@Greg and other non-facebook users:
Putting on "Techno" contra dances - my experience over the last 2 years
April 3, 2013 at 1:31pm
The following is in response to a question on the Contra Dance FB page
about how to plan/run/manage a "techno" contra dance.
Over the last couple of years I've organized a number of dance events,
including ContraEvolution, which often go by the name "techno" contra
dance in the Northeast US but also are referred to as "Crossover",
"Livetronica", "Electro-acoustic", and, for fully pre-recorded music
events, "Electroflow" in other areas. (thanks to Peter Clark for some
of those terms.) When other contra dance organizers ask me about
putting on one of these dances I try to start with giving them a sense
of what dancers think of or expect and then follow up with the some
important notes on logistics, safety and technical issues.
There are two main components that I think distinguish these dances
from a more traditional contra dance: 1) music that includes one or
more of the following: looping, beat mixes, sampling, remixing,
unusual instrumentation, non-32-bar music, the use of non-traditional
music or musical references, particularly in terms of samples; 2)
lowered lights and "club" or "theatrical" style lighting.
In my experience, what is considered "techno" or "crossover" music
runs the gamut from Perpetual e-Motion on one end of the spectrum,
where the music is entirely live but there is extensive use of
electronics to modify and loop the music, to what Jeremiah Phillip
Seligman and Eileen Thorsos do, using fully pre-recorded music tracks.
(Eileen, to my knowledge uses more traditional though still very
modern music such as the Peatbog Fairies, while Jeremiah mostly works
with Top 40 remixes. I believe Jeremiah also sometimes does some
remixing on the spot).
In between those two extremes are groups like Firecloud (Julie
Vallimont's group) and Phase X (Christopher Jacoby's group) which use
pre-mixed samples, beats loops but then play lives instruments such as
keyboard, fiddle and guitar on top of that. Firecloud also recently
added an effects artist DJ Nanocannon (Andrew Hylinsky) who is
creating and adding electronic effects live and in coordination with
the music and the dance.
I would say that the biggest considerations around music are the
additional challenges for the caller and the loss of spontaneity that
comes with a fully pre-recorded gig. Having an experienced caller is
very important, especially if your music source is still figuring out
what they are doing. The music is frequently not 32-bar square and it
sometimes drops down to just a beat loop, so for the caller and the
dancers there is no clear A1 to start the dance again. Callers,
including very experienced ones, have sometimes had to resort to
counting, though the musicians sometimes have electronic ways of
counting the beats and tracking the start of the dance. The lack of
clear A1, A2, B1, B2 as with more traditional music also means that
the caller may need to call longer before dropping out, will need to
be ready to jump back again if they see things starting to fall apart
across a darkened room, and may in fact have to simply call all the
way through on most dances (also see note below on higher proportion
of inexperienced dancers).
The other major concern about some techno dances is the potential loss
of that magical interplay between musicians, caller and dancers that
happens with live music. With fully pre-recorded or DJed music, that
ability for the band and caller to inspire and be inspired by the
dancers is lost. It is a loss not just for the dancers but also for
the caller who may wind up sitting by her or himself on the stage
because the person doing music has joined the dance knowing that the
recording will eventually end on it's own. (This had a very
dispiriting effect on at least one very experienced caller that I
know.) This of course is only an issue with fully pre-recorded music
and the positive side of the tradeoff is that dancers get to dance to
current music that they know and often will sing along with, which is
For the Downtown Amherst series, we provide a mix of "techno"
experiences including occasional fully recorded music events, but in
terms of programming, our organizing committee leans toward music that
includes live instruments in additional to electronic and or
"Club" or "Theatrical" Lighting
For lighting, we learned early on to avoid bright flashes like strobes
and fog. We also make sure to have background "wash" lighting along
the walls and near the sitting area using torchieres and PAR cans
turned toward the walls. Our lights are heavy on Black lights (I
highly recommend the Chauvet brand panels, available new or on eBay)
and dot lasers that create swirling patterns on the ceiling and walls.
Depending on who is managing the lighting we've also had various other
kinds of lasers that make swirling colored patterns and beams. You can
find someone locally who does this kind of things for a living, just
be clear with them about things like fog and strobes. You will lose
dancers if you have either of those present.
The biggest issue about lights is that many techno dances are simply
too dark. This is a problem for both the callers and the dancers. The
callers cannot see well enough to be able to track what's going on,
even during the walkthrough, and have expressly communicated that to
me. And, the dancers cannot see each other well enough to dance
safely. The safety issue is of particular concern because techno
dances tend to attract a high proportion of new and novice dancers who
often have a hard time maintaining position and knowing where to go
even in a fully lit room.
Techno dances also attract a higher number of dancers who will try
flourishes such as extravagant dips at inadvisable times and without
good awareness of their fellow dancers. They will then be imitated by
the very new and less experienced dancers who want to try that very
cool move they just saw someone do. Mix all that together in a dark
and crowded room and you will definitely have the potential for more,
and more severe, injuries.
Having seen dancers seriously injured and knocked nearly unconscious
in fully lit rooms, it's important to seek a balance between fun club
lighting and enough light for both the callers and dancers to see each
other well and stay oriented on the floor. Black lights are really fun
if you can get enough of them going. They light up people's clothing
(you can include a mention of that in the publicity - "wear you best
black light clothing") and teeth and make it easier to see. We have a
stack of yellow highlighters near the door and on the stage for anyone
who wants to write or draw on their skin (many do) and people also
bring glow bracelets and necklaces. At our annual ContraEvolution
event, we also had Eve Christoph doing body painting with UV-reactive
paints which was really fun.
Other Considerations: Sound Equipment and Volume
For any techno event, you should have a good sub-woofer. If you don't
normally use one for your dances you should get one for any techno
dance you put on. Check with the musician(s) as they sometimes have
their own and if they don't or can't bring it to your gig you should
rent one. Having heart-thumping sub-bass is really part of the
"techno" sound environment. For ContraEvolution 2012 at the Guiding
Star Grange, Ed Howe (who does professional sound as well as being
half of Perpetual e-Motion) actually setup two sub-woofers.
Having a sub-woofer or doing a "techno" contra dance does not however
mean that the sound needs to be overly loud. Properly done sound can
provide the thump of the bass line and the beauty of the live music
without reaching a decibel level that leaves people heads hurting.
Badly done sound - electronic or traditional, even at a reduced volume
can still feel "too loud" because it's not balanced properly. That
means you need to have a knowledgeable sound person for your techno
dance, someone who really knows what they are doing and how to
fine-tune for your hall. Ed Howe, Bob Mills and Dan Richardson are
masters of this but there are many others who have the knowledge and
experience to make it sound great at the lowest necessary level.
Be in communication with the performers about volume and your
expectations be aware that the musicians often have the ability to
adjust gain before it hits the sound board. You may find it louder
than intended even though the board settings haven't changed.
Additional Thoughts and Comments
Age: Is cross-over or "techno" contra only for younger dancers? I can
answer that with an unequivocal "no". While marrying the words
"techno" and "contra" and "dance" together is a definite
younger dancers, we have dancers of all ages and experience level
coming to these dances. At last nights Downtown Amherst techno dance
with Ed Howe and Julie Vallimont playing, we acknowledged and honored
the 80th birthday of John Leonard who has been a regular at our dance.
And I know that we have at least one other octogenarian as well as
plenty of people in their 40s through 70s. They are welcomed and
appreciated by our younger dancers.
Attracting younger/newer dancers: This really a much longer
discussion, but I get asked this question a lot so I'll just put it
out two questions for you to consider:
1) How many people under 30 or 35 do you have on your organizing
committee? I think it really comes down to that. If you have young
people who are involved and have a say and a stake in how the dances
run then you will see more of them at your dances. The Downtown
Amherst Organizing Committee has roughly eight members. I'm 56 and the
rest are under 30. Publicity is a good way to start. I know of one
dance that started attracting many younger dancers after an under
25-year-old took over doing publicity.
2) Is your dance located where students can easily get to it and get
home by walking or reliable bus access (especially late at night)?
This is also key, especially as gas prices get higher. You may wish to
consider finding another location closer to students and young people
and either alternating the location or running a second dance each
month in a more student/young people friendly location. Doing outreach
to Universities and Colleges is also a good idea. Offer a discount if
they bring a van load, go to the college and run an on-campus intro
dance, get listed in the off-campus activities listings, and most
importantly, find someone on-campus who is willing to organize and
promote and possibly learn to drive the van.
Appendix & Other references
This is a short list of the folks I know of who play or call for
techno dances. Please message me with additional performers that you
consider to be "techno" oriented and where they are based. The caller
list is simply those that I know of who have done and enjoy techno
dances (not all callers do). Any experienced caller could do one I'm
sure if they were interested.
DJ Improper (Jeremiah Phillip Seligman - DC Area)
Ed Howe & Julie Vallimont Duo (Boston/Maine)
Firecloud (Julie Vallimont, Andy Reiner, Andrew Hylinsky - Boston Area)
Jordy Williams (Asheville, NC)
Julie Vallimont & Max Newman Duo (Boston Area)
Perpetual e-Motion (John Cote, Ed Howe - from Maine)
Phase X (Christopher Jacoby - NJ/NY Area)
Brian Hamshar (VA)
Clinton Ross (TN/NC)
Diane Silver (NC)
Donna Hunt (Phila., PA)
Eric Black (CA)
Erik Erhardt (CO)
Janine Smith (MD area)
Jesse Edgerton (NC/TN)
Laura Winslow (NJ?)
Lisa Greenleaf (MA)
Maggie Jo Saylor (NC)
Noah Grunzweig (OR)
Ron Blechner (MA)
Steve Zakon-Anderson (NH)
Tina Fields (CO)
Wendy Graham (CO)
Will Mentor (NH)
For an interesting history of the techno contra evolution, see Alex
Krogh-Grabbe's CDSS blog post at:
Also check out Ryan's Contrasyncretist blog at: http://www.contrasyncretist.com
Thanks to Ron Blechner, Peter Clark and Alex Krogh-Grabbe for input
and suggestions on this article.
On Wed, Jul 24, 2013 at 8:14 PM, Greg McKenzie <grekenzie(a)gmail.com> wrote:
This sounds very interesting. I would love to read
Where can non-Facebook users go to see a copy?
- Greg McKenzie
West Coast, USA
On Wed, Jul 24, 2013 at 1:59 PM, William Loving <
Hi everyone - CDSS will be reprinting my Facebook
article about organizing
techno/crossover dances. It will be published in both in print and online.
The article includes a list of musical groups that perform in the
"techno/crossover" mode, along with a list of callers who have experience
calling such dances which generally requires some additional skills, effort
and awareness (see the article for more thoughts on that).
If you know of anyone - musician or caller who should be on the list at
the end of the article, please email or message me directly, meaning don't
just reply through SharedWeight. Deadline is fairly soon.
Founder & Artistic Director
Downtown Amherst Contra Dance
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