David's Blog

Winter Dance Week

One of the happiest places to spend the time between Christmas and New Year's is Winter Dance Week held at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, held each year between December 26 – January 1. I've been fortunate to be hired at the Folk School in the past to call American dances, English country dances, or, as was the case this year, a combination of the two.

WDW was full this year, just over 100 people registered. It's a smaller event than the Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky, which I've never attended. One of the terrific things about the smaller size is you really have an an opportunity to dance and to talk with virtually every other person at the week. The sociability is enhanced by everyone living on campus and taking meals together. The food is good, the ambiance warm and welcoming, and the dance floor in Keith House is one of my very favorite dance venues. What's not to like?

One of my classes was billed as Challenging English, and it attracted about half of the camp each day.

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Two Superb Contra Videographers

We're seeing a proliferation of contra dance videos in recent years, spurred by the availability of equipment (some fine footage being captured on cameras as simple as cell phones) and sharing sites such as Vimeo and YouTube. Two individuals in particular are creating uniformly excellent films.

Doug Plummer is a professional photographer and an avid dancer; although he's based in Seattle, he travels a lot for his work as a photographer and for years he's been documenting the contra dance scene nationwide in still photos. Here's a montage of his work, set to music by Perpetual eMotion. Another video gives a short version of Doug explaining "How to Take Dance Photos That Don't Suck." Highly recommended. Doug's suggestions:

  • Look for the moment. Don't shoot through a whole dance. Look for the compelling piece of a figure. It comes around every 32 bars, so you have lots of chances to keep whacking away at it.
  • Look for the pieces: the smiling face, the swirling skirt, the feet, the hands.
  • Watch the walk through. Plan what you're going to shoot.
  • Get close. When you're shooting the dance, you want to feel like you're in it.
  • Move the camera. Follow your subject, and shoot during the movement.
  • And most importantly, be attuned. Sense what you're feeling, and how that changes at different parts of the dance, and where you're standing in relation to it. Sense what the people around you are feeling, and tap into that. Be a part of what you're documenting, not an outsider.

More recently, Doug has developed into a skilled videographer and editor. He records video with a digital single lens reflex camera, the same camera he used for his still photographs so it's like an extension of his body. You can find numerous examples of his work on his YouTube channel.

The other person creating fantastic contra videos is John-Michael Seng-Wheeler. John-Michael is a young dancer in Charlottesville; he has top-of-the-line video equipment, not just camera but lighting (and the skill to add a new circuit to the building's circuit box to handle the demands of the lighting), a boom for taking aerial shots, a full range of audio gear... Beyond all the Toys for Boys, however, he knows how to use the equipment and he has a great eye; he's also an enthusiastic and skilled dancer, so he knows the subject intimately. When we needed a videographer to document the Dare To Be Square dance weekend in 2011, he's the guy we hired.

For many years, John-Michael created a video at the Great Bear Groove, a Memorial Day gathering in upstate New York produced by the Great Bear Trio and their extended family members. These extended videos really capture the excitement on today's contra dance floor. Here are the links:


2012 (I was fortunate to be on staff this year, and had a great time. We did the same dance three times in the course of the weekend to give opportunities for filming from different angles.)



Singing and Dancing in Macedonia

I've been a contra dancer for some 40 years and an English country dance enthusiast since 1987. For decades, the only singing I did was with my fifth grade students, who didn't understand that I couldn't really sing. With that background, what took me on a overseas trip with Village Harmony for two weeks of singing and dancing, Macedonian style?

It started when I told my wife, Sheila, who has spent years coming along with me to dance weekends and camps, that it was time that I accompanied her instead of vice versa. ("He makes it sound like that was a punishment I endured," she quickly adds. "I love to dance.") This was the trip she picked. "It's okay," I said. "I can just spend my time documenting the trip with photos and videos." This was met by a steely gaze that quickly translated into "You Will Sing."

So, there I am in southern Macedonia, a self-identified non-singer with little experience in folk dance, and after the first few days I'm ready to hide under the covers. It's a Slavic language, many songs are based on an oriental scale with elaborate vocal ornamentation, and then there are those odd meters: 7/8, 9/8, and more. My hands can clap the rhythms, but not always connected to the tunes.

This is just the singing; let's not discuss in detail my feet. Unlike country dancing, stepping one beat at a time and learning a series of different figures, these dances all come in the same simple formation but with unfamiliar demands on my body—slow steps and quick steps, weight shifts, hops and pivots, downbeats with an uplifted foot. "The music tells you what to do," right? If so, this music was telling me, "Get out of the way of people who know what they're doing."

For there were many around me having no trouble. There were strong singers, accustomed to learning by ear and holding down a part. Some had come to Balkan camps before, some sing and dance Balkan in their home communities, some even speak Serbo-Croatian or Macedonian. Although I'm a totally competent country dancer, I was definitely Out of My League on this dance floor.

This tale of woe has a happy ending—I had a great time. A lot of that was thanks to my fellow campers. "I don't sing," I mentioned to a tenor near me early on. "What do you mean?" he said. "Everyone sings." He wasn't making a political statement, just presenting this as a fact. Lesson learned: stop making excuses, listen, and open your mouth. I discovered, too, that I wasn't alone. Their solution? Give it a try, and so I did. Can't sing this particular tenor line? Okay, I'll stick with the bass part here... it's simpler. Not sure how this section goes? Turned out I wasn't the only one, as one of our leaders drilled the group on the same four bars of music until we all had it.

Same thing with the dancing. I practiced by myself behind the line, got coaching on the side from those who knew what to do, and gradually felt more comfortable. (Yes, dancing in 12/8 is still awkward.) Some of it was letting go of the notion that I had to be able to do everything well. Sometimes I stumbled around in line, doing fragments of a dance and gradually adding other pieces. No one pulled me out for remedial lessons, no one frowned; folks on either side trusted that I'd ask for help if needed. When we gave our final concerts, singing and dancing in small villages, the locals offered no critical judgments—they joined our chorus on many well-known songs, grinned at our pronunciation, reached out a hand and made space in line with a smile.


Hot dance videos

Between CDSS and the Square Dance History Project, my life has been more than full of late. We've added some wonderful footage to the SDHP site, including two clips filmed in Kentucky in 1963, material for which I've been waiting more than two years to obtain permission. Here's a link to the four-couple square and a link to a big set.

Last night, we had the great fortune of watching the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in performance, an extraordinary group of dancers.

Earlier in the week, Sheila and I watched a wonderful film by Carlos Saura, Tango; here's a link to just one clip from it. Saura also directed the wonderful flamenco version of Carmen and that film in its entirety is available online.

Both were reminders of the great variety of dance forms that we can enjoy. Here are a few other clips that came my way recently:

Shag (a style of swing dance that originated in South Carolina), here danced by Kayla Henley and Jeremy Webb, two high school students who won a national competition

Pas de Deux (in urban street dance style)

Documentary on the 2012 Vienna International Dance Festival (lots of dance footage plus interviews with dancers and teachers)

It's Fun To Hunt!

Ralph Page gave this title to a regular column in his Northern Junket magazine, in which he shared information he had gleaned from looking through old newspapers in New Hampshire and Vermont. For those of us interested in dance history, he's absolutely right.

Late last month, CDSS member Karen Mueller-Harder heard a wonderful story on Vermont Public Radio. In it, VPR reporter Steve Zind tells about John Stone, who in 1956 recorded a dance in Newfane, Vermont. Stone recently donated his tape to the Vermont Folklife Center, which digitized the recording. (Dance caller and CDSS youth intern Mary Wesley has worked at the VFC—small world!) Zind's story describes how listening to the tape brought back a flood of memories for Stone.

Karen sent a link to the story to Steve Howe, at the CDSS office, who shared it with fellow staff members. Pat MacPherson in turn passed on the link to me and to Bob Dalsemer, one of my colleagues on the Square Dance History Project (SDHP). It was, indeed, a lovely and evocative story.

The VPR story included only a few snippets from the actual dance recording—the focus is Stone's reactions to hearing the music once again—but I was interested in hearing more of the source material. I went to the website of the Vermont Folklife Center and spent a frustrating time trying to locate the original, without success. I turned to Google and easily located VFC 's posted file of the recording, a beautifully preserved digital file. A few minutes later I added a reference to this audio clip of three singing squares (the Dick Perry Orchestra and caller Ira Huntley) to our SDHP website.

But wait! There's more! I wasn't familiar with all three dances, and Bob quickly identified one as "Belle of the Ball," which he knew from the calling of Otto Wood. Otto (fiddle) and his wife Marguerite (piano) hailed from Michigan, but were regulars on staff at Pinewoods and at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, as they made their way to and from Florida each winter. Bob's e-mail included a typescript of Otto's calls for that dance and an an appreciation of the Woods on a website celebrating Michigan fiddlers.

It turned out that Belle of the Ball was just one page from a larger collection of Otto's dances that had been prepared by storyteller and occasional dance caller Donald Davis, working closely with Marguerite some time after Otto's death. (Donald Davis has been a frequent staff member at our CDSS family camp at Ogontz, and he will be on staff again this summer; "Otto and Marguerite" is among his vast repertoire of stories.) After a few more e-mail exchanges we had his permission to post the complete set, so we've added Otto's calls for 17 singing squares and Marguerite's music to the SDHP website.

All in all, a very enjoyable and productive few days. It's fun to hunt!

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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