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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.
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Volume 41
Fall-Winter
2015
Voices

An Inside View of Contra Dancing in Brooklyn, 2015 by Jody Kruskal

[EXCERPT]

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.
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.

Early History

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.
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 regular dances....
...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.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.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. ...Beginners 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....
Beginning Dancers

...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.

...The caller 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.
Getting Sexy

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.

...Dancing up 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 contra dance.”
Ladies chain. Photo by Chloe Accardi.Ladies chain. Photo by Chloe Accardi.

Contra Dance Music

Hog Wild playing at a CDNY dance:


...Out-of-town 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 delight.
Everybody swing. Photo by Chloe Accardi.
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 under pressure....

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.
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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.
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
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 Bill Christophersen.


USEFUL WEB LINKS

Brooklyn Contra: www.brooklyncontra.org

Country Dance New York: cdny.org

Village Contra: www.villagecontra.org

Dave Harvey’s NYC Barn Dance: www.nycbarndance.com

The Country Dance and Song Society: www.cdss.org

Jody Kruskal: www.jodykruskal.com




Swing. Photo by Chloe Accardi.
Swing. Photo by Chloe Accardi.



Gypsy. Photo by Sam Segal.
Gypsy. Photo by Sam Segal.



Twirling. Photo by Sam Segal.
Twirling. Photo by Sam Segal.






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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