"I went to Chelsea Co's Binary Blackout in 2010. It being my first alt contra, I was delighted to find the dorky folk dancing I knew and loved -- but strewn with glitter and infused with bass and rife with scandalous blues dips. I had been recently head-hunted by the Portland contra committee as a representative of younger dancers, and I decided we needed to get in on this Hot New Thing. Having no idea what I was doing, I asked Chelsea for tips on what worked and didn't, brought in the same caller and DJ, and invited all the Seattle dancers I could find to come down and show us how it was done."
How did the community react? Was there any pushback?
I asked her about whether she had experienced any resistance from the local musicians since the alternative contra icorporated recorded sound with the live in the choices of the DJ and, to a lesser extent, with Firecloud (in combination with the live sound)."I haven't heard that any of the local musicians felt like their livelihood was threatened by prerecorded music, and I likewise haven't heard any objections to the nature of the event -- the only criticisms so far have been from dancers expressing personal preferences about the amount of lights, volume of music, etc., which is par for the course in any organized event."
Megan also talked about things that she wanted to improve with this event, in contrast to the previous iterations. "The only thing that bugged me was that some dancers assumed it was geared entirely towards the younger crowd, and chose not to come -- either because the marathon-style, all-electronic format was too far out of context for them, or because they worried -- and this one really got to me -- that they weren't really invited to the 'hip young dancer' party. We held the most recent dance in our usual contra hall, and asked Firecloud to play (and Susie [Kendig] to call) partly because I knew it would help the whole community feel welcome. They managed to hit the sweet spot between novel and familiar."
She continues, "The venue I booked last year was a bit too small, and our usual dance hall is significantly bigger. I worried that it wouldn't have the cozy, intimate feel of the prior hall, but after we hit the fire code limit, I stopped worrying."
I then asked Megan about the biggest challenges in organizing the event. "It was much more work than I could have done alone. Luckily the event was funded and organized through the contra committee, and a finer group of people I could not ask to work with. I may have been the nominal mastermind, but the rest of the committee and a group of volunteers did 90% of the actual labor."
Taking a somewhat longer view, Megan sees alternative contras fitting into the contra dance tradition "every which way they can. It makes me grin to see beloved traditions evolve new limbs, and I think that variety only makes it stronger, more vibrant, and more accessible to all kinds of people. I love swooping elegantly across the floor, and listening to tunes that are hundreds of years old, and learning the names of dances written to honor people I may never meet. But I also love feeling, as one dancer put it, 'like I'm at a rave with my grandparents, and everyone is having the time of their lives.' I love that people who have painstakingly worked to preserve the living spirit of American folk dance will put on a pair of flashing blue horns and do-si-do to a techno breakdown of Eleanor Rigby."
Megan adds, "I feel lucky as all get-out to be part of this community -- contra in general, and Portland contra in particular. We boast craggy dudes in petticoats and musicians who play purple plastic trombones. The alt contra message of 'don't take yourselves too seriously' is heartily embraced around here. But we still need reminders to resist elitism and stagnation and all the other pitfalls that can make a dance community feel less alive. New things -- whether choreography, music, or flourishes -- provide that reminder. Keeps us on our toes, so to speak. It's like taking your partner of 40 years out on a spontaneous date to the carnival. If you're out out of your comfort zone while arm-in-arm with someone (or 200 someones) you love and trust, then you can laugh and yell and act like five-year-olds together, and it reminds you of how much you enjoy each other, and helps make the boring times and the disagreements easier to tolerate."
Contra Syncretist would like to thank Megan Emerson for sharing her thoughts!