Twirling Tradition Oakum Bay String Band Celebrates 20 Years of Contradancing By Brendan Watson

BLUE HILL-Smiling, Peggy Huckel stood on the edge of the dance floor, watching a room full of twirling dancers.

"To me this is quintessential Maine," she said loudly over the music.

Huckel lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but is one of 10 former members of Oakum Bay String Band who returned last weekend for the group's 20th anniversary contradance, held Saturday, Aug. 4, at the Blue Hill Town Hall.

Huckel was in the band for five years, and was one of its original members. The band was started in 1981 in Castine by Richard Read, who was learning dance tunes on a hammered dulcimer and wanted others to play with him. He was soon joined by Lou Anna Perkins on piano, Arthur Washburn on guitar, Louise Bourne as the caller, Kim Petty on fiddle and George Fowler on fiddle. Huckel joined the group in 1982 on piano.

STAFF PHOTOS BY BRENDAN WATSON Dancers ignore the heat and tread the measure. George Fowler, in white hat above, and fellow fiddler Bill Schubeck, right, perform at the 20th anniversary performance of the Oakum Bay String Band at a Blue Hill Town Hall contradance Saturday. Fowler, the last of the band's founding members, doubles as caller while dancers twirl in photo at far right.

Fowler is the only original member left, but the band and its traditions are very much intact. The group leads the Blue Hill contradance the first Saturday of each month, and a Trenton contradance the third Saturday of each month. The group also plays for weddings and other social events.

"I enjoy playing with other people to produce a product other people enjoy," said Fowler. "I consider myself a dance musician. I don't like performing unless there is an audience involved. I like the interaction."

The contradance is very interactive. Saturday's dancers dripped with sweat as they danced, and took breaks to gulp down quarts of water.

Contradance has its origin in 18th-century British Isles country dancing and is heavy with Celtic influences.

British Isle country dancing made its way to North America before the Revolutionary War. Its American interpretation became contradancing. The "contra" comes from the fact that partners line up across from each other during portions of the dance.

Contradancing, which is always done to live jigs and reels, was popular into the 1930s before it died out. It experienced a resurgence in the 1970s as part of the folk revival, and has found a new cult following.

Fowler still plays fiddle for the band, but as keeper of the group's traditions he has also become one of the callers. The role of the caller is to teach the dancers the steps before the dance begins, and then to lead the audience through the steps during the dance.

Most of the people dancing last Saturday were veteran contradancers, though that is not a prerequisite.

"Contradancing is kept fairly simple, so the newcomer can come, dance and have fun," said Fowler.

But when the music started, the dancing did not look simple. Partners danced fast, circling each other and weaving in and out of the larger group.

"I have the best time dancing when everyone figures it out," said Wendilou Salman, who started contradancing when she was 5 and first came to the Blue Hill contradance while in high school.

"There are also a lot of good dancers that swing you around a lot," she added. "That's a lot of fun, too."

The Oakum Bay String and its loyal following of dancers show no sign of slowing down. The band's tunes and the drum of the dancers' feet on the wood floor could be heard down Main Street long after the rest of the town had gone to bed.

As Huckel stood in the corner watching the dancers twirl, jump, hop and stamp, the energy pulsated throughout the room.

"I love that it is a tradition," said Huckel. "That this band and this dance has been in Blue Hill so long, and that the band is still going strong."

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This page last updated on October 28, 2006.