SEE INSIDE Voices Fall-Winter 2015: Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt of “An Inside View of Contra Dancing in Brooklyn, 2015” by Jody Kruskal. JOIN the New York Folklore Society today to receive Voices.
Nightlife options have expanded in
Park Slope, as Brooklyn Contra
doubles its dance series nights this spring,
now offering two evenings every month
where you can “swing your partner” and
“do-si-do” to the latest live acoustic bands.
There is no beer, wine, or intriguing blue
cocktails, and yet, young folks are seeking
out Brooklyn Contra for a good time,
dancing together in a modest church
gym called Camp Friendship. Unlike the
noisy bars and clubs of the Big Apple,
conversation at this dance is actually
possible without shouting.
It’s been said that contra dancing is the
most fun you can have with your clothes on.
Brooklyn Contra is the latest addition
to a contra dance subculture that for over
half a century has been hidden in plain
sight among the glittering distractions of
New York City....
Contrashock Dance presented by Brooklyn Contra and CDNY, Camp Friendship Hall,
Brooklyn, Friday, September 18–20, 2015. Photo by Sam Segal. All other photos here by
Sam Segal are from the same event.
Today’s contra dancing has its roots
in the social dances of Europe. English
country dances became popular at the
court of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th
century.... The English
dances crossed over to France, where this
popular form of dancing in a long set of
partners first became known as contredance.
Pass through. Brooklyn Social: Contra Dance, Camp Friendship Hall, July 18, 2015, presented by Brooklyn Contra with the Brooklyn Arts
Council. Photo by Chloe Accardi. All other photos here by Chloe Accardi are from the same event.
Contra Dance in the US
French and English colonials brought
their dances to the New World, where
set dancing of all sorts became a popular
pastime.... As urban centers turned to
polka, ragtime, the Charleston, Swing, and
other newer dancing pleasures, isolated
areas in New England still danced the old
set, including contras, squares, and circle dances. In the latter half of the 1800s, the
national Grange farmers’ movement built
scores of large halls in small towns and
rural communities across the land. While
these were built primarily as venues for
the movement’s meetings, Grange halls
in New England became known for their
...The Country Dance
and Song Society (CDSS) was founded in
1915, as a national advocate for English
and American traditional dancing in the
United States. Brooklyn Contra, like most
contra dance organizations in the US
today, enjoys the benefits of membership,
as an affiliate of CDSS.
Long lines go forward and back. Photo by Chloe Accardi.
Contra Dancing Today
Contra dancers are not re-enactors—
they don’t wear frock coats and gowns.
Comfortable clothes for a vigorous activity are the norm. The men often wear shorts
or jeans and tee-shirts, while the women
mostly wear comfortable dresses, or tops
and skirts. Some men these days even
prefer to dance while wearing swirling
skirts or kilts.
Likewise, dance callers and musicians
are not simply recycling old dances and
tunes; new material is being written
and performed all the time.... Contra music today
might even include scatting vocals and
beat boxing, drum sets, synthesizers, and
looping techno electronics....
...Some dance communities feel strongly
about keeping the old mix of dance styles,
but here in New York City, it’s 100 percent
contra, or dancers grumble.
Strumbow Squeezeblow, consisting of Ross Harriss on guitar (strum), Bill Christophersen on fiddle (bow), Jody Kruskal on Anglo
concertina (squeeze), and Trip Henderson on harmonica (blow). From left to right, Bill, Trip, Jody, Ross, and Marco Brehm on bass. Photo courtesy of the author.
Contra Dance Basics
Three elements make up every contra
dance; the caller, the musicians, and the dancers. The basic structure is the longways
set for “as many as will.” Dancers take their
places standing across from their partners
in a long double line that starts at the top
of the set near the band and runs down
the hall to the bottom of the set....
In contra dancing, everyone is welcome.
are advised to arrive a half-hour early to
their first dance, because there is usually
a beginners’ walk-through taught by the
caller. That’s when they learn the basic
calls, patterns, and moves: balance and
swing, do-si-do, ladies chain, right hand star, and
a few others....
...Dance callers are
mindful of the beginners and pick easy
dances to start with. Then they progress to
more challenging dances over the course
of an evening.
continues to call the moves, reminding
everyone of what they are about to do.
As the dance repeats, the caller gradually cuts back on prompting....
After a few dances, beginners have learned
all the basics and can improve their dance
skills by gaining the finer points through
observation and experience.
At a good dance, folks are smiling and
playing around, skirts are flying, everyone’s
twirling, the dancers are sweaty, and the
band is hot. Clearly, contra dancing goes
beyond aerobic exercise and wholesome
community fun. It’s certainly wholesome,
but it’s also sexy.
and down the contra set has been called
“serial monogamy” by veteran dancer
Kathy Hieatt. At its core, contra dancing
provides a safe and public courting activity,
and it’s not uncommon to hear, “I met my
husband [wife, partner, lover] at the local
Ladies chain. Photo by Chloe Accardi.
Contra Dance Music
Hog Wild playing at a CDNY dance:
bands and callers pass through
regularly on tour, and there are also well
over a dozen local bands to choose from.
The bands play mostly traditional reels and
jigs. Improvisation is common and keeps things fresh through many repetitions
of a tune....
...The rhythmic, driving,
lilting tunes propel the dancers into each
other’s arms, defining the exact moment
for the next move and compelling them
to dance in perfect time. At its best, the
music can unify and electrify the room,
inspiring dancers to hoot and stamp with
Everybody swing. Photo by Chloe Accardi.
Most bands pick their tunes on the spot
with the advice of the caller. ... Callers might ask the
musicians for a variety of qualities for the next dance, such as fast or slow, bouncy
or smooth, rags, slinky tunes, or tunes that
have a marching feel...and the art of a dance musician is partly
defined by making excellent tune choices
As for the tunes themselves, there is a
distinct body of fiddle music thought of as
“New England tunes,” traditionally played
for contra dancing. Most contemporary
contra dance bands do not restrict
themselves to these old “chestnuts,” but
feel free to select from a wide-ranging
repertoire of ancient melodies.
Swing. Photo by Sam Segal.
Traditional tunes from England, Ireland,
Scotland, the Shetlands, Canada, and the
American North and South are all fair
game at a modern dance, as well as newly
composed tunes that might sweep across
the contra dance world every season or
two, sometimes written by the very people
who are playing them....
Swing. Photo by Sam Segal.
The Economics of Contra Dancing
Dancers pay about the price of a movie
ticket to attend. Musicians and callers are
usually paid something, but only a few
attempt to make a living wage at it....
The dance community could not exist
without the thousands of volunteers
who freely give their time and expertise
to promote contra dancing on local,
regional, and national levels....
...Brooklyn Contra is
one of the success stories that gives hope
to those who fear the demise of contra
dancing in the 21st century.
Brooklyn Dancing and Beyond
Brooklyn Contra began holding dances
in 2011; today 75 to 150 folks attend twice
a month. Located in Park Slope, it is the
newest regular contra dance series in New
York City and attracts a somewhat hipper
and younger crowd than the excellent weekly dance in Manhattan, which has been
held in the same West Village location for
more than 60 years and is run by Country
Dance New York. Another regular dance
series in New York City is Village Contra,
catering to the GLBT dancing scene and
their friends; you’ll see lots of men in kilts
and flowing skirts at that one. Another
popular Brooklyn dance—which presents
the older format of combining contra
dances with squares, mixers, circle, and
novelty dances—is run by Dave Harvey.
He calls it the NYC Barn Dance....
Jody Kruskal has been playing Anglo
concertina at local contra dances in New
York City since 1983. He plays at dances,
camps, and festivals across the US, and
travels yearly to England to sing vintage
American songs in folk clubs. He is a family
dance and wedding caller and has worked
extensively in elementary schools as a
teaching artist. You can dance to Jody’s
original tunes with his band Squeezology.
His other New York City contra dance
bands include Grand Picnic, Dance
Therapy, Strumbow Squeezeblow, the
Backyard Boys, Hog Wild, Jaybird, Dressed
Ship, Free the Reeds, Ten-Gallon Cat, and
the Thistle Biscuits—to name a few. Photo
of the author by Jeff Bary.
Note: This article was written with the
support of the Brooklyn Arts Council Folk
Feet series. Editorial assistance is gratefully
acknowledged: from Christopher Mulé,
Kathy Hieatt, Dudley Laufman, Tony
Parkes, Beverly Francis, Tom Phillips, and
This excerppt here is of an article that appeared in Voices Vol. 41, Fall-Winter 2015. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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