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Crossover Contra Dancing: A Recent History

Alex Krogh-Grabbe

We are very pleased to present a guest post by Alex Krogh-Grabbe, wherein he traces the recent trends in electronic music and contra dancing.

In the first post on the CDSS blog last December, Brad Foster wrote about Tradition and Change. He closed by musing about the future of traditional fusion:

Are techno contra and hip-hop morris part of our future? In both cases I’m sure the answer is “definitively maybe” or “sort of”. It’s likely some elements will make their way into the run-of-the-mill, as happened with swing moves in contra dancing. Both will influence our traditional arts but won’t become those arts. Even techno contra is morphing, with people saying, “That’s nice, but I want to try taking it in yet a different direction.”

He’s right. That “different direction” is emblematic of the living traditions we all hold dear. The folk process is always at work. For decades, bands have become popular for energetic fusion between traditional music and other styles. Even Dudley Laufman’s Canterbury Contra Dance Orchestra recorded with electric guitar in the 1970s! The most recent manifestation of our vibrant and evolving history is integrating electronic music into contra dancing, often referred to as “techno contra”.

The Name

One of the first questions you run into discussing this nascent genre is, “What do we call it?” As mentioned above, the most popular term is probably “techno contra”, which conveys energy and club dancing even though much of the music may be pop, celtic fusion, or electronica rather than strictly techno. The fact that a number of these dances contain low lighting lends to the club atmosphere. Other terms include “alternative music contra” and “crossover contra”. Personally, I prefer “crossover contra” which is more accurately descriptive, despite being a bit vague and arguably not adequately sexy. “Crossover” is the term I’ll default to here, referring to specific events by the terms their organizers use.

The History

For several years, I’ve been fascinated by the emerging proliferation of contra dances to electronic music. I set out in this post to uncover what I could about this movement and its history. Corresponding with a number of people involved, I’ve traced back some of the history and learned more about how the people involved view their events and their role in the dance community.

The first instance I unearthed of prerecorded electronic music being used at contra dances was in 2001. Lisa Greenleaf and Clark Baker (two Boston-area callers) had a brainwave while listening to celtic rock music. Starting with the music of Scottish “hypnofolkadelic” band Shooglenifty, the two of them began mixing. Lisa debuted the result with friends at small parties where she was trying out new dances. In 2006, she held an alternative music fundraiser dance at the Concord Scout House, and by this time the repertoire had expanded to include such styles as latin, rock, and world beat music. While she initially had exclusively called live at alternative music dances, by the time of the first Scout House fundraiser, she had recorded calling tracks for each musical set. These events have proven popular, but it took an event further south to light a crossover contra fire.

The movement quickly dubbed “techno contra” seems to have begun at the Whipperstompers Weekend in South Carolina in June 2008, a dance weekend organized by Able Allen catering to young dancers. At the end of the weekend, after many attendees had already left, an impromptu dance was called by Taija Tevia-Clark to techno music from someone’s iPod. A brief video from the end of this dance was posted on YouTube, and has been viewed more than 5,000 times:

In attendance at the Whipperstompers techno contra were two dancers who went on to be influential in the early spread of crossover contra. Forrest Oliphant of North Carolina was inspired by the Whipperstompers video to create something similar, but with more planning. He got his opportunity at the inaugural Youth Dance Weekend (YDW) in late September 2008. He organized a techno contra after the scheduled dances were over, and shot two takes of two sets dancing to Adam Tensta’s “My Cool”. The resulting techno contra video has been viewed more than 20,000 times on YouTube, and has inspired many dancers interested in dancing to this sort of music. Since the creation of this video, it has become common for crossover contras to produce videos, and that has become a primary channel through which organizers learn from each other.

Forrest’s “My Cool” video:

Also in attendance at both Whipperstompers and YDW was Jordy Williams of Asheville, NC. Seeing the potential in the dances at those two weekends, Jordy was inspired to organize similar events of his own. He has put on invitational techno contras in Asheville every few months since the first one in June 2009. While most crossover contra dances up to that point had been in the traditional 10-15 minute per dance format, Jordy structured his differently, with techno tracks strung together in 90-minute medleys. At the second YDW, in September 2009, a late-night techno medley was coordinated by Jordy. He continues to organize periodic techno contra dances in Asheville, including the first fully public one on New Year’s Day, 2011.

Since late 2009, there has been a proliferation of crossover contra events all over the country. Special events have been organized in places such as Bates College in Maine, in Boulder, Colorado, and in Seattle, Washington.

In the Triangle region of North Carolina, Peter Clark and Eileen Thorsos have begun using celtic fusion music heavily edited to fit contra, a style which they dub “electrotrad”. Since late 2010, a monthly series (Contra Sonic) has sprung up in the DC area. Now, in the summer of 2011, crossover contra events are being organized faster than I can keep track of them. The proliferation and draw of these events underscores the energy and potential present in crossover contra.

The Vision

Every organizer of crossover events has a different take on the legacy of the tradition, but those I spoke with express great respect for typical contra dance evenings. Jordy Williams, whose events differ most drastically from a normal night of contra dancing, told me, “I have been extremely cautious in not letting it interfere with regular dancing. I treasure contra dance and don’t want a night of canned music to step on the toes of regular musicians in any way.” Peter Clark sees crossover contra as “a way to provide variety and compelling events to draw in a wider portion of the public.” Another major motivation for crossover contra is voiced by Dana Ouellette, an organizer and dancer in western Massachusetts: “I certainly appreciate and love the traditional music, and would never want to turn away from that completely, but having the option to play around with new musical influences keeps me that much more excited about being a part of the community.” Crossover events serve to both keep experienced dancers excited by the variety they provide, and also to expose a broader swath of the population to the joys of contra dancing.

Alongside the events using recorded music, there are a few dance bands blurring the line between live and pre-recorded music. Perpetual e-Motion from Maine, formed in 2003, has gained popularity for their heavy use of electronic effects and looping, allowing them to build complex arrangements on the fly with just two people. According to Perpetual e-Motion’s John Cote, “An important thing for us is that we don’t use pre-recorded music. But now everything, even the feet, goes through electronic processing in some way.” Another duo pushing the form, Double Apex, debuted in December of 2010. They combine recorded samples with live traditional music. According to Julie Vallimont of Double Apex, “For us, contra dancing is both about respecting and maintaining a longstanding tradition and having fun with contra dance and experimenting with a living tradition. Our basic idea is to use fiddle tunes as a base to keep the phrasing and energy of the dance, and add techno beats, synths, loops, and samples.”

A recurring ideal crossover organizers express is to have an experienced DJ who is either personally able to call or who has a strong working relationship with a caller. Peter Clark of North Carolina writes, “I see the future of crossover contra being led by live producer DJs who contra dance themselves.  I see them using computer programs which allow for on-the-fly changes to respond to the energy on the dance floor and to tailor the music to specific dances.” Double Apex and DJ Improper (of the Contra Sonic series) are some of those beginning to work with these possibilities.

It has become common practice to produce videos of crossover contra events and share them online. The Whipperstompers and 2008 YDW videos began this trend, and it has been continued at many crossover dances. While the YDW video was planned with filming in mind and featured multiple takes, more organic products can also achieve a similarly high level of quality. More important than the videography, though, is sharing the video online, because that has become one of the primary means of discourse among crossover contra organizers.

Recently, Ryan Holman of the DC area has been compiling the excellent Contra Syncretist, a blog/website resource for crossover contra in its many forms. (The most recent post: “Calling to Hip-Hop (and Other Alternative Music)“, thoughts from Maine caller Chrissy Fowler.)

Crossover contras are new and distinctive in their own way, but their connection to more traditional contras is strong and close. This new music has been used in contras for only the past ten years or so, but its growth over the past several years has been meteoric. Not only has its expansion been fast, but it has been organic. While the content may be new, the process is old. I hope that this movement – linked with tradition, while bringing new perspectives — continues in a direction that appeals to all members of the dance community, from newcomers to experienced, from dancers to performers, and from young to old.

– Alex Krogh-Grabbe

Alex Krogh-Grabbe is a dancer and organizer from Amherst, MA who is pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at Tufts University. His blog is located at www.alexkg.com.

Do you have thoughts about or experiences with crossover contra dancing you’d like to share? Please post ‘em in the comments.

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Categories: Features & Fun, Guest Posts | Tags: , , , , + 9 Comments »

9 Comments

  1. Just a girl
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Let me add that the dancing in a crossover/techno contra, while still being contra dancing, tends to have more “intimate” dancing during the swing, such as close embraces, dips, blues dancing, etc. So, whereas I will dance with pretty much anyone in a regular contra dance, I would prefer to dance only with people I am comfortable being up-close-and-personal with. There is that different dynamic, somehow. So, that might preclude some of my regular dancing partners, and may also include someone I’ve never met but with whom I seem to have good chemistry.

    • Peter Cark
      Posted June 24, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Following the “different direction” theme, Electric Camel Contra events have an explicit goal of both maintaining the community dance aspect and integrating newcomers.

      Various other crossover dances I have been to around the region have felt more community-focused than clubby, too. It can vary quite a bit by each individual organizer’s vision and the dance community where it is held.

      This also applies to lighting – many of the dances are strobe-free. At a crossover contra dance at University of Florida, they used a moonlight on the ceiling to make the lighting dynamic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKOcaUlPyss

      Similarly, one of the Contra Sonic events in DC used projection onto a high ceiling that reflected onto the floor, covering a large area, for an awesome effect!

  2. Posted June 24, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    This is a brilliant article and a pretty darn accurate history of the scene!

    And it hasn’t even got into the extremely recent stuff like having a DJ and live band take the stage at the same time.

    Contraphoria on May 30th featured three dances with Perpetual e-Motion and dJ improper both playing at the same time. Talk about a crossover. It was like a crossover crossover.

    Keep on swinging,
    dJ improper

  3. christine day
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    As a contra dancer that started in 1985, I have seen many changes over the years. A LOT of them have been good!
    One year, at Dance Flurry, Wild Asparagus started playing a “jazzy” tune. I remember thinking this was different, and a little concerning. But after a few times thru, I was in love with the new music. It just WORKED!
    Now, the new trend toward “techno” has been very interesting. I’ve really enjoyed dancing to Perpetual E-Motion and Giant Robot Dance, that blend the “traditional” with rock and techno.
    I dance in Concord, MA where the “techno music and lighting” has been catching on. There’s always a good turn out from young and old. My only issue is the lighting. It causes vertigo for me. My solution was to dance in my purple cowgirl hat and sunglasses! It keeps the flashing lights from my eyes. Looks weird, but it works for me.

    I love how this old tradition is still bringing in young people to keep this tradition alive!

  4. Jagmeet Mac
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Nice job on recounting the history of this new direction in contra dancing! I’ve been curious about how it developed.

    I would be interested in knowing how you did your research – a lot of asking around?

  5. Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Just a small correction: the first *public* techno contra that Jordy Williams organized was for Summer Soirée 2010, on June 19. Anyone could buy a ticket for the late night dance, even if they weren’t attending the dance weekend. There are videos (by John Newsome) of that event on the home page of Summer Soirée: ashevillecontra.com … Jordy reprised the event this past Summer Soirée, and as at Contraphoria, Perpetual eMotion played over some of the tracks.

  6. JMB
    Posted July 17, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Good history lesson.

    I think that it important to clarify the terms of “techno contra”, in this case just having electronic music does the trick. But I think part of what makes a “techno contra” a “techno contra” and not just contra dancing to electronic music, is the “Techno Lighting” and if that happens to be the case Nathan Johnson reigns as the current king of techno lighting and probably deserves mention in the history of Techno Contra. His Contra Dance lighting effects can be seen all over Massachusetts right now. Meanwhile, DJ Improper also is including techno lighting affects as part of his performances in Washington D.C. The best Techno Contras include this.

    I also think that the ideas of “Techno Contra” and “Contra Fusion” ought to be explored with a little depth here. For example, is Double Apex ,Techno Contra, when they mix a version of Daft Punk’s “One more time!” with Flying Tent? Or is Lisa Greenleaf’s “Alterna-Contra” mix where she mixes her calling with Lady Gaga, not really techno contra due to the fact that it’s got a techno beat? I think there’s some ambiguity and any ambiguity ought to be investigated.

    Finally, I’d like a little more insight into the future of “Techno Contra”. I’m finding that more and more with the comments section, particularly DJ Improper’s comment here.

  7. Carol Thompson
    Posted July 26, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I viewed the Techno Contra videos above and find nothing even vaguely related to the tradition of contra dance. Techno eliminates live music, the dancers seemed to be doing disco dancing. There is no AABB to follow, the dancers were not together. I have no argument with folks doing this, I do regret that they call it contra dancing. I wish they would come up with another name related to club dancing. I will continue to uphold the tradition of live music at the dance I book in Winston-Salem, NC. I think it is important for dancers to know both ends of the spectrum and respect and support the roots of the contra tradition. Some young folks who only attend techno events may really think that is contra dance.

  8. Brian Hamshar
    Posted July 28, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    This is a really good and useful thread! I am the founder of Club Contras, a crossover series in central Virginia which has been operating electronic contra dances with club lighting about once a month since January 2011 as well as special fusion events such as Contraphoria this past Memorial Day, in which we had dJ improper and Perpetual e-Motion perform both separately and together.

    I too trace my inspiration to start an alternative dance to my experience at the Whipperstompers weekend back in 2008, although ever since I started dancing contra in 2002 I’ve thought about how cool it might be to contra dance to my favorite club dance, classic rock and disco music.

    I had never thought the dance club scene particularly exciting because of the complete lack of dance structure, which is what provides interactivity, which is what I really craved. On the other hand, I initially was very concerned that contra with anything other than traditional fiddle tunes would be rejected by this close-knit community that I love and deeply respect. Enter the Whipperstompers weekend, where an impromptu techno contra appeared out of nowhere with non-phrased music, no significant preparation, and 100 degree heat BUT was met with amazing enthusiasm! Jordy Williams built upon this with his events in Asheville, which quickly became very popular and talked about all over the Southeast.

    My goal is to bring crossover contra more into the mainstream, to tweak it so that it is less of a fringe curiosity and more of a complement to traditional dances, providing more variety of dance experiences with the same community feel that we all cherish. At some point it became clear to me that the main work that still needed to be done was to focus on greatly improved mixing and editing of whatever music is chosen, so that it is as well phrased as traditional live music – allowing the dancers to continue the dance without caller prompting as they are accustomed. We have been working closely with Contra Sonic and Electric Camel Contra, and I feel that collectively we have come a long way in this regard, though with individual variations as would be expected.

    At Club Contras, we do warmly welcome and actively solicit new contra dancers, and we maintain the community spirit of switching partners every 15 minutes or so. We use club lighting and blacklights, but we have chosen to be strobe-free as we don’t want to deter anyone who is sensitive to the intense flashing. Perhaps above all, we are “real” contra dancers who love the traditions and merely seek to take them in new directions through the folk process. We’re trying to do it the right way, and we’re still learning some of the nuances. We definitely cross-promote the “regular” contra dances, and we have a strict policy of not scheduling a crossover dance on the same day as another contra dance within 100 miles. Besides respect for “not stepping on toes,” a main reason for this is that we tend to go to most of these other area dances!

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