceful way.”
“It’s also partly about gender-imbalanced dancing. It’s mostly about how the dance is for dancing, and it’s not for proving your knowledge or our superiority or your expertise. So that’s what the shirt’s about, and you know, it’s fun.”
“We [Penelope’s household, including graphic designer Dennis Fleming, who also designs the Contrastock artwork, the Contra Sonic flyers and Facebook avatars, and the dJ improper logo] all kind of collaborated on it...and it was originally this gentler thing, and I said no, I wanted this bold design and so it ended up like this Parental Advisory block and something that appeals to all of us as something we recognize as a statement, not a suggestion.”
Want a shirt of your own? They’re available from Penelope -- contact me and I’ll pass along her info!
I first met Penelope Weinberger, Dance Chair of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSGW), when one of my friends joined the Board. I have had the pleasure of knowing her not only in that capacity, but also as a friend who does awesome things like being the DC side of the organization of Contrastock I and II and the creator of the Contra Sonic alt music contra series, the first monthly series of its kind, in November 2010.
“I wanted to have the first series,” she says. “I knew that other people were doing special events and one-offs and I wanted an ongoing series. I also wanted our alt music series to not be an exclusive thing. The first alternative contras were by invitation only and those were...the music and the calling were both recorded ahead of time, and for me that wasn’t what contra dancing is about.”
Last Sunday was ContraEvolution II
in Greenfield, MA. Steve and I were there.
In no particular order:
1. Firecloud has expanded! ContraEvolution II marked the debut of Firecloud as a trio, with new member Andrew "DJ Nanocannon" Hlynsky (their band debut was January 1, 2012 at Glen Echo; I've chronicled my initial impressions elsewhere in this blog
). The combo of two live musicians and the DJ made the sound seem a lot fuller and this appearance seemed more like an integration of the personalities involved than before. (Also notable: Julie playing techno jawharp, and Andy Reiner singing for parts of the set!)
2. dJ improper
making a contra mix including the viral Korean hit "Gangnam Style." Let it not be said that he doesn't have his finger on the pulse of the current moment. (Alas, I didn't see anybody managing to incorporate the "horse dance" that goes with the song into a flourish.)
3. Face painting and body art with neon paint from local artist Eve Christoph. The paints (and smudges) on dancers' bodies reacted with the blacklight and other lighting effects as the evening wore on.
4. Ed Howe's wandering between the lines with his fiddle during Perpetual e-Motion
's set. On one of Ed's trips down into the masses (it might have been during the waltz, I honestly don't remember), Julie Vallimont took Ed's vacant chair next to John Coté and pantomimed fiddle playing along with the music for a little while.
5. Giant Robot Dance
playing Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" in their set while Lisa Greenleaf was calling. (This was particularly amusing to me because Lisa led a series of contra dances a few years ago to recorded pop songs, and among the notable artists she included in the recorded selection was Lady Gaga.)
To others who went: what were your favorite moments?
This week, Contra Syncretist celebrates its first birthday! I launched the site a year ago on Friday.
Here's some of the cool stuff I've learned in that time:
- Not all alternative contras are conducted to mainstream music that you would necessarily find in your local downtown dance club. Eileen Thorsos of Electric Camel fame spins and remixes "electrotrad" music, which focuses heavily on remixes of contemporary bands with a strong traditional/Celtic influence. dJ improper of the DC area mixes contemporary hits with songs by The Who, Kansas, and The Beatles.
- Alternative contras can trace their roots to Lisa Greenleaf's experiments in the last decade, and to some private parties that anecdotally pre-date these.
- There is some debate about whether alternative contras are better staged as outreach events to draw more people into the community, or advanced events to strengthen the shared experience of the existing community. (Feel free to weigh in on this idea over on the Forum.)
- While there are many alternative contra events out there, regular series that are billed as such are comparatively rare. The first predictably-regular one (i.e., "third Tuesdays of the month" type schedule) was the Contra Sonic series near Washington, DC, which started in November 2010.
- In 2011, DJs began to travel around in a way that live bands on the traditional contra scene have for years, injecting more variety into the experience.
- There are hip-hop morris and "Extreme English Country Dancing" (xECD) counterparts to crossover contra, which bring in similar elements.
- The people who are infusing the contra dances with other influences are by and large very much agreed that they do not want to see the acoustic and carried-on tradition go away -- they have differing reasons for looking into electronic music and other genres of music than are typically found in contra, but most will actively say that they wish to build upon the tradition that inspires them, and they see that as what they are doing with their syncretistic art; they do not seek to diminish it in any way, shape, or form.
- Most of the leading techno contra musicians and DJs are men; two notable exceptions are Boston-based piano and accordion player and DJ Julie Vallimont (currently with Firecloud and other incarnations, as well as more traditional bands Nor'easter and La Banane Enchantée) and DJ and caller Eileen Thorsos of the Triangle Country Dancers community in North Carolina, who tours with her remixed "electrotrad" music.
- Instead of mixing the music to be square and go with the dance, some series write contra dances to specifically go with the alternative tunes.
- Many alternative contras maintain the club atmosphere without strobe lighting effects, much to the relief of some contra dancers who get migraines.
Thank you to everyone for coming on this journey with me so far! The Friday Flourish
will update as usual on Friday and then we will have still more syncretistic goodness to come, and I've got a few ideas up my sleeve for the future! Stay tuned!
I first caught up with Jack Mitchell
when he called a Contra Sonic
installment in 2011. He mentioned that he had danced with Electric Camel Contra
and called to dJ improper
's sets before, though not with dJ improper himself there, and that he saw some interesting differences between the experiences--at which point I knew I had to talk to him for Contra Syncretist
Vermont-based caller Will Mentor ventured down to the mid-Atlantic to call for the Contra Sonic
techno contra series, and did so another time to call at Contrastock I at Glen Echo (he will also call for Contrastock II this September). I ran into him again at Contra Evolution in Greenfield, MA in October and the Midwinter Ball earlier this month in Baltimore and he kindly obliged my request for an interview.
A couple of weeks ago, the October installment of the Contra Sonic series in Arlington, VA featured Toronto, Canada-based caller Bev Bernbaum
calling with dJ improper
. Contra Syncretist
caught up with her afterward. “It was my first time calling a techno contra and I’d never danced one before either,” she says. “I’d heard about techno contra and was interested in finding out more about it. I attended a dance weekend earlier this year that claimed to be having a techno contra late one night, but it wasn’t anything like what I’d seen on YouTube or was expecting. As it happened, I was arranging a short mid-Atlantic calling tour in the early spring and had contacted the organizer of the Glen Echo dance. I’ve called there before. She asked if I’d consider staying in DC long enough to call the Contra Sonic dance and I jumped at the chance.”
On Memorial Day 2011, Brian Hamshar
organized a highly unusual event in Greenwood, VA. Whereas usually traditional contra dances include live music and crossover and techno contra events use recorded music delivered through DJs, Contra-phoria combined the talents of live contra dance band Perpetual e-Motion and Contra Sonic’s Jeremiah “dJ improper” Seligman
in a rather unusual setup. DJ improper provided the percussion loops on his laptop and Perpetual e-Motion’s John Coté and Ed Howe played along with it. (You can see some
of the results
on BHamshar’s YouTube channel
.)Brian says, "
Club Contras was kicked off back in January with the idea of injecting the Virginia contra dance scene with some new youthful attitude, variety and innovation. The first project was to introduce crossover contra to Virginia with pop/rock & techno and develop our vision for how amazingly fun that could become. But that's not all. Our main goal is to promote more variety and an even greater community focus. That means things like open mic and guest calling. It also means bringing in excellent young modern bands such as Perpetual e-Motion, and we hope to attract others. We'd love to provide a venue for area musicians who don't necessarily play traditional folk music, because we know that many of our dancers have eclectic musical tastes. For the record, we definitely don't want to use only recorded rock/techno. We love live music! However, the genre is still very very young, and at the moment we're relying mainly on our talented DJs. As part of the spirit of promoting innovation, we decided back in the spring to try putting on an extended day of dancing with a variety of music genres, and Contra-phoria was born. As an extension of that mindset, dJ improper expressed interest in creating a few sets with the band and the DJ performing together. It was a great idea, and I think the dancers really enjoyed this new fusion. We plan to do that and more new stuff in the future, and we certainly welcome new ideas from the community!"
I caught up with Perpetual e-Motion and asked them for their take on the experience.
After calling the Sunday FSGW dance
with Nor’easter playing last week in Glen Echo Park, Dave Eisenstadter turned around and called the August edition of the Contra Sonic
techno contra series two nights later in Arlington, VA. While it was his first time calling Contra Sonic, this was not his first exposure to a crossover contra event:
“My first techno contra was on New Years Day 2010 in Asheville, NC, and it was organized and DJ'd by Jordy Williams
. Since then, I've been to a handful of techno and alternative music dances at Youth Dance Weekend in Vermont and throughout Massachusetts. Dancer friends told me about Jordy's dance and we wound up driving 12 hours to see what it was like.”
Right before your friendly neighborhood crossover contra blogger left for vacation, she caught up with Ann Fallon, who called the Contra Sonic
dance in Arlington, VA on June 22, to talk about what it was like for Ann to call her first techno contra. Unlike some people, Ann had attended a couple of Contra Sonic events before she called, one before and one after the move to Artisphere in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, VA. She had watched a few format changes over the course of the series as well: “The first Contra Sonic I attended had several very long medleys, and I understand that some of the ones after that one had long medleys as well, one being an hour long. The format at DC Contra Sonic has evolved to regular length dances, with the emphasis being on keeping to simpler dances with low piece counts so the dancers can just dance to the music.”
The experience of calling traditional contra and techno contra did not differ as much as she thought it would. “I was concerned about possibly losing my place in the music. I’m not very familiar with the tunes used for crossover contras,” she says. “Although I knew that Jeremiah [Seligman, a.k.a. dJ improper
] made the tunes be dance length, 64 beats, etc., and of course I know how to count beats, some of the music I had heard at the dances I attended seemed to have unclear phrasing. I knew there would be an 8 count intro rather than the usual 4 … and I was prepared to count throughout each dance. But it was easier than I thought to keep track of the parts of the dance, and …. and this was awesome … the dancers were so attuned to the music and for the most part were very experienced, they had absolutely no trouble hearing the phrasing and keeping the dance where it belonged. So I began each dance counting rather than ‘feeling’ the phrasing as I would normally do … but I didn’t count for very long … maybe twice through the dance.”