Music: Meat and Potatoes

adapted from a post in 2007

I think that good music for contras consists of well-phrased melodies backed by solid rhythm. I want the music to tell me what to do. If the melody disappears into an endless fog of non-stop improvisation and the beat similarly wanders off the rails, I have to resort to—aagh!—counting to keep track of where I am in the dance. Not good.

 [Digression: Some squares, such as New England style quadrilles, require the same musical underpinning, although other styles of square dances work fine with a different kind of music behind them, such as the hypnotic trance of some old-time string band tunes. Heck, I remember dancing French-Canadian double quadrilles to seriously crooked tunes—the dance had a long swing and it didn't matter if there was an extra bar or two of music there.]

So for me, that clear melody line and the rock-solid underpinning are the meat and potatoes of a contra dance meal. Here in New England these days, that typically means a fiddle for the first and a piano for the second, though there are a few guitar players who can propel a band with the necessary drive and

rhythmic clarity.

Now, my culinary tastes go beyond a traditional New England boiled dinner, so I do appreciate a little spice in my diet—a little fooling around with the melody here and there, perhaps a musical quotation thrown in, an unexpected change tune, a few jazzy choruses... such bits liven up the meal and bring fresh


All too often, though, we are served meals that are little more than spice, with the main ingredients buried somewhere deep in the pot and only occasionally surfacing.

I certainly understand the forces that drive musicians in this direction. A spicy meal, by definition, attracts attention. If you're looking for the hardcore dancers—including those who do the booking for other series—to notice you, you need something that will stand out. This is a particular issue at a festival, where bands only have a short time to wow an audience; it's not uncommon to experience one band after another trotting out the fancy tricks and leaving me yearning for a clean beat and melody line.


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


Email David