I managed to catch up with Seth by phone early one morning on his commute to talk about that epic weekend.
“It’s a throwaway line, really. I use it a bunch,” he demurs, but then continues: “I guess, though...my feeling is the best callers, the job of the caller is to emanate joy.... If people are having a good time, it’s good.... Ultimately, contra dance is about having fun, and when people get overly concerned about getting it right and getting stressed out rather than having fun, that’s not good. So ‘balance and play’ serves as a reminder to have fun. I have a tee shirt that says, ‘Play is an act of creation without fear of consequence; dance is play set to music.’ When we remove our fear, we remove our worries and think of all we do as playful, then the dance is enhanced and people are having a better time.”
Speaking of playing, I asked Seth about the contra variants on contra dancing on his web site, Dance Rhapsody. “First off, I’m not particularly innovative or creative; what I do is that I take others’ ideas and twist them for my own nefarious means. Fred Park is actually the first caller than I knew of that did a blues contra, and I just took that idea and used it for me own. But mostly what I like, and what I know a lot of dancers like is variety...sometimes It can be nice to have a large change of pace.”
Seth explains that in blues dancing, the music is working with 12 bars, and it’s normally a slower form, but in contra there’s usually 16 bars so that makes the contra dances done in blues time shorter and generally simpler. “It’s a breath of fresh air, a different mood, and I think dancers really like that.” Seth continues that there are other contra dances written to match other types of music, for example meringue and swing tunes.
He also mentioned at one point trying to call a four-face-four dance to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and the challenges that posed as the meter changes into and out of waltz time in that tune. “That dance was not exactly the most successful, but the point is to keep experimenting with variety, trying everything. Sometimes things work, sometimes things don’t. But I think the dancers really appreciate the variety and changing it up.”
It seems hardly surprising, given this philosophy, that Chattaboogie 4 was actually not the first Chattaboogie installment he had called. “I called for Chattaboogie  in 2011 when Perpetual e-Motion and Waxwing played. It was fabulous, so why not do it again?”
“They decided they didn’t want Perpetual e-Motion to work so hard and shoulder the entire load, so they invited Double Apex to play as well...so that’s how that talent lineup came about.[The organizers] liked the idea that both were duos,...[and] I think they were excited that, ‘hey, Perpetual e-Motion were so cool, let’s do some more of that’ [by bringing in Double Apex] and draw even more of the same crowd, and there was a lot of buzz about these bands...they wanted to bring them to the Southeast.”
In addition, Julie Vallimont of Double Apex DJ’d a solo techno with her samples and tunes, resulting in an unusually electronic-music-heavy contra dance weekend.
Such an experience was not only a sampling of something different for the dancers, but it was also a bit different for Seth as a caller. “Well, the obvious thing is that sometimes the beat.. the phrase doesn’t match the phrase of the music, so you’ve got to be on your toes counting...that said, there have been plenty of bands I’ve worked with who aren’t used to working with contra dancing and they play tunes that aren’t square, or I’ve used recorded music and sometimes that music isn’t square, so you have to stay on your toes...it’s not difficult but sometimes you have to be aware that the phrasing may be different. That said, some of the better DJs mix the tunes so that they are square and that’s really nice. You’ve gotta count, and make sure that you’re counting, or be flexible to stay in time with the music.It’s really great when dancers can kind of groove out and forget the caller, but if the music doesn’t fit the phrase of the dance, then the dancers aren’t dancing together and the caller has to be aware of that and really work with it to keep the dancers as a unit even when they’re trancing out to the music and the lights.”
With all of that said, Seth has a rather nuanced view of the electronic infusion into contra dance.
“Even within the ‘techno contra’ world, there’s a lot of variety. You can go to the Durham[NC] area, you get the electrotrad stuff, and then you’ve got Perpetual e-Motion, which is doing the full gamut from traditional through old time, up through what happened at Chattaboogie where Ed was just riffing along with Julie while she was playing with the samples and such.... I love the variety. I love the fact that when you have recorded music, you have -- potentially, with a good DJ -- the entire universe of music at your fingertips...and Julie did a bit of that at Chattaboogie, where one moment you’ve got tribal beats going with African drums, and then the next moment you’ve got the latest pop songs that everyone has had in their heads and everyone sings along with it.... There’s something really powerful about people not only all dancing together on the floor but all singing together to a song that the majority of the people know; and you know, that’s wonderful. .At the same time, there is something lost when you don’t have live music. Live music is responsive and reflects the energy of the crowd, and reflects the musicians -- they can do little jokes or little turns within the music that are responsive to the moment in a way that a DJ is not. So I am definitely of mixed minds about it.”
Seth continues, “I’ve done a little bit of the Modern Western Square Dancing, which is done almost exclusively to recorded music; when you’re dancing Modern Western Square, it’s you and the caller. It’s a very different headspace; it’s a rush and I love it, but there is something soulful and community-encompassing that takes me out of myself and makes me realize I’m part of a larger whole when I’m dancing to live music and the community is dancing to live music. I’m still uncertain whether that ecstatic feeling of being larger than myself is specifically because of the live music or not. I mean, in techno you get this groove going and you’re moving together and you’re singing and you’re in some of that same space. I think techno contra is not going away,I think it’s here to stay, I think it’s its own thing and whether it will separate from the traditional contra or continue to be a parallel track intertwined with it, time will tell. I mean, Julie [Vallimont] is fully immersed in the techno contra world, as well as being in Nor’easter which is a traditional contra dance band; it’s this young band and powerful and strong and on the dance circuit and makes it clear that there’s room for both...I think both will continue and I hope that they continue to intertwine rather than going separate ways. They inform each other. I would love to do an evening of [alternative contras] from the era that I grew up in, or even that my parents grew up in...or an evening of Motown, that would be really cool!”
“The contra dance tradition is a folk tradition, it grows, it changes over time, and techno is part of that growth and change.... I really like what Double Apex does where they have both live and samples working together. I’d love to see more of that. I think live music is critical, I want to see it grow...and keep dancing, that’s the most important part.”
Seth Tepfer is based out of the Atlanta, GA area. This weekend (April 13-15, 2012) he will be calling the Bug Stomp in Charleston, SC with fellow caller Beth Molaro and bands Anna’s Bananas and the Great Bear Trio. April 27-29 he will be calling the Spring Dance Romance weekend near Danbury, NC, also with the Great Bear Trio, Land of Sky, and Louie Cromartie. He will also be calling for Dancing Bears in Wasila, AK with Cis Hinkle, Notorious, and Buckdancers’ Choice. June 24-30 will find him near Coeur d’Alene, ID with Nils Fredland and bands Dr. Groove and Elixir for the Lady of the Lake weekend, and then he will be leading the Callers’ Week Intensive at Cumberland Dance Week in Kentucky from July 15-21, 2012 (intensive limited to 12 enrollees). Seth’s web site can be found at www.DanceRhapsody.com. Special thanks to Seth for taking the time to share his thoughts!