Web posted Monday, July 28, 2003

No man an island in contra dancing

By ERIC FRY JUNEAU EMPIRE copyright 2003

When a contra dance is going just right, the dance flows, each movement seeming inevitable and each person seamlessly flowing through the pattern. Another giveaway is the spontaneous yips.

The 67 participants at Camp Damp, held Friday through Sunday at the Methodist camp near Eagle River, had plenty of chances to yip.

"We're going to learn some new moves here," caller Sue Rosen told the dancers Saturday.

Before the music started, she walked the dancers through the moves, such as joining hands and spinning to the right.

"You're going to flatten the circle into a wave of four, and that's the cool move," she said.

The camp - organized by the same locals who hold contra dances downtown during the winter - attracts some beginners among the experienced dancers, and some folks from Sitka, Anchorage, Haines, Gustavus, Seattle, Olympia and even New Mexico.

The camp costs $80. Participants pitch in by baking bread, making the meals and cleaning up the lodge. Most stay in the camp's cabins or in tents in the meadow next to the lodge.

"Beginner? You just get right in," said Eileen Hosey, one of the organizers. "Just immersion by fire, so to speak. By the time they get up and down a couple of times, they can do it."

Sometimes on Saturday, a beginner looked lost and fell out of the dance, but jumped back in like a kid getting on a moving carousel.

"Up and down" refers to the way the dancers, who start as two couples in a set, exchange their partnership with other couples as they flow through the dance. They move toward the two ends of the room, where a line of dancers briefly steps out of the dance.

"I must warn you," Rosen warned them, "when you're out at the top or the bottom, you must get in the promenade or you're out forever."

In effect, everyone dances together, each is a piece of the whole.

"To me, it's the synergy between the music and the group movement," said Hosey, who has been contra dancing for 10 years.

Camp Damp is in its 11th year. The name stands for "dance and music party," but maybe there's a weather connotation somewhere in there. This year the camp featured Rosen from Newton, Mass., her husband, Bruce, on the piano, and Lissa Schneckenburger from Boston on the fiddle.

Contra dancing originated in England and Ireland in the 18th century. All of the dances that Sue Rosen called on Saturday morning were created in the past five years, including a couple by her. They get passed around quickly on the caller circuit, she said.

"There are thousands of dances at this point," Sue Rosen said during a break. "Some of them are 200 years old. Some of them were written yesterday."

When Rosen puts together a dance program, she looks for variety. When she creates dances, she wants flow.

"What you want to do in a dance is have one movement flow inevitably into the next movement," she said. "All of the dances I present have been thought out for the flow of the dance."

Dancer Art Morris said, "There are dances where you just flow, and you go from one smooth move into another."

Mary Graham, one of the dancers, said that when the whole room is in the flow "there's a feeling that you can feel. It's like everyone's with it."

During the dances, which last about 10 minutes, the dancers and musicians feed off each other. As the dance goes on, the musicians increase the tempo and hear the approving feedback of yelps and shouts. Smiles get broader.

"They're driving us poor dancers is what's happening," joked Morris, "sometimes over a cliff."

Morris said he's attended Camp Damp for seven years. It's a chance to get out of town, at least out the road, and meet new people, or catch up with Juneauites.

"It's like going to the airport," he quipped.

Other campers said the Outside musicians and callers bring the latest trends, especially from the East Coast, where contra dancing is popular.

Participants said contra dancing makes it easy to meet people in an atmosphere free of tobacco and alcohol. They come from all walks of life. The local dancers welcome beginners and singles. In fact, latching onto a partner for the whole night is kind of frowned upon, they said.

The camp attracted people age 18 to 60, Hosey said. But most people looked to be in their 30s and 40s. Most of the men wore T-shirts and shorts. Nearly all of the women wore long dresses, perhaps to enjoy the twirling effect.

"I work in Glacier Bay, where I'm in rain gear and long underwear all the time," said Janet Doherty of Gustavus, in her third year at the camp. Contra dancing lets her "put on a twirly skirt," she said. "It's a lot of fun."

By the third dance Saturday, there was general yipping, calling out and singing.

"They're happy people," a swaying Doherty observed from the sidelines. "They're going to start singing."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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