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Math, Music and Contra Dance

by Lena Erickson

lena ericksonI first heard about contra dance at a small math conference in Northfield, Minnesota during the summer of 2013 when a graduate student described the connection between contra dance and permutation groups. Contra dance, a type of partnered folk dance, involves people dancing in two lines facing each other or in groups of four. If the participants of a contra dance are each labeled with a number, with n being the total number of dancers, then their most basic interactions during the contra dance can be represented as permutations on the set of numbers one through n.

norman, OK contra dance_miranda arana_cropped

Norman, OK, contra dance, December 2014 (Miranda Arana)

 

A permutation, put simply, means a reordering of members of a set, so a permutation of the dancers is a function that moves the dancers to other dancers’ positions, like two people swapping places (e.g. gents’ allemande), a group of four people circularly moving in a full rotation (e.g. circle left), or no one changing position (i.e. the identity permutation). If you combine these functions, adding one small dance step to another, you’re composing permutations, which is the operation that defines the algebraic structure known as a permutation group.

norman, OK contra dance 2_miranda arana

Norman, OK, contra dance, December 2014 (Miranda Arana)

This link to mathematics brings something special to contra dance: it evokes a feeling of connection to the universe at large. Permutation groups themselves are only yet a subset of the set of reflection symmetries, which has applications anywhere symmetry is present: in the structure of a snowflake, in the arrangement of atoms in a molecule, and even in the transpositions and inversions in Bach’s Art of Fugue, which are precisely the symmetries of a dodecagon. Math is deeply and richly tied to music and dance, and my knowing that the movement of our bodies in dance symbolized a greater relationship between elements brought an almost spiritual aspect to my experience of contra dance.While the mechanics of the dance were explainable by the mathematical structures I’d previously come to understand, the experience itself involved so much more: a sense of community, an interaction with people normally distanced, and the exhilarating act of applying these abstract concepts I’d learned to movement in the physical world, with music playing and bodies moving all around me.

Lena Erickson is a senior at Oklahoma University in Norman, OK, majoring in math.

Our thanks to CDSS member Miranda Arana who sent us Lena’s essay. She teaches Introduction to World Music for non-music majors at OU.

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Categories: American Dance, Beginning Dancers, Contra Dance, Dance Callers, English Dance, Features & Fun, Folk Dance, Guest Posts, Math, Math & Science, Morris Dance, Musicians, Rounds, Song, Square Dance | + Leave a comment »

Southwest Regional Organizers Conference (SWROC): From Conference to COALITION

by Linda Henry, CDSS Outreach Manager

Here’s a glimpse of history-in-the-making for dance communities throughout the Southwestern U.S…

SWROC group photoOn September 19, 2014, an enthusiastic crowd of 78 dance organizers from the Southwest (AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, OK, TX, UT) and beyond (MA, TN) converged at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. They represented contra, English country, square, and gender-neutral dance communities. Whether they had met at regional dance weekends or were total strangers, their shared passion for dance organizing sparked conversations from the minute they arrived.

SWROCthreewomen_leithThe weekend was packed with pertinent workshop sessions covering three over-arching areas: Strengthening Your Organization, Improving Your Dance, and Growing the Market. For further glimpses of the program, follow these links to the schedule, session descriptions, workshop leaders, and archived materials from all sessions.

Beyond the structured sessions, participants enjoyed sharing meals, making new connections, and dancing together both evenings. Friday night we created an all-conference dance with calling and music by the participants, and on Saturday we swelled the ranks at the NM FolkMADS dance in Albuquerque.

SWROCdance1_leithAn especially pivotal discussion happened during a session called “Crossing the Border: Connecting groups within each state and throughout the region.” With the help of Wendy Graham’s skillful facilitation, twenty participants brainstormed ways to start collaborating about booking bands and callers, etc.

The session culminated with a BIG lightbulb moment that led to plans for a ground-breaking pilot project. This group will collaborate to create a tour for a well-known band to play for two consecutive dance weekends and travel from one event to the other, offering house concerts and workshops as they go. This type of tour has never happened in the Southwest and will open doors for bringing a new stream of talent to the entire region!

The group decided to keep the SWROC acronym and simply change the word “conference” to “coalition”. This outcome is exactly what CDSS hopes to make possible through supporting regional conferences like this.

SWROCcirclemixer_leithAs the conference came to a close, we did a circle mixer that ended with finding our own “trail buddy.” We talked in pairs about specific ways we’ll be supporting each other to strengthen our home dances by using resources from the weekend. A parting circle left us feeling energized by the exponential ripple effect it will have. These 78 participants are now bringing new resources, connections and energy to all their dance communities that each have 50-100+ members, reaching over 5,000 people!

I’ll end by thanking the MANY people who made SWROC possible. Members of the Steering Committee and Program Committee spent countless hours putting all the pieces into place. So here is a BIG THANK YOU to Ron and Linda Nieman, Nate Puffer, Annie Laskey, Erik Erhardt, Lisa Bertelli, Jeff Spero, and Michael Barraclough. We also greatly appreciate coordinator Deb Brunt and all Albuquerque volunteers who handled the local logistics.

We also thank the other co-sponsoring organizations (New Mexico Folk Music & Dance Society and Phoenix Traditional Music & Dance) and seven additional dance groups that helped organizers from their communities attend this conference.

For more information, see the SWROC website and visit this link for glimpses of previous conferences co-sponsored by CDSS. Questions? Contact Linda Henry, CDSS Outreach Manager.

P.S. Registrations are now open for the next conference. Puttin’ On the Dance 2: Hands Across the Border will be held on March 20-22, 2015 in Ottawa, ON. Information about registration and much more is available on the POTD2 website.

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CDSS Midwest Camp Task Group Survey

The CDSS Midwest Camp Task Group (MCTG) was established by the CDSS Board at its annual meeting in April 2012 to explore the feasibility of establishing a summer camp focusing on traditional dance, music and song in the center of the continent.  We want to reach out to new audiences and offer a program, in addition to our East Coast offerings, to CDSS members and non-members that is accessible and fun. CDSS is very interested in exploring models and partnerships to bring this idea to life as part of our mission to spread the joy of traditional dance, music and song through camp programs.

The initial discussions of the MCTG included representatives from Michigan, Ontario, Iowa, New Mexico and Minnesota and involved developing criteria that could be used to define prospective camp facilities. At the same time, we made some assumptions about what we thought would be the best program to suit a wide audience for a week-long adult summer camp. Because the discussion continued to raise questions about what the optimum program and setting would be, we decided to ask our greatest asset for their opinions, and that would be you!

The purpose of this survey is to gather information regarding preferences related to programming of a week-long event, and to determine if there is an appetite as well as community support for another camp in an environment where there are already many competing events. The information gathered in this survey will be used in developing a business model and plan to bring this camp to fruition if the results indicate widespread interest and support for such a camp. A summary of the data and findings will be shared on the CDSS website.

We hope that you’ll take the time to complete our survey and give us your ideas.  Here’s the Link!

Please feel free to share this email with others in your community who you think may not be on the CDSS email list.

Thank you so much!

Bev Bernbaum, Michael Hamilton & Nikki Herbst
Market Survey Subgroup of the Midwest Camp Task Group

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How to Photograph a Contra Dance

by Doug Plummer

Doug Plummer is well known in the dance community nationwide as that guy who takes all the dance photos and videos and puts them all over Facebook and in a calendar. Since 2012 he has self-published the Contradance Calendar, a premium wall calendar that captures the best contra dance moments from around the country. To get a 2015 calendar, support the Kickstarter campaign for it, which is live from now until September 11, or buy one from the CDSS store come November.

South Coast Folk Society contra dance at Green Acres Grange Hall, Coos Bay, OR

South Coast Folk Society contra dance, Green Acres Grange Hall, Coos Bay, OR, 2014 (Doug Plummer)

There is no such thing as a photograph of a contra dance. The only thing we can capture is a moment in a dance. So the first thing is to identify that: a moment that might be captured.

Actually, let’s back up. The first thing is to identify how we feel at a given moment. When we dance, we go through a series of fleeting emotions. There’s the cordial greeting of a hands four. There’s the ramp-up anticipation of a balance. The connection of an allemande. The dramatic feeling of a wall of you convening and receding in a great long line. The delight of a new neighbor. The alarming stare down contest of a gypsy. The consummation of a lovely, long swing with your beloved partner, until you dump her for the next dance.

Contra dance, AmWeek, Jones Gulch YMCA Camp, CA.

Contra dance, Bay Area CDS’s American Week, Jones Gulch YMCA, La Honda, CA, 2014 (Doug Plummer)

When you watch a dance, those moments and feelings have physical expressions. There are bodies in contact and in connection that you can isolate and capture. That is the reason to have a camera at a dance—to more deeply connect with those significant, fleeting moments full of feeling, and to maybe stop and hold one.

So, given that, what do you do to take a photograph that holds all that ambition? The first trick is to watch for just a single moment that you emotionally connect with. Shoot only that. Thirty-two beats later, it comes around again. Keep whacking away. How you feel inside is your signal that you might be getting closer.

Here is maybe the most important advice to becoming a better photographer. Don’t stare at the back of your camera at what you just did. Don’t pay any attention to the results of your shooting. It only takes you away from the moment. All that investment in getting connected with the dance, with the dancers, with the beat and rhythm and the energy surrounding and carrying you away—look at the screen for longer than a second and you’ve left the room. It takes great effort to reenter. Edit when you get home.

Another tip: get close. Get within elbow dodging range. Make people know you’re there. Be engaged with them. If someone doesn’t want you there, you’ll feel it and you can adjust. But that rarely happens. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t feel you have to be a wallflower in order not to be one. Everyone notices the person trying to photograph unobtrusively. If you’re in the middle, you disappear.

The first thing I tell my workshop students is, go forth and fail. You have great aspirations to capture the perfect moment, and mostly you won’t. That’s part and parcel of the creative process. You flail and you fail again and again, and then, you get a glimmer of something that’s starting to work, and you chase that and see if you can do it again. It doesn’t matter a whit what kind of camera you use. The process of creative growth doesn’t care.

Wasatch Wiggle, Utah

Wasatch Wiggle, Salt Lake City, UT, 2013 (Doug Plummer)

Photography, especially in the digital age, is an act of great profligacy. That’s not to say that you shoot indiscriminately and without intention. Just the opposite. It takes a great deal of attention and effort to stay deeply connected with the moment, and from that connection comes the urge to click the shutter. It might happen a lot of times in a few seconds, particularly in the complex, dynamic environment of a contra dance hall, as a feeling hits. I rarely come away from an evening of photographing a dance with fewer than two or three hundred exposures. And I don’t sit out that many dances.

And when you do sit at your computer that night, posting on Facebook? Don’t post the two dozen variations of a single move that are pretty good. Post only the best one. The fewer shots you post, the better photographer people think you are. And it indeed makes you a better photographer.

This article is in the Fall 2015 issue of the CDSS News in both print and online versions.

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Southwest Organizers Conference—important deadlines!

by Linda Henry, CDSS Outreach Manager, on behalf of the SWROC Steering Committee

Dear Dance Organizers,

copy-ann-large-extendedIn case you haven’t heard the news, CDSS is co-sponsoring the Southwest Regional Organizers Conference (SWROC) that’s coming right up on Sept 19-21, 2014 in Albuquerque, NM. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to gather with dance organizers from across the SW and bring lots of new resources, connections and energy back to your home community!

Here are some IMPORTANT deadlines…

August 5 is the last day to register for the early bird rate. Please visit this link and register soon! After this date, the fee will go up to $100. Scholarships are still available, and here are other ideas to help pay your way.

August 19 is the date the $68 hotel discount rate will increase to market price. Only a limited number of rooms are available for the conference, and hotel rooms are beginning to fill. We have no guarantee of room availability after this date, so please finalize your plans and make a reservation soon! (See Lodging info included in registration info.)

The SWROC Program Committee has lined up a skilled and enthusiastic team of session leaders. They’ll be providing many resources and tools to help strengthen our dance organizations, increase attendance, encourage youth participation and much more. Visit the Program info on the website for a list of session topics and leaders.

This weekend will also offer plenty of chances for talking shop, sharing stories, dancing and having fun with fellow organizers. It’s the first of its kind in the Southwest corner of the U.S and is SURE to impact dance communities throughout the region for years to come!

Got questions? Please contact the SWROC Steering Committee at swrocinfo@gmail.com or call 480-893-3328.

Know any dance organizers in the Southwest? Please refer them to the SWROC website and invite them to come. For glimpses of other conferences co-sponsored by CDSS, visit this link.

We hope to see you in Albuquerque in September!

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To dance, to sing, perhaps to play music

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photo by Jeff Bary

Can you make difficult class choices? Say, from an enticing menu of contras, squares and waltz? Are you up for a strong program of Appalachian, American Southern and Irish traditions? Can you take contras morning, noon and night? If your answer is “Just try me!” then CDSS’s American Dance and Music Week, August 9-16, 2014, at Pinewoods Camp is for you, whether you do it ALL or take a more leisurely approach.

We’ll have two daily stretching sessions to keep you loose and limber, morning contras and waltz to wake you up, and afternoon squares and more challenging contras to spice up the mix. And more dancing in the evening too. Can’t dance all day? Not a problem. Bring your instruments and your voices because this week promises a full program of music classes and more, and you’ll be able to play and sing with your heart and soul. Want even more choices? How about getting messy and creative with paper, paint, glue and who-knows-what else in the daily community art class? Or sit on the porch or swim, jam or nap. Hmmm.

There will be a wealth of talent to inspire and encourage you, and there will be friends, old and new, all under the pine trees in a beautiful wooded setting near Plymouth, MA. Join Program Director Sue Rosen, and experience American Dance and Music Week.

See the class schedule, class descriptions or staff list, learn about Pinewoods Camp or about our other summer weeks. And here’s info about fees and scholarships.

This is an amazing week—vibrant and relaxing, both. Not a bad choice, huh? See you there!

Sue Rosen has been dancing all of her life and attended her first callers workshop at Campers’ Week at Pinewoods in 1989. Since then she’s become one of New England’s favorite callers and has written contras that have become part of the standard repertoire of dance callers across the country and overseas.

Pinewoods Camp, near Plymouth, MA, and home to the Country Dance and Song Society’s programs since 1933, is a beautiful setting, creating a retreat where you can immerse yourself in nature, music and dance; see a slideshow of the facility.

The Country Dance and Song Society is a traditional dance and music organization, celebrating its Centennial in 2015.

 

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Lifetime Contribution Award for 2014 goes to…

LCA_jim morrison

Jim Morrison

 

Jim Morrison of Charlottesville, VA, will be this year’s recipient of the CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award.

Jim brought youthful enthusiasm and strong connections to emerging contra, morris and sword dance movements when he started work for CDSS in late 1970. Serving as National Director from 1975 to 1977, he then continued as part time Artistic Director after moving to Virginia. Jim & Marney MorrisonIf you have danced Jack’s Health, Young Widow, late night Kerry sets, or played Puncheon Floor or Buck Mountain, his influence was there. Jim wrote 24 Early American Country Dances (CDSS, 1976,) founded the Greenwich and Albemarle Morris Men, and has recorded five albums of traditional dance music. An early family week advocate, creator of American Week at Pinewoods, and multi-genre dance fiddler, Jim has continued throughout his half century career to teach and play for contra, square, English, morris, sword, flatfoot, and Irish set dancing all over North America. We are delighted to honor him this year. Details about the award presentation will be announced later this year.

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Are You Committed to Dance Organizing?

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Gaye Fifer, dance organizer extraordinaire

Then our special Dance Organizers Course is for you. Led by Gaye Fifer and held during CDSS’s English & American Dance Week at Pinewoods (EAP), August 23-30, 2014, the course is designed for people involved in organizing their home dance community—contra, square, English, adult or family. Two one-hour sessions will be held each afternoon to discuss and strategize about issues that affect local dances. Sharing, questioning, collaborating and connecting will be our watchwords as we interview guest speakers from the EAP staff, create solutions to problems, brainstorm, practice and give feedback. We’ll create a network of support and a toolkit of ideas that each participant can take home. You’ll have fun, learn a lot and your local community will benefit. And for the rest of the day and evening, the wonderful resources of English & American Dance Week are yours.

English dance at E&A Week, Pinewoods Camp, MA

English and American Dance Week, home this summer to Dance Organizers Course (Doug Plummer)

If you know people in your community who are “up and coming” leaders, send them this message and link; the course is also useful to people wanting to start a dance. Scholarship help is still available.

MORE INFO
daily schedule
class descriptions
staff list
fees
scholarships
more info about the course
our other weeks

Ready to join in the organizing? Register here.

Course leader Gaye Fifer has been calling at dance weekends for many years. Her pleasant style and graceful teaching put dancers at ease and set the stage for a great dance experience. She has also taught numerous waltz workshops at virtually every dance weekend in the East and travels whenever she gets the opportunity. Gaye has a passionate interest in organizing to support dance community leaders and organizers.

Pinewoods Camp, near Plymouth, MA, and home to the Country Dance and Song Society’s programs since 1933, is a beautiful setting, creating a retreat where you can immerse yourself in nature, music and dance; see a slideshow of the facility.

The Country Dance and Song Society is a traditional dance and music organization, celebrating its Centennial in 2015.

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“Come be part of the magic!”—English & American Dance Week, August 23-30, 2014

doug-plummer-eap-2011-swing-89657c91

photo: Doug Plummer

There’s lots of sublime English country dancing and exhilarating contra dancing at CDSS’s English & American Dance Week at Pinewoods, near Plymouth, MA. This year a Dance Organizers Course will run concurrently (separate registration).

E&A Week is our classic core program, mixing together two much-loved traditions for a fine dose of exhilaration, against a background of amazing music. This year there also will be ritual dance from England (NW morris and longsword), percussive stepping from Quebec, waltzing, Irish sets, and square dances from north and south. You can give your feet an occasional rest and do harmony singing, play in a dance band, hone your calling skills, hang out, swim or take a nap. And that’s just the daytime activities. An incredible staff will guide and inspire you through it all. See the class schedule, class descriptions or staff list, learn about Pinewoods Camp or about our other summer weeks. And here’s info about fees and scholarships.

Ready to join in the fun? Register here. We look forward to seeing you at camp this summer!

brenneman-shawnShawn Brenneman, program director for the week, began dancing at a young age with her family at a 4-H dance weekend in WV and the Berea Christmas dance school, and never stopped. She calls all over the country and plays piano in contra dance bands House Red and Tickle Scratch & Groove. She’s had an organizational role in many dance and music events, from the Blacksburg (VA) Contra Dance, in her own community, to the CDSS Governing Board.

Here’s what she says about E&A week:

“Some of the best times of my life have happened at English & American Week, and I’d love to share great times with you this summer. Music, dancing, singing, delicious food, swimming and community—come be part of the magic!”

Learn more about the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS).

English & American Dance Week is funded in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. We thank them for their support.

2008-08-24 09.55.34_cynthia armour

photo: Cynthia Armour

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Techno, Gender-free, and Bluesy Contras: Evolving Tradition?

by Abigail Hobart

abigail hobart_1385198_10151892293522192_589825193_n

Abigail at the Downtown Amherst Contradance last fall­­ (photo courtesy the author)

What is tradition? This question is relevant to all contra dancers, whether we realize it or not. The past several decades have witnessed somewhat of a contra revival, especially among youth and students. College dances have sprung up across the US, typically at smaller liberal arts schools, such as Oberlin (Oberlin, OH) and Hampshire (Amherst, MA) colleges. The increase in college-aged dancers has brought about a shift towards more progressive leanings, newer trends in musical tastes, and sexier dancing. At the forefront of these changes are the use of gender-neutral terms in calling, the increasing number of techno contra dances, and the incorporation of “blues moves” into contra dancing, especially in the swing. The emergence of trends like these within a folk tradition like contra dance, reflect the constantly evolving demographic of participants, and changes in popular culture and political/social culture.

Gender-free contra dances have been happening since the 1970s. The push for non-gendered dances came out of the LGTBQ movement, and has grown steadily. These dances promote experimentation with using non-gendered terms, such as lead and follow, or bare arms and arm bands, in place of the more traditional terms, such as ladies and gents. This change reflects the evolution of the understanding of gender and gender roles, and is a response to the traditionally binary gendered-nature of contra dance; an attempt to break away from the gender roles that society assigns us.

In the past decade or so techno contra, or crossover contra dances, have really taken off. In 2001, Lisa Greenleaf, a Boston-area caller, first experimented with calling contra dances to prerecorded electronic music, in place of traditional, live bands. Since then, “techno” music has been increasingly incorporated into the standard dance circuit in the US. At the downtown Amherst, MA dance series, hosted most Wednesdays, there were ten techno contra dances alone in the past year! This reflects the increasing emergence of electronic, dub step, and techno music in popular musical production and consumption.

For years, swing dance accents have found their way into the stylistic choices of contra dancers. For example, during a partner swing, it’s common to see a variety of underarm turns and flourishes that come from the swing dance canon, and even the more complicated swing moves, such as sidecars (a difficult acrobatic lift move) or the pretzel (a complicated under arm flourish), can be seen occasionally on the dance floor. The boundary between the contra and swing dance communities has always been porous, so it follows that blues dancing (from the same era as Lindy Hop, but slower and smoother) moves also have slowly been incorporated into contra dance style. The blues posture is used frequently in partner swings, with typically a closer partner hold, and distinctly more intimate. The Asheville, NC contra dance scene is regarded as a hotspot of dancers emulating a sexier, blues-fusion dance style, though blues moves can be seen in contra dances all over the country.

Tradition, an odd word, seems to refer to a thing of the past; tradition is all around us though, and continues because we continue creating it. Gender-free, techno, and blues-infused contra exists because contra dance is a living, breathing tradition; these new styles and expressions are in response to the evolving needs and interests of the dance community. The way we approach these changes will reflect the community norms of contra dancers as a whole, and of smaller micro-communities throughout the contra dance network. As a community we decide what makes contra dancing itself. We decide how far we can push the tradition before it stops being contra dance. Our own needs and innovations create the tradition, and it creates us.

Abigail Hobart studies ethnomusicology, sustainability, and food systems at Hampshire College, where she also organizes a monthly contra dance series. She is an avid contra dancer and lover of the tradition, and is from the Pacific Northwest.

Guest bloggers on the CDSS page are welcome. Write to news@cdss.org for guidelines.

 

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