So what gave him the idea to start the series, originally?
who was an experienced contra dancer and knew about the basic requirements
of music form, was a crucial kickstart that allowed Club Contras to get off the
ground in very little time.”
Brian continues, “I was acutely aware from my first exposure to techno contra that there are some unique challenges involved in selecting club music that is not only intensely fun to listen and move to but also highly ‘danceable.’ Most club music is not particularly ‘phrased’ and not set at an ideal tempo for folk dancing, and we had observed how this fact sometimes resulted in chaos on the dance floor. We made it one of our missions to optimize the mating of dances and carefully chosen musical selections, and we know that there would be some trial and error involved. I decided at the outset to make our new series about once a month, which seemed about the right interval for reviewing the results and developing strategies to make the next one better while not losing too much momentum. Club Contras was initially a family project with house DJ Solar Sound and myself calling, was also a dollars and cents decision. After all, we could (and did) decide that we were willing to not pay ourselves initially if necessary in order to keep the series alive long enough to see it mature. And we did make great strides in four months. I think that early learning curve was hastened because of the continuity of the two-brother team. At the same time, having something be essentially the same over and over is not a good way to grow the movement, and I recognized that downside very quickly in terms of attendance being less than hoped. I'm looking forward to having a variety of callers and musicians next fall -- I like to dance techno too!”
Another challenge has been learning how best to pace the evening. “We started out programming a number of single dances followed by several medleys, each with four to six dances and music running continuously for up to 45 minutes. We've learned, however, that optimal dancer energy is achieved when the medleys are shorter and fewer but the downtime between dances is briefly and ideally features some music to maintain the mood while people run for their water bottles. My method has been to program the single dances first (when most of the teaching occurs) and ask Clayton to assemble music for each with a certain tempo/style (e.g. first two dance moderate tempo with strong phrasing, third dance slower to accommodate heys, next one can be faster). For the medleys I leave it to the DJ's discretion but specify some general parameters. For example, I ask that each dance within the medley be about 5-7 minutes, that there be some noticeable style change and tempo change to accompany each choreography change, and that the music just after a transition be very rhythmic and have no vocals. With luck I receive mp3s of the songs to be used several days before the dance -- just the songs, not premixed, as the actual mixing is done live and can be tweaked in real time in response to actual dance floor conditions. I listen to the medleys and plan out some possible dances for each segment, sometimes setting down the entire program in advance depending on how much time I have. This process naturally will be a bit different for other DJs, and my guest callers will probably have their own style. There are even some talented people who do it all -- call dances to music mixes they have prepared or obtained in advance.”
"Brian also learned from Contra Sonic in Washington, DC: “A lot of learning has occurred within both groups, both separately and through sharing of knowledge. The remaining challenges include resisting any tendency to play music too fast too much of the time, which causes dancers to fall behind and makes the dancing sloppy and unsatisfying. Whenever the time comes that I book a different caller (or DJ), I will likely insist that they collaborate on music in advance just as we do, simply because this music genre is trickier than folk or rock music, providing unique challenges and opportunities both. I think there's general agreement on that; to my knowledge all Contra Sonic callers have done so, including Nils Fredland and Will Mentor, who are renowned callers at the top of their game.”
There have been other challenges as well to organizing Club Contras:
“Well, first of all, club style music calls for a different personality in the dance hall. We use colored lights at a reduced level plus special lighting effects such as moving LED displays and, most noticeably, black lights. Likewise, we try to keep the music playing longer to better approximate a club atmosphere as opposed to, say, a folk or bluegrass concert - thus use of some dance medleys, which is a value decision we made that is regularly revisited/adjusted. Also, I needed to acquire an ASCAP/BMI license to utilize copyrighted recordings at our dances. These are actually organizer issues; I include them because I personally fill that role as well as currently calling the dances.”
Meanwhile, “The caller has to program the evening's dances more conservatively than for a regular contra. Dances that are part of a medley later in the evening must be simpler so that they can be accomplished successfully without walk-through. This is especially true because we do not limit our series to advanced dancers, and we do in fact have some beginners each and every time. But for the most part, all of the dances have to be fairly simple and forgiving because a lot of the music we use has vague phrasing and overall faster tempo than we typically expect from a dance band. All of this means greater potential for things to go awry on the dance floor. The caller has to take responsibility to count through the music whenever there is any doubt about phrasing so the dancers don't have to, and must be prepared to supply certain calls, abbreviated, throughout the dance if the music is tricky and timing is crucial for dancer success. If a few dancers do manage to get out of timing, the ‘trouble spot’ can spread really quickly, and the caller must be vigilant to catch them early. And yes, all this has most definitely sharpened my skills and given me more confidence when calling traditional dances.”
Brian also mentioned that calling for Club Contras has affected his calling for traditional contras in that he didn’t expect to pay as much attention to tempo as he now does.
“Also, I've been amazed by how much joy and energy I see on the dance floor at our techno contra even if the crowd is pretty small (as few as 30), certainly better than the average traditional contra with a similar number of dancers. I believe the continuous medleys are partly responsible for that. The medley is a great tool for a small crowd that gives the caller an alternative to the usual choice between shortening dances (which interrupts the energy) or having the dancers do the same things with all the same neighbors several times (which will start to seem boring to many dancers). On the other hand, we've found that the ideal length for these dance medleys is not very much longer than the customary dance length, maybe 15-20 minutes tops, because the dancers do need to hydrate and rest a bit after all the exertion. We don't want the hardcore dancers to have to consider leaving the set (and miss out on dancing) to drink water, or worse yet, be tempted not to hydrate!”
So how has the response been so far?
“My initial announcement of this project in January was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Sure, a few people were not in favor of the concept and choose not to participate at all, and I respect that. By and large, the individuals who help run the dances in this area have been supportive in the sense that they would like to see this series succeed and help the overall contra community here to remain vibrant. Paul Rosen made a revision to [the Central Virginia Contra Dancers’] website to accommodate Club Contras. Will Martin and Jim Creegan have eagerly made themselves available for sound support. My colleagues on the boards of our Friday and Sunday dances (ACCDSS and Contra Corners, respectively) have been cooperative with the logistics of securing additional access to the dance venues, and of course have helped to publicize our events. All of the actual planning for Club Contras has been mine. At the present time, I personally handle the building rental agreements for all of the area contra dances, so that has been pretty straightforward.”
As for the dancers, “The response has been enthusiastic. The actual attendance has varied. My current theory about that is, in the Charlottesville region, a majority of dancers are accustomed to looking forward to a high quality dance on a Sunday at the Greenwood Community Center, as opposed to a Friday or Saturday or at our downtown dance venue (Municipal Arts Center). We have experimented with various permutations of day of week and location. The premiere Club Contra (Sunday, January 30 at Greenwood) was the best attended so far, about 80. The others ranged from maybe 30 to 50.”
“A couple of months ago I decided that we could use a bigger event to act as a fundraiser to help sustain the series (which receives no financial backing from any organization...just me) and hopefully expose more dancers to a positive, fun experience with techno contra. Thus Contra-phoria was born. The first of a hopefully recurring series of day-long dance parties will be held on Memorial Day featuring Perpetual e-Motion with a two hour techno contra in the middle (right after dinner). Plans are already being sketched out for the next full day event in a few months.”
Before press time, DJ Solar Sound left the Club Contras project. However, Brian says the series is still alive and well and will continue on:
“My intention from the beginning was for Club Contras to evolve into a real dance series, with a variety of music and callers, not just be a recurring dance with me calling and DJ Solar Sound every time. I did program the initial half season that way (January-May) mainly to test the waters and keep my financial exposure down since both of us were okay with being paid little to nothing. For the full 2011-12 season I always intended to invite others to call and several DJs in rotation.”
Brian is still debating whether to hold Club Contras over the summer, or just start up again in the fall given that “it's not typical in central Virginia, which could be either good or bad,” given that it’s not on anyone's mind out of habit, but then again there might be “higher than usual enthusiasm from people needing a dancing fix."
Brian adds, "For the 2011-2012 season, First Sundays at Greenwood will be the home of Club Contras. After Memorial Day we will take a breather for part of the summer but will resume sometime between August and October, There will be several different regional callers and DJs presenting a variety of music ranging from techno to 'electro-pop', 'electro-trad' and even disco for your dancing pleasure. Check out our website or Facebook page for updates."
In the meantime, though, there is Contra-phoria on May 30 with Perpetual e-Motion and Washington, DC’s dJ improper, which will be a great kickoff to summer for the Mid-Atlantic region!