Arizona ArtBeat: Contra Dancing

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Contra Dancing is a traditional folk dance requiring a partner with roots in English Country and French dance styles. The Country Dance and Song Society Centennial recently conducted a tour of contra dancing. Linda Nieman of Phoenix Traditional Music and Dance, Quinn Rouston of the Prescott Chupacabras and Kent Gugler, the Chupacabras organizer, will talk about contra dancing in Arizona.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona ArtBeat" looks at contra dancing. It's a traditional form of dance with roots in English country and French dance styles. The Country Dance and Song Society Centennial recently conducted a state tour of contra dancing. Joining us now is LINDA NIEMAN of Phoenix Traditional Music and Dance, QUINN ROUSTON of the Prescott Chupacabras - that's a dance group - and KENT GUGLER, the Chupacabras' organizer, kind of the big Chupacabra, right?
KENT GUGLER: I guess you could say.
TED SIMONS: Thank you for being here. We appreciate it. Linda, we'll start with you. What is contra dancing? It looks a little like square dancing.
LINDA NIEMAN: It's actually kind of the great-grandfather of square dancing. It's a style that originated from English and French country dancing back in the old country. It came across with the settlers when they immigrated to America. It became, well, estate country dancing, but it kind of became barn dancing. And so how it's done is you line up two long lines opposite your partner - that's where the word contra comes from, is opposite. And you and your partner together dance all the way down the line and all the way back. So it's a community dance; you dance with everybody else in the hall.

TED SIMONS: How did you get involved in this kind of dancing?

QUINN ROUSTON: At the school I went to, when you were in fourth and fifth grade, you took a violin class - a fiddle class. Mr. Kent was the teacher. I wanted to learn mandolin so I got private lessons with Mr. Kent. I did that for about a year. Then the idea for the Chupacabras came up. I was invited to do that and I so I accepted and it's a lot of fun.

TED SIMONS: And you like it, too, don't you?

QUINN ROUSTON: Yeah.

TED SIMONS: Are you surprised that young folks like Mr. Rouston over here enjoy this kind of dancing?

KENT GUGLER: Not at all.

TED SIMONS: How come?

KENT GUGLER: Well, playing music for dancers and dancing, it's always been human fun, in the most primitive societies you see it, it's just part of life. I just think it's great to have such an opportunity. When young people take music lessons and learn to play instruments, it's kind of a dead activity unless you have a place to go play in public and be in front of people and have it received and interact.

TED SIMONS: This kind of group communal dancing, again I go back to square dancing. When I was a kid we had square dancing classes in elementary school. We marched out there and did whatever we did. Is it coming back? It seemed like it was big at one time, then went away. Is it coming back?

LINDA NIEMAN: It is. It's coming back in huge numbers back east. Somehow the youth have found it. And so the college kids, high school kids have just taken it by storm. And they're the ones that are populating really big dance scenes now throughout the colleges and in all of the communities. And slowly it's trickling out west. So we're seeing resurgences here, too.

TED SIMONS: Now, when you danced, when you take part in these activities, is it difficult to learn? Was it difficult to get started on this? How does that work?

QUINN ROUSTON: You mean the dances?

TED SIMONS: Yeah.
QUINN ROUSTON: The caller, the person that kind of tells you what to do in the dance, they take five minutes before the dance to instruct the dance. So before you start dancing this person comes down and tells you how to do the dance. And then the band starts to play and then you can just follow the directions, I guess.

TED SIMONS: So what does he say? Like there's going to be two lines and you're going to go left first, right second? What does he say?

QUINN ROUSTON: Yeah, and then you can swing, and do do-si-do's.

TED SIMONS: So basically what he says is "Prepare, because here it comes", right?

QUINN ROUSTON: Yeah.

TED SIMONS: Again, it seems like these kinds of communal and group dances, there's a lot of smiling going on. There's an old-fashioned word called "fellowship" that I haven't heard too much recently. But it sounds like fellowship. Am I getting this right here?

KENT GUGLER: I think that's a real good term to use. It's a great social interaction. Contra dancing, there are some dances that they call mixers. They tend to mingle a whole group of people. You meet a whole bunch of new people when you go to a contra dance usually. Or you meet a whole lot of people that you might have already interacted with before. It's a real community bonding kind of an activity, and for the musicians also.

TED SIMONS: Yeah, I'll bet.

KENT GUGLER: It's just a great interaction with the dancers and watching them dance and responding.

TED SIMONS: I'm hearing old timey kind of music. It's not bluegrass, is it folk? How would you describe that music?

KENT GUGLER: Oh, gosh, there's a large body of music that's used in contra dancing. Some bands use a lot of old-time Appalachian music. A lot of what we do is New England, French-Canadian, Scottish and Irish tunes.

TED SIMONS: Does there have to be a certain time signature going on here?

KENT GUGLER. No, no, all there has to be is 32 measures, and you just have to have the right number of measures. Some of the dances, we play a lot of things that are usually written in 6/8 time but they're usually played in 2/4 time, so there are pairs of triplets. And then we play a lot of things that are in ordinary time, which are groupings of four notes.

TED SIMONS: And everyone just kind of follows along. And there's a state tour of this? Did I get that right?

LINDA NIEMAN: There was. Well actually it was sponsored by the National Organization of Country Dance and Song Society. They're kind of the umbrella organization for contra dance groups all over the world, here and in Canada, the British Isles, all over Europe, Australia…anywhere that there's the English country tradition that's morphed into contra dancing and beyond, they're kind of involved in that. They sponsored what they considered a week-long camp experience in seven different communities around North America. Luckily Tucson and Phoenix and Prescott were winners of one of the tour stops on their giant tour.

TED SIMONS: Wow. Impressive. Very impressive. Alright, Quinn, where do you go with this? Is this kind of moving you more into a music direction? Do you like the dancing aspect? What do you see in your future?

QUINN ROUSTON: I really enjoy playing my mandolin and playing for dances. I'd like to learn more instruments so I can kind of expand my horizons I guess.

TED SIMONS: Sure, sure. Banjo? The mandolin is pretty big in bluegrass. Do you like bluegrass?

QUINN ROUSTON: Kind of. I mean, it's not like I'd sit down and listen to some bluegrass. But yeah.

TED SIMONS: Yeah. It's wherever the road takes you, you're going to go there, right?

QUINN ROUSTON: Yeah.

TED SIMONS: Well good luck to you and congratulations to all of you. As far as you're concerned, it has to be very uplifting to be part of something like this.

KENT GUGLER: It is a delight to participate in a community, and it's a delight to be able to play music with young people. It builds friendships, it builds warmth, it's just what life is about.

TED SIMONS: Well it's a delight to have you all on. Congratulations on what sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for being here, we appreciate it.

KENT GUGLER: Thank you so much.
LINDA NIEMAN: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: And Thursday on "Arizona Horizon" we'll have an update on the V.A. health care system as the former head of the Phoenix V.A. hospital tries to get her job back. Then we'll visit Howard Seftel, who's retiring as the Arizona Republic's long-time restaurant critic. That's on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Linda Nieman:Phoenix Traditional Music and Dance; Quinn Rouston:Prescott Chupacabras; Kent Gugler:Organizer, Prescott Chupacabras;

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