- There seems to be more of a focus on talent that uses live music mixed with recorded sounds, such as the May 2 "Something Special" Contra Sonic event with dJ improper and a brass section, Firecloud, Electro Bow (Ed Howe and Julie Vallimont's collaborative team now has a name!) and Phase X.
- Techno contras are coming to major weekends (e.g., Electro Bow at NEFFA, Firecloud officially at The Flurry) as well as smaller ones. For me, this feels like techno contra has "arrived" and become more of an accepted part of the contra community.
- Regular techno contra series have lately seemed to give way to special-event-based formats, with more planning and finessing going into more infrequent installments.
- Some other bands (such as Sax Scandal, with their beat track off of Christopher Jacoby's computer) have started to incorporate elements of recorded music into their repertoire as well, even in a non-techno-contra context, which I find really interesting.
The State of Techno Contra
Unsuprisingly, the techno contra scene has changed a bit in the last two years since I started Contra Syncretist. Some of the most notable updates follow:
Merits & Minuses of Medleys
One of the neat things to come out of the techno contra movement is a renewed focus on a medley format, in some form or another -- in other words, a less broken-up format in which the music is more continuous and the dances/partners change up independently of this, to more reflect a club-like atmosphere where the music continues all night without lulls between sets. I've heard of three main categories of this style of event as practiced in the contra dances and events I've been to, each with their own pros and cons. So, in no particular order....
One of the most fun things about the Contra Syncretist project is how, since the techno contras tend to be events rather than series (or series of individual events), people get really excited about them as this new special shiny thing. Take, for instance, musician Julie Vallimont talking about this year's (official!) Flurry Festival (Saratoga Springs, NY) techno contra, to be played by Firecloud:
"The main exciting thing for me is having a techno contra [officially] at the
Flurry for the first time, and making it welcoming and accessible to
everyone.... I like how in techno contra you can create the atmosphere and you can go outside yourself for a while (that's what [our] costumes are about).... We just want to have a good time and want people to dance and not want to stop, and maybe get in a trancey sort of place, make it feel like an afterparty, cool down and heat up all at the same time and have fun with everyone."
She continues, "We're going to be in the [Melita] Ballroom for the techno contra, so it'll be a little more intimate; we'd rather it be too crowded than too empty..... We've also got a four-person lighting team working on this event." She also mentioned that Firecloud will be debuting some new material, which is particularly cool since last October they added DJ Nanocannon (a.k.a. Andrew Hlynsky) to their lineup. "We’re trying to create an experience," says Julie, "but it’s ultimately the dancers who are going to show up and create the experience."
Hope to see some of you there...Steve and I will be there for at least part of the dance (it runs from 12:30 AM to 2:30 AM Saturday morning -- or does it still count as Friday night at that hour?), and of course we're going to be at the full Flurry Festival too, which promises to be lots of fun. Now, where did I stash that suitcase...?
Update, 2/14/2013: Edited quotation per Julie's request.
"Lead," "Follow," and Techno Contras
As someone who usually dances the follow's role, I've noticed something interesting and I'm not sure if my experience is unique or not: at most traditional contra evenings I go to, I might end up dancing lead (not switch, where we trade, but straight-up lead) once or twice in the evening, tops. When I've gone to techno contras, on the other hand, I've ended up dancing lead a bit more often. I'm not sure if this is a matter of there are fewer people at the average techno contra than the average traditional contra I've been to (and so it's more likely that there's a gender imbalance and more available people who dance the "lady" than the "gent" roles) or if something else is at work.
On the other hand, my partner, who usually dances lead, reports that he usually has zero problem finding partners and that they're usually lining up to dance with him and that the only time he ends up dancing follow is when he dances switch.
It is also worth noting that usually these dances where I've seen this are not billed as gender-free, so it may just be that I'm in a minority of women who are willing to lead (and hopefully do so reasonably competently). I've had several really fun dances as both a lead and as a follow (and plenty of fun ones dancing switch), so it's certainly not a complaint, merely a trend I've noticed. Maybe it's just that more people who dance the "lady" role end up at techno contras where we've headed (mostly the mid-Atlantic)?
Anyone else find this or see something I'm missing? Or, for that matter, find the opposite to be true?
Techno Contra and Marketing
_In a marketing class I once took, the professor talked about a "Marketing Mantra:"
_We've talked a lot on this blog about marketing crossover contra events to contra dancers, and some of the challenges that come with that. In fact, sometimes to get funding, crossover contra organizers have to frame it as an outreach project. This is all well and good (and generally seems to work), but what is the crossover contra community doing to actually make this an outreach opportunity to welcome more people into the fold?
_Terra Price talked some about how they did just that for last fall's Deca-dance event in Spokane, Washington, and it was apparently effective. On the other hand, I mentioned that to a would-be techno contra organizer while I was in Tennessee and she replied, "You mean advertise it to the gen pop [the general population]?!" while looking at me like I'd just sprouted an extra head and possibly a prehensile tail.
Contra dancers are a niche, and techno contra enthusiasts are a subset of that niche. There have been some really interesting stories coming from people who were DJs first and came into the contra scene second. And I -- as well as other dancers -- have successfully "converted" folks who originally thought contra sounded "too dorky" for them, once I actually
_One of the main tenets of modern marketing is to go to your target and bring them to you, rather than just waiting for them to stumble upon you. To do that, you convince the target that you offer a product that is either original, or is better than the one that already exists. Right now, the movement is focused on marketing itself as an alternative to contra. I think we need to go the other way, too, and present techno contra as an alternative to the club -- that is, somewhere to dance in a different way to the same music, rather than somewhere to dance the same way to different music, as you advertise it to contra dancers. Perhaps the folks in Miami and Saratoga Springs had the right idea, setting their events in taverns and (smokeless, at least in Florida) bars. Relocating the Contra Sonic series to Artisphere (a local arts facility) from Glen Echo Park did attract some new dancers. Having dances in churches and colleges and granges has attracted many people; could there be an untapped (and possibly underappreciated) market in taverns and clubs?
Spark in the Dark, Back to the Land, and the “Continuum of Experimentation:” George Marshall
When I found out that George Marshall had called for the Spark in the Dark series up in Massachusetts last spring, I was intrigued. George has been on the folk dance scene for many years and has called with and played in some iconic acoustic bands within it. As George puts it, “I started dancing at 15, I started calling in 1978, and I’m 53 now.” What would his view be of electronic music and a club-like atmosphere recently fusing with this dance scene, with which he has been involved for many years?
Jordy Williams’s name is one that has become synonymous with techno contras down in the Asheville contra community in North Carolina, as well as up and down the East Coast. His particular brand of techno contras are noted for including some of the sex appeal of the nightclub culture, rather than merely evoking that scene with the music and lighting as in a few other communities where these have taken root.
“I started organizing the first one in the spring of 2009,” he says. The first techno contra event he organized was on June 10, 2009 at the Asheville Contemporary Dance Studio. “It's a little hole in the wall in Downtown Asheville. We had about 70-80 people and it was completely stuffed. It was cool though cuz [sic] it was in a basement so it had low ceilings (which gave it a cool underground feeling) and mirrors lining one wall.”
“The first one was inspired by a small handful of poorly executed techno contras that left me wanting it done right.”
“One of the reasons I decided to get into dance calling, aside from my love of contra and related dance forms, was so that I could make a positive contribution to the advancement and evolution of the community, the ‘folk process,’” says Brian Hamshar. He is the resident caller and organizer of Club Contras, a monthly crossover contra series at Greenwood Community Center in Greenwood, VA (near Charlottesville).
So what gave him the idea to start the series, originally?
Techno contra is not just an East Coast phenomenon. Chelsea Co is the mastermind behind a techno contra at Fremont Abbey and the Binary Blackout in Seattle, Washington. She was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule and tell Contra Syncretist about her experiences organizing both events:
“One of my core motives in life is creative collaboration,” says Chelsea. “It is something that I feel allows individuals to come together to create a product that is vibrant, powerful and inspiring. A techno contra is one of the best instances that I have experienced such a creative collaboration. The DJ, the caller, the visual technician, the hall, and the dancers all come together to create an energy that thrives and pulses throughout everyone's body and soul and pushes us further towards euphoria. And that euphoria is one of the greatest gifts I have ever had the pleasure of giving to people!” She also admits that she was “fed up with the fact that the East Coast was having techno contras a plenty and the West Coast was barren! So I was sought to fix that immediately.”
This project has concluded as of mid-2013 (with an epilogue posted mid-2016) but we hope to see you soon on a contra dance floor! Meanwhile, head over to our Facebook page for upcoming techno contra events and other items of interest.
The 100+ Friday Flourish videos can still be found on YouTube.
I dance with abandon. I play with glowsticks. I look for music that is conducive to one or both. I play behind cameras. I write about all of the above. I'm based in Glen Echo's contra dance community outside of Washington, D.C., but I'm happy to go dance afield when I can. Lather, rinse, repeat. Always repeat.
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