And They Danced – Coming alive with music and contra dance
People are dancing in the kitchen of an old farmhouse. They are laughing, spilling from one room to another, negotiating the uneven wood floor. The tunes come from a fiddle, an accordion, a group of musicians playing by ear, moving from one tune to another with a nod.
Growing up in North Bennington, Vermont, Matthew Christian would come to family dances in New Hampshire. He remembers the informality and the skill of it. The musicians would let him sit in, and his grandmother knew Dudley Laufman—a renowned caller and musician who has been keeping contra dance alive since the 1950s. (He is 89 years old and lives in Canterbury, New Hampshire.) Christian is now a musician in Brooklyn, New York, on fiddle, foot percussion and guitar; he performs regular gigs in Irish and traditional music. From 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. on July 13, he will play for a new monthly North Berkshire Community Dance series at the Williamstown Community Preschool on the corner of routes 2 and 43.
The tradition stretches from coast to coast and back more than 400 years. A caller teaches a series of simple moves, and people dance in lines with partners facing one another. The live music has a solid beat and quick melody. Contra dancing has grown in the Berkshires through the last century, and in the 21st century, it is a living tradition. Musicians are playing with harmonies in barn lofts and graduate programs. Composers are creating new reels and searching for old ones handed down. People are making a living in it, making friends, some meeting their life partner on the dance floor.
“Where else can you take a stranger in your arms, look into their eyes and swing them around the room?” asks Neal Chamberlain, an organizer of the long-running dance at Dewey Hall in Sheffield. His daughter has become a professional caller, and many who run the Sheffield dance are young, in their 20s.
The dance at Dewey Hall has been ongoing for more than 35 years and expanded this spring from four to eight dances a year. In Lenox, contra dancing has been going strong for more than 15 years, including an even younger group of people forming there and in nearby Chatham, New York: children and teens who dance fluently and talk together on the steps on warm nights. On the third Saturday of every month, people of all ages gather at the Lenox Community Center. On July 20 from 8 to 11 p.m., Chuck Abell will be on fiddle, Danny Elias on clarinet and doumbek, and Marnen Laibow-Koser on piano, with caller Donna Hunt.
The new North Berkshire dance grows out of that overflowing energy, says Doone MacKay of North Adams, president of the volunteer board. Earlier dances ran for years in Bennington and North Adams, and a conversation last fall sparked a revival. She met John Seto, a board member of the Country Dance and Song Society, when he traveled from California to North Adams to restore an apartment on Quincy Street. The Berkshires now sees a dance almost every weekend, and major festivals thrive nearby—including the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival from August 3 to 5 in Hillsdale, New York. They offer one of the few chances people have now to dance to live music—and one of the few chances musicians have to play for dancers.
Playing music for dancers is a high like nothing else, MacKay says. As a student at Williams College 20 years ago, she met a group of students who would go regularly to the weekly dances that still happen in Greenfield every Friday and Saturday night. They created their own band and college dances, she says. They shared the music the way they shared late-night conversations, playing reels on the marble stairs of the college music building and walking barefoot up a mountain at 3 am.
The music became the core of a creative life and community. MacKay was working at a local farm then and learning to play the fiddle, and she enjoyed the form and rhythm of the dance music. MacKay became aware of a growing community of musicians who were involved in professional dance bands and local jams.
The music keeps evolving. “You have the old jigs and reels,” Chamberlain says, “but the tone and speed, the instrumentation and variety coming out of bands today is amazing.”
He recalls a dance with multi-instrumentalist Jamie Oshima and piano, violin and harpist Clara Constance Stickney. “The two of them look at each other and you can see the music moving back and forth between them,” he says. When the dancers spun to the end of the dance, the room erupted in spontaneous applause.
“When the dancers are enjoying the music, you can palpably feel that energy rise,” says Sue Burns from the Lenox dance.
The band feels it, too, and the energy can build like a wave. It’s rare today, McKay says, for musicians to share that kind of language and improvise. Riffing on a Quebeçois reel, a fiddler can keep the beat and the bassline and let the melody take off running. She hopes to encourage musicians, as Lenox has encouraged new callers with workshops and informal dances where they can try out dances they are learning—or new dances they are inventing.
Contradance is playful in its soul. “You learn it as you go,” Sue Burns says. “It’s a dance—just laugh. You don’t have to come with someone, and you don’t have to know what you’re doing. Just come.”