As a fiddler and dancer with over fifteen years experience in the traditional dance world, I’ve enjoyed learning the history of contra dance. The tradition goes back to the founding of this country. The newest twist in this 250-year-old American dance form is the introduction of pop or house music. Instead of the traditional fiddle-led live band, the dances are done to hip-hop, techno, or rock music. This new and energetic genre, labeled “crossover contra”, is creating huge buzz in the contra dance world.
How Did Crossover Contra Start?
Veteran caller Lisa Greenleaf put together several well-received evenings of dance to recorded non-traditional music, referred to as crossover events. The big boost to crossover contra, however, came at the Youth Dance Weekend 2008 in Massachusetts. The video of teens and 20-somethings contra dancing to techno hit “My Cool” by Adam Tensta, is on 10,000 Youtube views and growing. Since that time, evenings of crossover contra and techno contra have appeared in contra dance hot spots Asheville and Boston and at numerous contra dance weekends across the country. There’s even a Crossover Contra Dance group on Facebook.
What Do Dancers Think of Crossover Contra?
Maia Werbos, a young dancer from the D.C. area, enjoys crossover contra because of the increased variety of music. She says it’s especially fun if “it’s a popular song and a lot of the crowd knows it.” Robin Wilson, a musician and dancer from Maryland comments that “there’s something very joyous about it.” In my experience, the energy on the dance floor is different at a techno contra. This perhaps relates to the highly percussive music and the younger average age of the dancers.
What are the Challenges of Crossover Contra Dance?
While traditional contra dance poses the challenge of providing sound for live music, techno contra has its own challenges. Because the simple choreography of a contra dance is designed to go with 64 bars of music, some pop songs are a difficult fit. Specific and consistent tempos of 112-126 beats per minute are needed. The singing on some tracks may interfere with the caller’s voice. Matching the calls to the music is also a challenge. Experienced callers will practice for weeks to get the cues to match the music properly. Finally, most traditional dance sets go on for 8-10 minutes, while pop songs are usually three or four minutes long. This requires remixing.
Will Crossover Contra Eliminate Traditional Music?
Some older dancers and musicians are concerned about the transition away from live music. They have nothing to worry about –the future of traditional contra dance to traditional tunes is safe. While young contra dancers enjoy techno contra as a change from the usual, and will bring their non-dancing friends to an evening of crossover to introduce them to the genre of contra dance, Maia Werbos points out, “A really good live band is probably better, because they can gauge the energy of the crowd and do interesting crescendos or instrumental changes on the spot.” In the end, while all the dancers I’ve talked to in the past year enjoy the energy of a crossover contra or techno evening, they all preferred live music if given a choice.
Forrest O, YDW 2008 DirtyCool Contra – My Cool, Youtube
M.J. Taylor, Techno Contra in Asheville, Youtube
Maia Werbos, personal communication, September 2009
Robin Wilson, personal communication, September 2009