News and information for Friday, April 06, 2007

Photo: JERREY ROBERTS; photo caption: Katie Olmstead of Florence, center, was determined to recover from a knee injury so that she could resume contra dancing.

Contra dancers from near and far head for the Guiding Star


In one odd moment of inattention, Katie Olmstead's life changed from one of unimpeded movement to one of chronic pain. In the spring of 1998, she was in a modern dance class and her knee went pop. "It was no more earth-shattering than stepping off a curb," said Olmstead. Yet she grew increasingly alarmed as her knee continued to hurt all summer. In the fall she went for her first MRI. Three surgeries and eight years later, Olmstead was unable to walk around the block or even go grocery shopping. She left her job at the Chamber of Commerce in Northampton because of unrelenting pain.

"My knee became the center of my life. It was a contributing strain in the final days of my marriage. It ate me up."

But worst of all, says Olmstead, she could no longer contra dance.

In spring 2006, Olmstead was in one of my writing workshops, her knee elevated and wrapped in ice, gritting her teeth through the pain, but determined to win back her creativity. She wrote a short piece about the ecstasy of dancing at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield and every one of us could see her dancing. Olmstead's fiery writing lit up the room. We suddenly understood what she had lost.

But then she found Dr. John Fulkerson in Hartford, one of the top patella doctors in the country.

"He was brusque, kind and knowledgeable," said Olmstead. "He also told me exactly what was wrong and that in my case, there was a 40 percent chance that surgery would make my knee better. I said 'Let's go.'

And what motivated her to try a fourth surgery? The goal of dancing again at the grange.

Last July Olmstead had the operation. By the end of November, she was ready to dance. She set reasonable goals. First she would dance once a month, a goal which quickly changed to twice a month. Now at eight months post-op, she is dancing once a week from 8 until midnight. Her next goal is to dance twice a week by summer.

"Right now, I'm on fire with joy," she says.

Contra dancing is a form of partner dancing, done mostly in lines, allowing dancers to rotate through other sets of partners, moving down a row of couples. A caller, who is the maestro of the event, syncopates the dancers with the lively fiddle-driven music.

If you ask contra dancers, they likely will tell you that the center of the universe is the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield, a white wood-sided building tucked into a side street in the center of town. Most people refer to it as the Star Grange. There are other places to dance (see for more) but for consistency and frequency, the Star Grange is the leader of the pack. Contra dancers all over the country know about it, claims Ralph Sweet, 77, who has been calling dances since 1948; it is Mecca. Each Friday and Saturday night, the place hums with people, spinning and sashaying to live music and experienced callers.

One of them is Allison Bell, a clinical psychologist from Westchester County, N.Y., who bought a condo in Greenfield a few years ago just so she could dance at the Star Grange on weekends. After discovering the grange on New Year's Eve 2000, she began driving the three hours to Greenfield every weekend to dance there. Before buying the condo, she would rent a room at the Howard Johnson's motel. Bell, who during the week is often in court giving expert testimony in heartbreaking cases involving children, says she looks forward to the release. "I can feel pretty beat-up after some court experiences," she says.

To be fair, Bell is not the average contra dancer. She has been a dancer all her life and trained as a dance therapist before becoming a psychologist. Contra dancing represents the best of all worlds for her.

"Star Grange is my center, this is where I can decompress and people here understand me," she said. For Bell, the Greenfield contra dance scene is the integration of mind/body, urban/hilltown and individual/community life. "Tribal dance is all about being at the same place, with the same people, with the same sound, doing the same movements until it becomes an energetic force that is very much like a trance," she said. "A happy trance, but a trance. You can get into a synchronous flow, especially for the high-level dancers."

For those of us who are non-contra dancers, partner dancing usually happens only at clubs or weddings when the slow songs play and we shuffle along the floor in something that might look like a waltz. For the most part, dancing among the contemporary masses is free-form and individualistic. We don't need a partner, and if we have one, it's likely we'll barely acknowledge the person while the music is playing.

Contra dancing is the complete opposite.

For example, making eye contact is key. "You are looking for and receiving your partner; it is an essential part of dance, a way of seeing and being seen," said Bell.

On a more practical level, focusing on your partner's eyes (or nose or chin, for that matter) will keep you from getting unpleasantly dizzy while you are in a fast dance spin.

Another concept that we never have to deal with while gyrating to rock and roll is something called "giving weight," one of a contra dance caller's instructions. It is a way of dropping your energy to the core of your body, much the same as one does for skiing or tai chi, keeping the knees slightly bent, letting gravity have its way through the solar plexus, allowing fluidity throughout the rest of the body. It helps with balance.

I asked Allison Bell to demonstrate while we talked in Cafe KoKo in Greenfield recently. Without a moment's hesitation, she hauled me out of my seat and we were locked in eye contact, spinning around the entryway of the cafe. Bell said that men sometimes think that strength comes from the biceps, but it doesn't. Think Pilates, think solar plexus.

She quickly had me convinced that contra dancing is easy to learn, but to underscore her point, she asked the barista, Ansel Appleton, 24, of Montague, if he too would give it a try. Within seconds, Bell and Appleton were wrapped in a dancers' embrace, whirling in front of the display case of muffins. Appleton had never contra danced before, but then Bell is very, very good.

The contra dancing that we have in the Northeast, and in the Pioneer Valley in particular, is a descendant of the jigs and reels from Scotland, Ireland and England which came along for the ride with the early immigrants. It was enjoyed by all classes of people for its euphoric and rhythmic appeal. To understand what a big deal dancing was in the early days of our nation, we must picture a time with no electricity, no phones, no iPods, no MTV and no dance clubs. What we had by the late 18th century were communities that were held together by the glue of churches and granges, where people met for agricultural and religious reasons and most importantly, for courtship. Dances from dusk until dawn were the norm.

Contra dancing has faltered over time. It has been close to extinction twice, and has twice been saved by unlikely champions.

After the Civil War, the country turned away from contra dancing; it was considered quaint and old fashioned, and was replaced by less rambunctious partner dancing. In 1925 Henry Ford led a campaign to bring the line dancing back. He believed that the country needed to return to the values that went with the old style: friendship, community and a more simple way of life. He taught his employees to dance to "Turkey in the Straw," a traditional contra dance tune. In a piece of old news footage, you can see a roomful of painfully stiff corporate suits dutifully line dancing at the Ford headquarters. Ford even announced that he would provide dance teachers to any school in America that wanted them. Still, he was unable to stop the surge of modern music that blasted through the 1920s.

Ironically, it was the assembly-line version of the affordable Model T Ford that set the nation on the move. People no longer stayed put, straying farther and farther from home. One didn't have to walk down to the local grange for dancing and social connectedness; one got in the car and went God only knows where -- the next county, perhaps.

More people flocked to urban centers and we changed from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. By the 1960s, even in rural areas, the customs that sustained social dance had all but collapsed. Many granges had closed. 1963 marked the all-time low for contra dances.

But in New England, a few old-time musicians and callers held on in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Enter the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, back-to-the-earth sustainability, the counterculture movement. The champions of contra dance, it turned out, were the hippies. The music and heritage fit with the communal spirit that they so prized. Gradually the music became infused with jazz and blues, evolving into the contemporary blend that exists currently. Hippies had children, children became dancers, friends and neighbors were drawn in and today, contra dances attract a wide variety of people.

Brian Gallagher, 26, is a perfect example. He is a social studies teacher at Linden Hill School in Northfield, and he says that after a tough week, contra dance can revive him. Its bright, happy sound appeals to his sensibilities, he says. Gallagher, who began dancing in his undergraduate days, has been dancing for five years. When he was in graduate school in Illinois, he says, he thought nothing of driving 16 hours to get to a weekend dance. He has contra danced all over the country, including Ohio, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Wisconsin and the Southeast, but his reason for moving to western Massachusetts, he says, is the superior quality of music that emanates from the Star Grange. It's a combination of traditional music with wailing saxophones and bluesy undertones. In Gallagher's view, music in some other parts of the country is old-fashioned, which is not a bad thing, he says, just something to be aware of. But when asked to describe the difference between contra dancing in New England and in other parts of the country, he is blunt. "Let's say you love Mexican food; it's the difference between delicious, homemade Mexican cuisine, and something that you would get in the frozen-food section of the grocery store."

Gallagher, who is originally from Chicago, found the Star Grange in his quest for the best contra music. The community of friends that he met there convinced him to stay. It is a familiar refrain among the dancers, one that would make Henry Ford happy.

"Where else can you go to hear some of the best music in the country, and, on top of that, you get to dance?" asked Susan Lincoln of Northampton, who started bringing her daughter, Eleanor, to contra dances in South Amherst when Eleanor was 8. Eleanor is 19 now and a busy music education major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but she still makes time to hear two of her favorite bands, Wild Asparagus and Moving Violations.

Both mother and daughter are musicians. Susan, who teaches biology at Northampton High School, learned to play the harp 10 years ago and Eleanor plays the euphonium. By the time Eleanor got to high school she regularly attended contra dances with a group of friends. Then the kids started bringing their parents. And that's another thing about contra dancing; it's multigenerational.

If all roads in New England contra dancing lead to the Guiding Star Grange, at the end of the road, you will find David Kaynor. He started going to dances when he was 10, which means that Kaynor has been a part of New England music for 50 years.

"Music is my mother tongue," said Kaynor.

He grew up in a family of musicians in Springfield and later Wilbraham. His parents had a summer home in Granville. "We all sang and everyone played some kind of instrument. Summers in Granville were like a music festival. I thought everyone's family did this."

Kaynor allowed academia to intrude on his musical pursuits long enough to get a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in counseling, but his true love was always music: dancing, fiddling and calling. The perfect background for a caller, say both Kaynor and Ralph Sweet, is to be a dancer and a musician. Kaynor describes himself as a blue-collar musician, given his lack of formal training and his immersion through lifelong family jamming. Today, he is devoted full time to the world of contra music and catching up with him is no small task.

Kaynor is determined to ensure that contra dancing keeps going and by extension, that the Guiding Star Grange stays open. Twenty years ago, his interest in the grange was to secure a place for a gig. The grange meetings opened with Christian prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance and Kaynor, a fiddle-playing free spirit, initially felt at odds with the culture of the grange members. Then something else happened; Kaynor began to get to know and admire the older members who were the foundation of the grange. "No sooner did I really get to know them, than they started dying." Today, Kaynor is a dedicated member who relentlessly recruits new members.

Kaynor regularly calls dances in Greenfield, New York state, Oregon and Washington. One of the difficulties with being a caller, he says, is conducting the intricate balance between musicians and dancers. "I have to figure out when to rein everyone into the group experience and when to let everyone do their own thing," he said. "The caller is the only person who can see the entire room."

Ralph Sweet, who lives in Connecticut, is the most experienced caller in the region. He, too, is intent on keeping contra dancing robust and is thrilled at the infusion of newcomers, particularly young dancers, into the group of regulars. His advice is to arrive on time and don't sit on your hands for the first few dances. "The whole evening is designed to ease first-time dancers into the fold. The band and the caller work together to offer easier dances in the first part of the evening." He also suggests dancing with as many partners as possible. This is not a time to cling to your best friend or significant other. "Contra dancers find it boring to dance with the same person all night," said Sweet, noting his own goal is to dance with nearly every woman present during the course of an evening.

I arrived at the Guiding Star Grange on a recent Saturday night with a good-natured friend in tow. Susan Shilliday, recently transplanted from Los Angeles, agreed to try out contra dancing. We made sure to arrive in time for the lesson that is offered from 8 to 8:30 p.m. Wild Asparagus, a band that always draws a large crowd, was playing.

The February night was icy cold, so people peeled off layers of protective clothing in the coatroom, revealing their favorite dance attire. Street shoes were tossed aside and piled high; only clean, smooth-soled shoes allowed. Most women wore skirts or dresses that were loose and casual. Some men stripped off sweatpants to reveal khaki shorts, others wore loose pajama-like pants, some wore jeans, and a few wore skirts. Men wearing skirts has absolutely nothing to do with their sexual orientation, I discovered. "I like the way it feels dancing and it's a lot cooler," I was told by more than one of them. The atmosphere is festive.

Sweet, who had had to turn down a calling gig at Brown University in Providence due to some lingering laryngitis, was there and gallantly took me under his wing. He was my partner for the lesson and the first dance.

In the lesson, the caller took us through some basics. We all got in a circle and learned to count to 8 by keeping time to the music; 8 steps into the center, 8 steps out again, very important in contra dancing. We learned to face our partners, and to swing with partners. We learned where to put our hands and how to counterbalance our weight with our partner's for spinning. Ladies place their left hands on the gentlemen's shoulders, gentlemen place left hands on the ladies' backs, and each extend and clasp a right hand and then swing around like a top.

When the lesson was over, I was not convinced that I knew enough to join the dance, but Sweet was persuasive. There were over 150 people in the hall and everyone lined up in partners in three long double lines, the more experienced dancers in the center.

The caller walked us through the dance steps once before each tune began. Two couples faced each other to form a square within the line, and the caller instructed the women to change places, and swing with a new partner, return to the first partner, and swing again; then we proceeded to our right, down the infinitely long line, and we were off and dancing. All three lines began to undulate and swing as each couple made its way down the line, completing a series of crossovers, swings, allemandes and do-si-dos with one couple after another until each person had danced with more people than he or she ever imagined.

The caller insisted, "If you can walk, you can contra dance." I tell people the same thing about cross-country skiing, and it is not exactly true in either case. But by the end of the first dance, I was pleased that I didn't knock anyone over. I started to connect body movements with the caller's instructions. I had to admit it was a lot of fun.

Both Allison Bell and Katie Olmstead mentioned an unwritten code of etiquette among contra dancers that specifically encourages experienced dancers to dance with new people, so there was no lack of partners. This code also helps new dancers improve faster. Despite the fact that it was 15 degrees outside, half of the windows were thrown open and we were all sweating and laughing.

David Kaynor says that a four-hour dance is the equivalent of walking 4 to 6 miles. If working off some winter bulk is the goal, this is just the thing.

I sat out one dance and stationed myself behind the band onstage to watch the whole, colorful panorama. Young people danced with elders, men flew by in swirling skirts, and college students dancing for the first time were kindly urged along. Sitting on the stage is perfectly acceptable and people rest there from time to time.

I checked in on Shilliday. She confessed that she simply had to stop in the midst of one dance because she couldn't keep up with the spinning. Otherwise she was happily dancing, if a bit dazed by the newness. I suspect I had the same look.

I decided to seek out Katie Olmstead, too. Would she be as happy as we were led to believe when she wrote longingly about dancing last year? I spotted her, right smack in the middle of the room, graceful and laughing as she spun and twirled, meeting each new partner with a slightly wicked grin, and giving each one her full attention.

Watching her, I remembered one last thing that both Allison Bell and David Kaynor had told me. Dancing keeps us in the present moment together, and for that moment, the past and the future don't really matter. And that's clearly where Katie Olmstead, still on her way back from knee surgery, was.

Jacqueline Sheehan is a writer and a psychologist who lives in Northampton.

Return to the articles section of the web site.
Produced by Charlie Seelig
This page last updated on October 28, 2007.