"My first experience calling to alternative music for an evening dance was when I split an evening with Eileen Thorsos, calling dances using the 'electrotrad' sets that she had constructed," says Jack. "I went into that event knowing that Eileen had spent a significant amount of time putting those set together, and in particular that she had constructed them to fit the structure of the structure of a contra dance. I also had spent a good bit of time listening to the sets she had made and giving feedback as she worked to tweak the sets. We had some tempo related issues, and at the time didn't have a way to tweak tempos on the fly, but overall, it was a really good experience and was well received. I think that one of the things that makes the sets that Eileen has put together work so well is that they represent a blending of traditional-style tunes with modern instruments, electronica and beats. That combination of the two makes for music that has a strong connection to the phrasing of the dance, repeated melodies generally connect to the repeated structure of a contra dance, while still adding the musical feel that folks look for in alternative music/techno contras."
He continues, "I later called an evening of dancing in Greensboro using sets that dJ improper had put together and sent to us. Overall, the energy level seemed significantly lower than it does at a regular dance. At the same time, it was also a significantly smaller group (probably around 30 people) than our regular dances. I had some people tell me afterwards that they had a really good time, but then had others who commented that they felt much less connection between the dance and the music. I definitely felt the reduced connection between the dance and the music, which made the calling somewhat less satisfying than it usually is (whereas with a good band, the synergy between the music and the dance can frequently be so amazing). Because of the disconnect between the phrasing of the dance and the phrasing of the music, calling for the dance definitely seemed like it was more work than it usually is, since I was having to do a lot more to keep the dancers with the music--particularly so when the phrasing was not always clear, and I didn't have any way to confirm whether we were on or off the phrase when it wasn't clear."
"Finally, I called two dances with dJ improper there live. First, the Club Contras dance in Greenwood, VA, and then the Contra Sonic dance. In both cases, it was definitely nice to be able to focus on calling and not have to also be planning what tune sets were going to work with what dances. It was also great to have someone there who knew the tune sets, and also someone who could confirm that we were, indeed, where I thought we were in the music (not only that, but who could adjust the music to get music and dance back in sync with each other if we got separated. It was still trickier than usual to keep up with whether we were on the phrase or not (probably mostly because I wasn't as familiar with the music as I am with most regular contra dance music), which meant I was having to do a lot more thinking than usual."
"One of the things that I really enjoy about calling is the interaction and collaboration with the band to create the best experience for the dancers. As a result it was really nice, having someone to work with--someone who knew the music and could match tune sets to dances (rather than trying to deal with the DJing duties along with calling). It definitely also made a big difference to have a somewhat more experienced group of dancers as well."
"As far as dancing at alternative music contras, other than the two partial dances that I was able to snag at the Contra Sonic dance with dJ improper, my experience has mainly been limited to dancing to Eileen Thorsos' electrotrad sets, which I've had mulitple chances to dance to. I found more of that connection with the sets that Eileen has put together than I do to the more 'traditionally techno' music that dJ improper uses, but I also had a much easier time connecting the music and the dance at the Contra Sonic dance than I (and the dancers) did in Greensboro for the dance with prerecorded sets."
When I ask him specifically about these differences, Jack replies, "I think that the biggest difference was, indeed, in the amount of advance preparation required. When I was working with prerecorded sets, I had to spend a fair bit of time trying to familiarize myself with the sets to get an idea for the feel of the sets, and also to be aware of parts of the set where the phrasing (or lack of it) might be problematic for the dancers (or for me). While it was definitely nice to have someone actually there to work with, and to have someone else who was choosing the sets, a live DJ didn't make as much difference as I had thought it might to the flexibility of the sets themselves. Generally dJ improper only had one actual track change over the course of each dance, which meant that there was less ability to tweak things to match the dance than I had thought that there might be (more on my thoughts about that later). At the same time, he was able to quickly and easily shift to the top of the tune if the dance went 'off the rails' and had to be gotten back on, and was able to shorten or lengthen the end of each set to end at the optimal moment."
He continues, "One of the things that I really love about calling is the interaction with a good band--at its best, there is two way interaction on all three legs of a triangle formed by the dancers, the band and the caller, and all of those interactions feed on and feed each other. In the current incarnation of DJ'd music for contras, the interaction between the music and the dancers and to a large extent, between the caller and the music is still lacking."
"When I'm working with a band that I've worked with multiple times before, I have a good idea of the style of sets they are going to have, and what the best way to describe the dance that I'm going to call, or the feel that I'm looking for. I suspect that with more experience working with dJ improper, we would figure out some of that in time. The one thing that someone who is playing at least mostly preset tracks (rather than doing mashups and adding beats and such live) can't do, though, is react to the dancers, or tweak a tune/set so that it locks in with the dance. I think if there was one thing that I could wish into techno DJing for contra dances, it would be that more was done with adding beats to a track (or taking them out, or otherwise tweaking the music based on what is going on on the floor). I think that's one of the exciting things about folks like Double Apex and Firecloud. While I haven't gotten a chance to work with Julie Vallimont on a techno style dance, when I called an acoustic-style dance with her recently, I did get a chance to talk to her about what they do, and am really excited about the potential that this could offer."
"One of the things that I think I have gotten a feel for, is the types of dances that will work for DJ'd techno and the ones that won't work as well. For the music to be able to carry the dance forward, and for the dance to stay with the music (and allow the caller to drop out) the dances have to be, on average, simpler, lower piece-count (fewer moves per phrase of music) than can generally be done with a live band. This is mainly because even when techno-style music can be made to fit contra dancing, it is still not as structured as the music that the dances were written to go with. Keeping to simpler, generally flowier dances, though, can work really well and create an experience that works all around. It's here that I really see the advantage to approaches (like what Julie is doing live and like the sets that Eileen has put together) that combine some elements of traditional music (in particular, the melodic content and phrasing of the music) and some elements of techno (heavy percussion, electronica, and non-traditional instrumentation, among others.)"
During the dance, Jack and dJ improper headed into the crowd and did some dancing as well as DJing/calling. "I definitely enjoyed myself, but also definitely noticed that the energy of the dancing was different. The particular dance I jumped in on wasn't one with a lot of 'all together now' moves like wavy lines or ring balances, which allowed the timing of the dance to be a bit 'squishier' than a dance with more whole set moves that feel best when they're done all together. I definitely found that I had to think less about the phrasing when I was dancing than I did when I was calling from the stage (which leads me to wonder whether it might not be a bad idea to call some of the dances from the floor with a headset microphone...)."
Given all that, then, where does Jack see this trend fitting into the tradition?
"I mostly see it as a separate thing, but at the same time, I think that it will definitely have an influence on the wider contra dance community, in the form of groups like Perpetual e-Motion, Firecloud, Giant Robot Dance, and others. Live music is something that I really think is integral to contra dancing as it currently is, and is one of the things that sets it apart from other types of dance, which are frequently done to recorded music (Modern Western Squares, international folk dance, swing dance, and others). Until very recently (and still for the most part) in general, if you hear that there's going to be a contra dance, the assumption is that there will be live music. I think that if the contra dance community were to lose live music as a primary component, that we would lose something important. There's something really magical in the connection between caller and musicians and dancers, and I would hate to see that go away. That being said, I like some of the experimentation that has come into that relationship, and think that there are things that a DJ can do artistically to be able to react to the goals of the caller, to the dance, the dancers and the moment and bring that sense of connection to what they're doing. Some of my dance musician friends might have serious disagreement with me on this, but I think that there is the potential for DJ's playing for contra dances, and for fusions of DJ'd and live musicians to develop more of the flexibility and connection that we expect in live music."
"As they are able to change and tweak the music they're playing (much the way 'traditional' live dance musicians would do taking a known tune and modifying it to bring that connection to the dance), what they are doing will develop more of the characteristics and flexibility of 'live music.' I also hope that more folks will experiment with the combination of live musicians and DJ'd music."
Jack Mitchell is based out of Durham, NC. He will be calling in Floyd, VA with Big Celtic Fun on April 14, 2012, and then at the Waynesville [NC] Contra Dance with Boom Chuck on April 22. He will be calling the contra dance at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC on April 30. On May 27, 2012, Jack will call the dance at Glen Echo with Terpsichore. Many thanks to him for sharing his thoughts!