Alternative Contradance

text by Glen Loper, photos by Lottie Hedley

I drive to the American Legion Hall in Belfast several times a year to play mandolin and banjo in contradance bands.  When I arrive, I usually walk into a brightly lit hall to find a throng of fiddles and guitars playing for the community dance with its lines of bouncing children dancing with their parents. Tonight, the lights are off, and the disco ball overhead sends swirling patterns of light rushing over the floor.   Students from Bates college are setting up chairs around the hall, and a row of black lights shine from tables along the wall, electrifying any article of clothing that might have thought to be quietly white.  I’m here to set up a sound system for a special “alternative contradance.”

Contradancing is a kind of social dance that has been popular in New England for generations. Many of the moves are familiar from square dancing: do-si-do, allemande, swing your partner, etc. The fiddle has always played a big part in the music, and string bands of various sorts abound all over the region. Some sound very traditional, others might incorporate didgeridoo, add a djembe, or arrange a horn section to create a sound that’s more big band than string band. Regardless of the instrumentation, the moves and the dances are the same. Tonight, the “alternative” part refers to a musical element even more unfamiliar than African poly-rhythms. I unpack the speakers, mixing board, and cables that I always use. I will not need to set aside a cable on a chair for the fiddler, or clip a microphone to a stand for the guitar player. Instead, I dig into a bag and take out a cable I keep on hand but rarely use; I plug one end in the mixer and the other end in my laptop.

The dancers slowly filter in, and by 8:00, two long lines of people of all ages stretch down the hall, moving in sync as the caller gives them the sequence of moves for the particular dance. In place of the jigs and reels from  fiddle and guitar, I watch and listen as thumping bass and electric guitar hooks from Lady Gaga, and Moby send those in attendance smoothly flowing across the dance floor.