A Brief History of Crossover Contra

This post appeared on the CDSS blog yesterday, Thursday June 23. I started writing it in December, and with the wonderful assistance of Max Newman, it proceeded in fits and starts to what you see below. I hope you enjoy it.

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 LaufmanÂ’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, IÂ’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, IÂ’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.

2 Replies to “A Brief History of Crossover Contra”

    1. Yeah, it’s like a party that only certain people are invited to, but it’s a party that is a contradance. Feels kinda weird, but perhaps it does serve a purpose.

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