Contra dance is alive and growing in the Berkshires

People are dancing in the kitchen of an old farmhouse. They are laughing, spilling from one room to another and negotiating the uneven wood floor, and the music comes from a fiddle, an accordion, a group of musicians playing by ear who move from one tune to another with a nod or a bar of music.

Growing up in North Bennington, Vt., 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, he says. His grandmother knew Dudley Laufman— a caller and musician instrumental in keeping contra dance alive since the 1950s.

Now Christian is a musician in Brooklyn, N.Y., on fiddle, foot percussion and guitar; he performs regular gigs in Irish and traditional music, and (in July 2019) he plays live music for a new monthly North Berkshire Community Dance series at the Williamstown preschool, downtown in the old brick church at the corner of Route 43.

The tradition stretches from coast to coast and back more than 400 years. A caller teaches a series of simple moves, and dancers join in to live music with a beat and a quick melody.

“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, which has expanded this spring from four dances a year to eight.

This dance has run for more than 35 years without a break, as the Lenox dance has run for more than 15; contra and square 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 make a living in it, and they make friends. Two of Chamberlain’s old friends met on a dance floor and married.

His daughter has become a professional caller, he says, and many of the dancers who have put their energy into running this dance are young people, in their 20s.

In Lenox and Chatham, an even younger group is forming, children and teens who dance fluently and talk together on the steps on warm nights.

Contra dance is seeing a resurgence in the Berkshires, says Russell Burns, one of the committee involved in running the dance at the Lenox Community Center on the third Saturday of every month. (On a warm night in July, Chuck Abell was playing 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 here for years in Bennington and North Adams, and a conversation last fall sparked a revival. She met, John Seto, a board member of the national Country Dance and Song Society, when he came from California to North Adams to restore an apartment on Quincy St.

The Berkshires now sees a dance almost every weekend, and major festivals thrive nearby — including the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (the first weekend in August in Hillsdale, N.Y.)

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.

Dance and music rarely come together now, Christian says. In the U.S. they have become separated, detached music without a beat and dancers moving to recorded sound.

But playing music for dancers is a high like nothing else, MacKay says. She discovered contra dance through music. As a student at Williams College 20 years ago, she met a group of students who would dance regularly at the weekly dances that still go on in Greenfield every Friday and Saturday night.

They evolved 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 a.m.

And the music became the core of a creative life and community.

She was working at a local farm then and learning to play the fiddle, and she enjoyed the form and rhythm of the dance music.

She became aware of a growing community of musicians here, professional dance bands — Coincidance, Mountain Laurel, Russet Trio — and local jams with Berkshire Strings in Egremont and in the cafe at Mass MoCA on Saturday mornings.

The music too is alive.

“The style of the music has evolved,” Chamberlain said. “You have the old jigs and reels, 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, and when the dancers spun to the end of the dance, the room erupted in spontaneous applause.

“You can sense the energy in the room,” says Sue Burns from the Lenox dance. “When the dancers are enjoying the music, you can palpably feel that energy rise.”

The band feels it, and the energy can build like a wave.

It’s rare today, McKay says, for musicians to share that kind of language and improvise together. 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.”

 

This story first ran in Berkshire Magazine in July 2019 — my thanks to editor Anastasia Stanmeyer. In full disclosure, I have played contra dance music and danced in the Berkshires for 20 years, since the days of Rude Cider playing for dances at Williams College. I still drop in to MoCA Jam, the music jam that plays informally every Saturday in Lickety Split at Mass MoCA. I’ve danced in Sheffield, Lenox and Chatham, N.Y., and written about them over the years, and I am on the board of the newly formed North Berkshire Community Dance as it heads into its second year.

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