cdss-musicians-fullBy Jon Farmer
I could tell it was going to be a good afternoon as I was walking up the steps. The murmur of conversations and laughter mixed with fragments of music and poured out of the St George's Hall. Inside, dozens of contra-dancers mingled while musicians tuned their instruments on the crowded stage. It was the last afternoon of the Country Dance & Song Society's Owen Sound event and I was there to find out about contra dance.

The Country Dance & Song Society (CDSS) is a non-profit dedicated to spreading traditional dance, music, and song. It connects over 320 affiliated groups and boasts more than 3000 members across North America. 2015 is the CDSS's centennial anniversary and they are marking the milestone with seven community residencies across North America. Owen Sound's Fiddlefern Country Dancers successfully won one of those residencies, allowing them to organize and host special dance and music workshops across Grey County from April 28th to May 3rd with events in Owen Sound, Durham, and Meaford.

I arrived at St George's Hall just in time to see the culmination of the week's activity. The musicians crowded on stage – both professionals and amateurs – were preparing to play the tunes they had polished that morning and over the preceding days. The CDSS award provided three professional American musicians and a dance caller to run workshops and host sessions both in schools and for the community at large. The professionals joined the Fiddlefern house band Scatter the Cats who have been leading weekly traditional sessions at the Harmony Centre since January. I wandered around making introductions until a caller took the microphone, reminded everyone that there were snacks available in the kitchen, and gave instructions for the first dance of the afternoon.

The appropriately titled "caller" is the contra dance equivalent of a conductor, responsible for leading the dancers through the steps as they go. Friendly instruction and simple steps makes it easy for beginners to catch on. The band began to play en masse and, per the caller's instructions, the dancers formed circles, rotated in all directions, broke apart into pairs, reformed new circles, and floated around the hall. I hung around the edges of the room for a couple of dances like a journalistic wall flower until the caller passed the microphone to someone else and stepped off of the stage where I waited for an interview.

Bev Bernbaum is from Toronto and sits on the CDSS board. She's been contra dancing and calling dances since 1996. She says that contra dancing has changed her life. When I asked how, she spoke about the way she felt welcomed by the community, the people she has met, and the friends she has made across North America and beyond. Last year she called at a dance festival in Denmark. "I've never met a community like this," she told me, watching the crowd spin and lifting her glasses to wipe a tear from her cheek.

Bev explained that the CDSS received lots of applications from Canadian cities but Owen Sound is one of only two Canadian stops on the CDSS Centenial Tour. They chose lesser known communities as a sort of pilot outreach project. The CDSS understands that actively teaching is the only way to keep traditional music and dance alive. They are like artistic missionaries. Over the week, the professional musicians and callers ran workshops in three local schools in Owen Sound and Meaford. "This is the way to preserve and perpetuate and spread the joy," Bev said.
CDSS-Caller-fullWhen she finished explaining the CDSS and the tour, Bev asked me if I had ever tried contra dancing. A few beats of silence later I confessed that I never really had. "Well you have to try" she insisted.

In the interests of self-disclosure: I am not a dancer. It took me over 20 years to begin to feel comfortable moving my body to music in public and even then it required semi-darkness and some liquid courage to get me on to the dance floor. Speaking with Bev I knew that 'no' was not going to be an acceptable response. I put down my note-pad and followed her to the end of a line of dancers who were reorganizing to instructions from a first time caller. We faced each other and followed the rookie's instructions, spinning and weaving down the length of the hall and back until we had danced with every other pair in our line. I repeated the steps with each person, learning quickly through repetition with strangers who took my hands and spun me back and forth. The steps were not complicated. One dancer explained that "if you can walk, you can dance". The dances do require proximity, however, and I was surprised to realize how seldom I come into physical contact with strangers. Avoiding eye contact isn't an option either because fixing your eyes on a partner is one of the only ways to avoid dizziness through all of the spinning. When the dance was over the dancers clapped and cheered while the caller stepped down from the stage glowing with a smile of self-satisfaction. I tried to step back but couldn't refuse two more invitations.

By the time I finally excused myself and went in search of my notepad I felt like I was beginning to understand. Contra dance is about connection and this kind of welcoming community attracts people. The organizers proudly told me that some dancers had come from as far away as Hamilton, Ottawa, and New York. A few of the visiting dancers and musicians were billeted with locals. Strangers became friends.

The Fiddlefern Country Dancers have been organizing regular dance and music sessions in our area for over 20 years and the CDSS tour compliments their annual Spring Fling event. Frank Francalanza is a member of Scatter the Cats and a Fiddlefern organizer. I asked him about the Fiddlefern Country Dancers and their goals as the last of the volunteers were tidying the hall and loading sound equipment into vehicles. "We do it because dancing is a great way to create a form of community open to everyone," he said. After spending an afternoon mingling with smiling dancers and watching the blossoming confidence of amateur callers and musicians, I believe him.


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