Months ago on the Forum, I wondered what trance ECD might be like. Looks like at least one group has experimented in that vein...this is from a party in New Jersey early this year with Phase X:
Anyone else danced ECD to alternative music? What did you think of it?
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that adulthood is at least partly about finding your community -- be it the members of your household or your “tribe” that you hang out with. When I left off in Part 1, I’d found mine, and it was awesome.
A couple of years later (circa 2010) my body started to decide that it was no longer willing to be as cooperative as it had been to date. I had a lengthy battle with bronchitis (that wasn’t diagnosed as such until a couple of months in), my other knee decided that it would start filing grievances with my body on a regular basis and as such I needed to wear another knee brace, and then later my lower back did something weird in late 2011/early 2012 that has meant my deep-dipping days are mostly behind me at this point, with rare exceptions (but man, they were fun while they lasted).
A little later on, I was saving up for a trip abroad and was unsteadily employed, so the trips to the diner fell away in the name of saving money. Unfortunately, the ongoing health issues also meant that I couldn’t keep up with the hot-shot line anymore, at least not consistently. I started dancing in the other lines more regularly, and meeting new folks that way (including a few who made surprised comments that I wasn’t dancing over in the far line). A few of the folks I used to dance with in the cool hip dancer line still sought me out, but most of them stayed over in the cool hip dancer line, dancing with each other, and I didn’t get to see them unless there was a gender imbalance, I was sitting out, and they were scraping the sides of the room for partners.
I'll be blunt: at first, this really stung. The folks I had thought were my friends didn’t ask to dance with me anymore, and they no longer even asked if I wanted to go to the diner anymore. I actually considered quitting contra at that point, since a lot of the appeal had been that community and my inclusion in it.
Somewhere around this point I was having a pity party for myself (complete with tiny violin solo) and Steve metaphorically smacked me upside the head: “When was the last time you asked them for a dance?”
Took me a little bit, but as much as I hated to admit it, he was right. In waiting for them to ask me, I’d been taking on a really awful attitude, and that was really not helping anything at all. Who the heck was I to demand that they bridge the gap instead of attempting to do so myself? They certainly didn’t owe me anything and while I certainly hadn’t thought of it that way, I could see where this interpretation of my lament had some legs. After this forehead-smacking “Aha!” moment, I resolved to make more of a point of seeking them out at least some of the time, instead of waiting for them to come to me like they had before.
It’s harder to get dances with a lot of the folks who used to be my regular partners as a lot of them book way ahead these days, and I’m pretty sure I pushed some of them away when I stopped going to the diner/stopped dancing in the far-left line because of the aforementioned bodily rebellion, but the frequency of my being able to dance with those friends went up once I got over myself and went over and asked them, rather than waiting for them to ask me most of the time. (There are some that I finally wrote off asking after being deferred indefinitely several weeks in a row -- I can take a hint, and I didn’t and don’t want to be a pest -- but many I still dance with at least sometimes.)
After six years and counting of dancing, even after the health issues resolved, I have unfortunately never been able to get my 22-year-old body back. Consequently, I now frequently steer folks I used to dance with into other lines where I run into less consistently vigorous/flourishy neighbors, but when I head over to the really vigorous line, I make a point of being able to keep up -- and I try and make a point of asking the folks who usually dance there to partner me as well. I’m accepting this in the interest of being able to dance for many more years (hopefully with at least some flourishes thrown in) and remain active in the contra community.
In the meantime, I’ve expanded my circle of “regular partners” and that’s all been to the better -- just through partnering them, the not-flourishy dancers are teaching me style points among other things, too, which are actually making me a better flourisher when I dance with the flourishy folks. We nurture the connections in different ways, kind of like when you have some friends you go hiking with, and others you go see movies with.
At this point I’ve established myself enough as a dancer who doesn’t have a “usual” line anymore that I’ve stopped getting the “what are you doing over here?” questions. I’ve been able to make more friends who aren’t exclusively in that line and while it’s been ages since I’ve been out to the diner (that whole hour-plus-each-way commute to work I mentioned in another post saps a lot of the energy I regained when I got better, and I’ve come to accept that), I’ve still found other ways to maintain the feeling of fellowship and camaraderie that have made me stay part of this community.
So my story has a happy ending. But it’s also a cautionary tale -- before you complain that “the cool hip dancers” won’t dance with you, ask yourself: when was the last time you went and asked them for a dance?
(And incidentally -- if you see me at an event, please do ask me to dance, whether we’ve met before or not, whichever role you’d rather dance, as I’ll dance either one or dance switch. Chances are good that I’ll say yes to an invitation to dance, whether you’re a Cool Hip Dancer or not -- and I’ll be making a point of asking around, too.)
So, I’ll admit it. My name is Ryan and I used to be a cool hip dancer.
I started out innocently enough. I had reached a point in my life in my early twenties where I needed to get out of the house and Google told me that there was a local weekly contra dance about 20 minutes from my apartment on Friday nights. I had decided that since I didn’t know anybody there, if I made a complete jerk of myself I’d just have a self-effacing story to tell and I wouldn’t go back. Worst case scenario: no harm, no foul, new story to tell.
So I went. And people actually wanted to dance with me (to my pleasant surprise). Probably made a jerk out of myself a few (dozen) times in that first evening of contra, but the endorphin rush was enough to overpower the sense of having muscles that hurt that I didn’t know I had and, armed with ibuprofen and a bandanna to keep the sweat out of my eyes, I headed back the following week.
And the week after that….
And the week after that….
After a couple of months of regular attendance, I started getting invited out to the diner after the dance. And I went, regularly, for a couple of years. And there were like 20 of us who went out regularly, ages 16 to 60+ but mostly in the 20s-and-30s range. And as time went on, I found myself dancing with my friends, and more and more often that landed me in the far-left line in the hall...the one that had the most vigorous dancing, the one that skewed the youngest demographically, the one that contained several of the folks that I had been going out to the diner with for the past several months. It wasn’t that I was intentionally seeking it out, more that that’s where I ended up, more often than not.
And since I was over there, it became a self-perpetuating cycle: I went into the far-left line, I danced, I got asked to dance by one of my neighbors, we stayed in that line for the next dance, I got asked to dance by one of my neighbors, we stayed in that line…until the entire night had passed that way.
That was how I spent several months, and I had no particular issue with it. I danced with newbies if they ventured over, but by and large I was dancing with experienced dancers and got pretty good at following their leads (and learning to back-lead some of my own). I nourished the connections with my partners (and some of my neighbors) through flourishes, and life was hunky dory as far as I was concerned. I had friends who were in my general age cohort (and a few who weren’t) who seemed to like me and seek me out, I had a community, and I had dance partners for any dance I opted . I felt like I’d come home, and it was really fun feeling like one of the “cool” kids for the first time in my life.
Temperatures have climbed and the lack of climate control at some venues has become apparent. It occurred to me the other night as I was dancing in the crowd at Glen Echo that in some ways, a crowded contra event can strangely resemble a mosh pit. To wit:
Can you think of any ways that I might have missed? Let me know!
ContraForce (Andrae Raffield, Jimi Peirano, & Joey Dorwart) is one of the newer fusion bands on the scene; originally from South Carolina, they've been touring up and down the East Coast and making a splash wherever they go. They released their album, Rise of the Folk Organism, earlier this summer.
"Werrwoulph" opens the album with an eerie feel and some very high-pitched fiddle and some rather stark instrumentation with the howl of the electric guitar featured rather prominently with what sounds an awful lot like a distortion pedal. By the time this track hits its stride, it seems to bleed into noise-band territory (which might just be the mixing), but regardless is a surprising opening to a contra dance band's album and sets us up for what will undoubtedly be an unusual ride.
"Roof'n'all-EazySleazy" takes off like a shot and has the feel of an old Western mixed with a wah-wah pedal, which becomes more prominent as the track goes on but then fades back into the fiddle-heavy hornpipe with the funky drumbeat behind it.
In contrast, "No Need" slows way down and is soft and subtle like improvised jazz, or blues. Something in the background sounds like dripping water on this track, and this helps to lend it the feel of a mood piece more than anything else. All that said, this track grew on me to become one of my favorites on the album.
"Dr. Know" opens feeling like a salsa piece, in contrast to the slower pace of the previous track and felt a bit like a celebratory, coiled spring that released its energy in a really fabulous way. Also notable is that this track did not noticeably use the distortion pedal as much as the other tracks on the album thus far.
The tracks are interesting, but for a CD I personally think they feel a little long. However, this probably was meant to mimic the experience of dancing/hearing them live, so I don't necessarily think this is a drawback per se.
Overall, I felt like the album as an album had an issue with pacing, and seemed as though it couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be. Individual tracks, on the other hand, were really interesting and taken together showed the breadth and variety of which ContraForce is capable, which is really neat to see. I'm looking forward to seeing what else comes from them in the future.
Earlier this year I got a permanent job that has me in the car an hour each way to get to work. (Fortunately, it's against traffic.) As such, I've gotten to listen to many hours of local radio morning shows on my commute in.
Anna Kendrick's song "Cups" came on the radio sometime this spring (not just the one-minute version she did in Pitch Perfect and several talk shows to promote the same, a full-length radio edit).
In a surprisingly intelligent comment made on one of the morning shows, one of the hosts mentioned that the song was not in fact "new," per se, but was an update of a song that originated in the first part of the 20th century.
Oh really? think I. I'll have to go look that up.
So I did, and discovered that yes, in fact, Kendrick's version is in fact a remake of Lulu and the Lampshades (now apparently known as Landshapes)' single from 2009, which was adapted a song from earlier last century (c. 1931) by the Carter Family.
When I got home, I mentioned this to Steve. He was promptly rather perturbed -- apparently he had been thinking about working up the Lulu and the Lampshades version as a song to lead at song circles, but now felt that he couldn't because it was a song that was popular on the radio. When I asked him why it makes a difference, he said that "No one goes to a song circle wanting to hear something that they can already listen to ten times a day on some pop station. One of the big thrills of a circle is getting to hear songs you enjoy that you would otherwise never hear anywhere else."
Honestly, I suspect that a fair lot of the popularity of the Kendrick version revolves around the fact that she was in the Twilight movies and her career is continuing from that basis.
But, somewhat cynical blogger opinion aside, it’s really rather interesting that the song has come into the mainstream vogue in that way, and that because of that it could end up out of favor in some song circles. Because it’s on the radio, and as a result is now everywhere, it’s no longer one of the things that folkies are looking for in the song circles and such that are more away from the mainstream.
There is this odd sense of “Othering” that I’ve found comes to and from the contra community (and perhaps the folkie community in general), and while sometimes they can reflect various community values (e.g.,: most contra events are alcohol-free; most contra events try to make a point of using local talent as well as getting some touring folks, when they’re available), sometimes they can feel a bit arbitrary (e.g., if one finds it in “mainstream” culture and therefore it is inherently inferior and has nothing to offer the Tradition). Adding a conventionally pretty, known face to an old song and making a radio edit that is then played on pop stations a lot can both make a song relevant to a new audience and doom it in the folkie circles for being, in some ways, “not Other enough” to make it acceptable. (As posited before, to me this seems to be more of an aesthetic issue than anything else, but that’s a tangent here.)
At the same time, part of the reason that contra dancing isn’t more popular is because of this “Otherness.” It is, for good or for ill, associated with other forms of folk dance in the public imagination and as such is not appealing to several potential audiences out there. At the same time, suggestions that contra events could or should be advertised “to the gen pop” is met with a somewhat unfavorable reaction. So there is a tension...how to keep an event “Other” enough that it is appealing to the current folks (who like it as something “Other”) and how to keep an event accessible enough that you get new people in and keep the community sustainable.
In marketing we talk about finding your target audience and getting your information into the streams where they get their information. But, while the community knows it needs to do it, is that something that they really want to stretch themselves to do? Are they willing to sacrifice a little “Otherness” to gain some of the mainstream attention? Whether or not they can or wish to, should they do so, and to what degree?
I don’t have an answer to that, but I’m certainly willing to hear what other folks think.
Special thanks to Steven Roth for sharing his views and for the research assistance!
Phase X at BIDA, Saturday 8/24, Cambridge, MA
...And Some More Syncretism
The discussion about advanced-only dances last week made me start thinking about new dancers, and my experience as a new dancer in mid-2007.
The short version of why I started dancing is that I reached a time in my life where I really needed to get out of the house and so I weighed a few options in my head and some friends in college had gone contra dancing so I Googled "contra dance washington dc" and found Glen Echo. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday when I did this, so I resolved to go the following Friday night, figuring that if I made a complete and total jerk of myself that I didn't have to go back and I didn't know anybody there so it didn't really matter. Besides, it would make a decent story to tell later, regardless. (Actually, that last bit is the reason I do lots of things.)
(Perhaps this should be subtitled, "In Which The Blogger Kicks A Hornet Nest.")
There are various threads around the web lately about outreach to new dancers (and ways to revamp how we approach beginners), or the importance of feeding your local dance community as well as the snazzy dance weekends that tend to self-select for advanced dancers.
I've gotten into conversations with folks about public advanced dances lately as well. To be clear, I'm not talking about private parties, dance weekends, many one-off techno contras, or all-day days of dance (all of which tend to self-select for advanced dancers). I'm referring to the regular nights of dancing (~3 hours) that are publicly advertised, but are advertised as "experienced dancers only please; new dancers are welcome next week" types of things.
I'm actually wondering a bit about their existence in the first place. I have yet to hear a reason for them (and here's where y'all can help me) that doesn't boil down to some variant of, "...because dancing with newbies sucks."
It's also entirely possible that I'm missing something here, and that there is an angle of this that I have overlooked entirely. (I hope so; I'm having a viscerally negative reaction to the reason cited above.)
So I'm using one of the perks of being a blogger and crowd-sourcing this for my own edification: if you're in favor of publicly-advertised "advanced-dancer only" dances, could you kindly clarify why? I want to see both sides of it.
Full disclosure: Steve and I did not go to the one-off "advanced dance" at Glen Echo last month, but that was more a result of its happening when we had other stuff going on than really a conscious choice either way (beyond "we are not cancelling our previously-made plans in order to attend").
(A Guest Post by Steven “Trouble” Roth.)
One expects to hear certain kinds of music when at a folk festival. While at the Washington Folk Festival this past weekend I quickly found myself immersed in many different styles, from Bluegrass to Balalaikas to Blues to Balkan. As I came around a certain corner of Glen Echo Park this past Sunday afternoon, however, instead of banjos I heard beatboxing.
Meet Christylez Bacon. On the surface, all you might see is a straight-up hip-hop artist who’s flow and playfulness is eerily reminiscent of Andre 3000. You might ask yourself (as I did, however fleetingly), “What’s a hip-hop artist doing at a folk festival?” But look again: that’s a string section backing him up on stage. They are the Washington Sound Museum (his back-up band), with one person playing an electric violin and another on electric cello. Over the next several numbers, he shows that he’s just as comfortable on guitar and djembe as he is improvising rhymes using words shouted out by the audience. It is quickly apparent that this guy is extremely talented. In this somewhat unexpected venue, he appears completely at ease and in his element. He gets this crowd, and the audience responds to that. This is a performer who is completely at home at a folk festival.
Make no mistake -- Christylez Bacon IS a hip-hop artist. He is a born-and-bred native of Washington, DC and you can tell when you hear him lay out a beat on his djembe that go-go music runs in his blood. His musical “mentor” is none other than local luminary Bomani Armah. (You don’t recognize the name? He’s also known as D’Mite, who achieved viral success with his “Read a [M************] Book.” Google it, but not at work or around small ears -- the language in the song is decidedly NSFW.) He also fully embraces 21st-century methods for his craft, running his show off of his iPad on stage, complete with mixing mic levels, looping tracks, and playing beat tracks while his hands are busy playing guitar.
But is it folk? Oh yes. When it comes down to it, Christylez is an extremely organic performer. While his music starts with hip-hop as its foundation, he is also eager to include elements of many other styles of music in his performance as evidenced by the fiddle and cello additions. He struck me as the kind of music nerd who could sit down and enjoy any music you put in front of him, no matter the genre (and maybe even improvise the style into his next performance). Most importantly , however, is just how present he is with his audience while he performs. When I saw him perform, I saw something magical happen; he has the ability to bring in all of the audience members and make them feel like they are part of the music as it is being created. The performance would have been a different thing had any one person in the audience been added or taken away. In that moment, he created music that will never occur the same way again because it was the product of that unique moment in time and those people who happened to be present.
Sounds like folk music to me.
When I arrived at the festival, I had not been expecting to hear rap or hip-hop being performed. To be honest, it is not a musical genre that I had ever directly associated with the folk tradition in my own thinking. However, by including live instrumentation and by bringing the audience into his performance in a participatory manner, I see this falling under the same umbrella of folk music. He may have taken a different path to get there than we are used to seeing, but he does get to the same place; I am reminded of how DJs and other artists have been approaching crossover contras from paths that are different from the usual acoustic bands, but it is still undoubtedly contra.
What do you think? Do you agree with Steve’s definition of folk music? What other sorts of performances might fall under “folk” music using this definition?