Tuesday, December 13, 2011


This past Saturday, I traveled with my family up to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. We go to Brasstown fairly regularly: my wife and daughters have attended classes there, and I have played fiddle and my wife has called for contra dances in the excellent dance hall in Keith House.

The occasion this time was a dance party to honor our friend, Bob Dalsemer, who coordinates music and dance programs at the Folk School. At the event, Bob was awarded the Lifetime Contribution Award from the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS).

Dancers and musicians from around the region and beyond converged for an evening of contra, square, and English country dances, punctuated by performances of traditional clogging and English ritual dance, including Morris, rapper, and garland.

While I danced, and listened, and watched, I began to think about the geography of traditional dance, starting with the odd fact that Brasstown, which barely amounts to a crossroads in the mountains of far-western North Carolina, looms so large in the imagination of people in the traditional dance community. The programs at the Folk School draw together dance and music traditions from the southern Appalachian region with those from New England, the British Isles, and elsewhere.

Brasstown is a point of convergence, a center of mass. For that matter, Bob D. himself is a point of convergence, and the broader community of traditional music and dance is carried forward by people who have been influenced and inspired by his teaching and his example.

There are other such points of convergence for contra dance in particular: the Connecticut River Valley, the last hold-out of the vestiges of American contra dance during the early years of the 20th century, until it's revival in the 1950s; Camp Becket, in Vermont, which gave its name to an alternate starting formation for contra dances; Pinewoods, near Plymouth, Massachusetts, where CDSS runs a series of music and dance camps each summer; the Scout House in Concord, Massachusetts; the Guiding Star Grange, in Greenfield, Massachussetts; Glen Echo Park, in Maryland. Portland, Oregon has some prominence, as the point of origin for a two-volume collection of tunes now widely used by contra dance musicians around the country and beyond.

The geography of dance can take on a very fine grain, as with Bob Dalsemer's own work collecting and studying the square dances of West Virginia. I once participated in a week-long class he offered at Cumberland Dance Week in Kentucky, in which he noted differences in figures and terminology from county to county. A do-si-do in one community was something different from a do-si-do in another community  . . . and all of them were quite different from what  modern contra and square dancers think of as a do-si-do. One West Virginia variant, involving a series of allemandes (i.e., turns by the hand), is sometimes called a Georgia rang tang in contemporary square dance parlance.

Then there are broader patterns of dispersal, divergence, and convergence to be considered. Contra dance began its revival in the 1950s, and it has been spreading ever since. There are dances across the U.S. and into Canada. I have danced and played fiddle in Christchurch and Dunedin, New Zealand, and I am aware of contra dances in England and in Denmark.

In that process of dispersal, some regional differences have emerged. There is a line running across Tennessee and North Carolina which separates two different ways of forming a right-hand or left-hand star. South of the line, dancers default to a "hands-across" star, where each of the four dancers in the minor set holds the hand of the person across in a handshake grip; north of the line, dancers default to a "wrist-grip" star, where each of the four dancers holds the wrist of the person in front of them in the direction of travel.  It often happens around here that a big dance event brings together dancers from either side of that line, resulting in some confusion of counsel; in such circumstances, dancers may default to a "clump" of hands in the middle of the star.

Music for contra dance in the southeastern U.S. generally includes a higher proportion of old time tunes, and tends to be played somewhat faster than music for contra dance in the northeastern U.S., where New England, Quebecois, and Celtic influences predominate. The Portland Collection, however, may have a tendency to standardize contra dance music, as it provides an easily accessible, common repertoire to which musicians thrown together in a pick-up band can always default.

Visiting Brasstown also brings to mind a deeper cultural tension within the dance community, between those who favor community-oriented traditional dance, and those who favor what might be called experience-oriented, modern urban dance. One group looks to the past, to uncover and preserve the particularity and richness of local traditions, making them available and accessible to everyone, regardless of ability or prior experience. The other group looks to the present and the future, aiming for the intensity and immediacy of the dance floor, and placing a premium on highly skilled dancers who can improvise and incorporate flourishes from swing dance and other contemporary dance traditions.

In part because of Bob Dalsemer's influence, Brasstown leans to the traditional - though, it must be said, the dancing on Saturday night was intensely satisfying.  Other places, including many in the Atlanta dance community, lean to what is sometimes called modern urban contra dance, which treats the regular weekly dance more like a dance club experience, more of a consumer product than a community event.

For myself, I observe that tension in the dance community without especially wanting to pick sides. As a dancer and as a musician, I see the appeal of both, and wouldn't want one entirely to dominate the other. In and through that tension, there is room for creativity and further growth.

Why do I discuss all of this here, in a blog ostensibly about metropolitan growth? Well, for one thing, it connects to some of my reflections on Wendell Berry (which will continue in my next post, on Friday) and the tension his work has introduced into my thought.

For another, it introduces some of the fine-grain details of community and culture as tied to particular places, and how the opportunities available in a given place are shaped by particular cultural currents and accidents of history, and how those currents and accidents can converge to elevate even a tiny place like Brasstown into high prominence for a much wider community.


Wayve said...

This is a very interesting article. I applaud how the young have created techno contra as a new genre for an old dance form, although I am a more traditional dancer. I was at the Yay, Bob dance in Brasstown, and it was a thrill to see the work of such a wonderful man and influence so appreciated. Of course, those who play and call the music are always appreciated by those of us who dance. Thank you for the blog.

Damian Bathory said...

It's fun to see how music and dance are evolving these days. There are so many variations of the same basic thing popping up. One thing's for sure - this will make for more fun nights at my usual olongapo dance club.