Interestingly, Chrissy drew comparisons between calling for crossover contras and calling for weddings, which at first glance would seem to be wildly different endeavors: “For me, calling the Alternative Contras has been a bit like calling for a wedding, in the sense that I've had work to control my urges regarding the difficulty of dances. My learning curve was steep, but I eventually realized that the fun for the dancers was the music and not ‘interesting sequences.’ (This may well be true at most trad contras, but that's a whole other thread!) The dances at Bates had a large proportion of total newcomers. It seemed to me that even when I called easy dances, I ended up prompting longer than I would want to at a regular contra dance or even a wedding. I wondered if this was partly because we didn't have a band playing traditional contra dance fiddle tunes, both of which help hammer home the 8 count phrasing of the individual figures and the 32 bar repetition of the dance sequence itself.”
Unsurprisingly, however, there was a fair amount of preparation involved ahead of time. “Yes, in a sense. We pre-edited the tracks, so there was a lot of advance prep for all of us. For the 2009 Hip Hop Contra, Blaise and Sarah sent me a whole bunch of songs that I listened to with several criteria in mind (tempo, danceability, 8 count phrasing, etc.). Another criterion ended up being lyrics, embarrassingly enough for me. It's hard to admit I'm an uptight Seven Sisters grad, but I honestly found I just couldn't deal with song lyrics that seemed overly sexist or even misogynist, especially because I was going to be listening to them over and over in advance of the event. So a few got canned simply because of the feminism factor. But, back to coordination, as we continued the collaboration, the Bates students got more sophisticated in their mixing. They started making more medleys of tunes, adding and subtracting a few seconds here and there to tweak the phrasing, adjusting the tempos, etc. At each of the dances we did, someone controlled the CD player or computer (Me, me with help from the sound guy, Blaise, and the sound guy) but mostly this involved starting and stopping the particular cut.”
The experience also taught Chrissy some about her own experience of contra calling. “I listen to a lot of traditional music, even when I'm not calling. And I really key into musical/rhythmic phrases. Lately I've I learned that when I call I am really tied to the 8 or 16 count musical phrase, unlike some square dance callers who are more keyed into the 2 or 4 count phrase. This little 'handicap' of mine makes it harder for me to call to alternative music. (This insight was brought to light during a couple of conversations w callers Will Mentor and Pat Tognoni.) So even if I'm concentrating on ignoring the music and just calling to the beat, I get distracted by whatever musical phrase that I hear, and want to get tied back into that, even if it ends up being crooked. . . . I realized I'm a caller who depends on my innate sense of where the tune is to keep track of where I am in the dance, and so it makes it trickier if I can't do that.”
Chrissy continued, explaining that “Calling to recorded music itself has certain downsides for me, because I miss the feedback loops (musicians-dancers, caller-musicians) . . . I say this as someone who regularly calls to recorded traditional music, so it's not something specific to techno contras, but it's one of the challenges -- missing that palpable connection with the musicians themselves.”
Setting up the dances, however, wasn’t much different than with a selection of more traditional contra music. “[It was] no different for me with hip-hop than other kinds of alternative songs, or even, for that matter, than matching dances to traditional fiddle tunes (which I sometimes do if I'm working with a band at a festival and they are planning their medleys in advance.) I listen to the music and think about how that song makes me want to move my body, then I match it to what I think is the feel of a particular dance among the ones I'm considering using in the program. Some dance sequences will go with any sort of music (bouncy, smooth/groovy, marchy, rockin', two sticks banged together...) others are a bit more particular.”
Chrissy also adds, “I've not yet called a techno contra in collaboration with a DJ who's choosing the music on the fly. I can imagine that would be a different dynamic. I did have fun working with the various people who did sound and started the different songs at each Alternative Contra, which gives me a taste of how fun that DJ-caller interaction might be.”
And this sense of fun is very much what Chrissy took away from the experience. “It was as fun as I expected, and a nice mix of dancers showed up (age range, experience, etc.) My only surprise was that a few of the experienced dancers avidly suggested that this type of contra dancing should replace the regular (traditional) contra series at Bates, which was not what Blaise, Sarah or I had in mind at all. We thought of it as something fun to do for variety within the existing tradition.”
The inaugural Bates dance eventually turned into a series. “The Bates students and I had three more collaborations -- Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 at Bates, and Fall 2010 in Belfast. All of them were good experiences, and definitely artistic successes, especially thanks to the work that the students put in choosing the songs and promoting the events. We had originally planned a Spring 2011 Alternative Contra at Bates, but for several reasons, including a hectic final semester before graduation for the main instigators and a scheduling snafu, we called it off.”
While Chrissy doesn’t have any further techno contra gigs coming up as of this writing, she says she will be calling several regular contra dances and private events in Maine and Massachusetts in the coming months.
Chrissy Fowler is a Maine-based contra dance caller. She is on the organizing team for the Star Hampshire Dance Weekend on September 16-18 on the Isles of Shoals. She is also working on Puttin’ On the Dance, a conference for Northeast dance organizers on November 11-13, as an opportunity for dance organizers to meet, learn, share, and talk shop.