Go to contracalendar.com
Go to contracalendar.com
What can I say about the Northwest Folklife Festival? It is the High Holy Days for our tribe. We clear our calendars of any and all other obligations. This is the only place to be in the Pacific Northwest for the 4 days of Memorial Day Weekend. It is an improbable, overwhelming, free volunteer folk music festival that changes lives.
This is particularly true in the Roadhouse, the venue for the contra dances. A lot of dancers will tell you they first encountered contra dance in this hall; they wandered by, got sucked in, and their lives haven't been the same since. You'll find the experienced dancers at the 11am opening set, before the throngs descend. By the evening contras the hall gets mosh pit crowded and you often emerge bruised and battered. It helps to be young.
There are people who come from long distances, every year, and never leave this hall except to eat. They are vaguely aware that there are another 20 stages on the grounds, but what could be more compelling than to dance for 12 hours a day for 4 days? I have been of that ilk in my past, particularly in the late 80's and early 90's when some of my most memorable dance experiences, and, in hindsight, regrettable short term relationships, came out of this hall. It's there if you want it. Now I'm firmly in the 11am crowd and usually head to hearth and home in the evening.
This shot is a quiet backstage moment before a contra dance set of David Kaynor, from Western Massachusetts, tuning his fiddle. I learned to photograph contra dance in this hall, and I have 20 years worth of dance photos from Folklife. Here are some links.
A documentary on the Folkfloor, the portable floor we dance on for 4 days: http://youtu.be/0Vf8zH4E6fM
The Buskers of Folklife: http://vimeo.com/4832786
Guerilla Contra: http://vimeo.com/4818950
Flickr photo sets:
This shot is from a lovely dance camp that is no more, Camp Wannadance, held at Fort Flagler State Park. The park sits on a bluff on the extreme northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, overlooking the entrance to Puget Sound. It's a spectacular location, and with the sweetest little dance hall.
I'm particularly nostalgic for this camp because it's where I first got my bearings as a dancer, in 1988. I was in my early 30's, newly single and a little clueless, socially. I had been to a couple of Seattle contra dances, but in those days the scene was, well, cliquish, and I had a devil of a time getting partners. I didn't know anybody, I was green and showed it ("you don't have to flap your arms when you swing," was the kind of comment I got).
I signed up for the camp, and it was my first deep immersion into dance, and into the warmth of a dance community. I made friends at that first camp that are still in my life. My skill level ramped up quickly, and I finally found my dance groove. I clearly recall Laura Me Smith teaching me how to grasp my partner during a swing: "Aim for the bra strap." Because I wore a Camp Wannadance t-shirt at subsequent Seattle dances, I never again had a problem getting a partner.
This camp is where I started photographing contra dance. The signature photograph of my career, it seems, the overhead view of dancers that has been reprinted in scores of publicity pieces for dance groups (it's the profile pic on my Contra Dance Project Facebook page), came from that first camp. I rigged a camera on the ceiling and triggered it with a radio remote.
This shot came from a 1999 camp, when I was deep in my "blurry picture" phase. It works because the movement abstracts it just enough to make it energetic, and the connection with those other hands is so emblematic for me of the deeper meaning of dance and community. The bottom row are from other Seattle dances: Lake City, my "home dance," and in the center, an abstract view from the floor of the Roadhouse at the NW Folklife Festival.
Here is a video documentary I made of the penultimate Camp Wannadance in 2008. I was just off my initial 10 day video boot camp where I learned about video storytelling, and so this was literally the second video I ever produced.
They say they've been dancing in Nelson for 200 years. It feels completely true, regardless of the actual historical facts of the matter. If the heart and soul of traditional contra dance lives anywhere, it is in Nelson, New Hampshire.
This little town hall, in a flyspeck of a village on the top of a mountain, is the Mecca of contra dance that every good dancer needs to visit one in his or her lifetime. Do it in the winter, when the students and the summer people are gone. Go in on a deep, below-zero night, change out of your winter layers (though not all of them, the hall is still chilly), bang the snow off your boots. If you're early, Lisa will be concluding the musicians slow tunes class. The dancers will drift in, singly, a couple, a family (there are always kids at the dance). Someone puts out the fiddle case for the $2 admission. Whoever volunteered the previous week to make the brownies or cookies is laying them out on the table. Harvey shows up with his fiddle, sits on the fold-up chair on the stage. Bob sits at the piano. "Line up for a contra," barks Don, in a clipped, Yankee accent. "First dance is Moneymusk."
Anytime I'm in New England I try to stay over on a Monday and catch the Nelson dance. My first time was in 2003, and I felt like I had entered a slower paced, locavore mode of dancing. Eight years and a half dozen visits later, and it hasn't changed much.
In this main photo Don Primrose is calling. He tells me the dancers are Jaime Contois and Kirk Dale (if you're wondering, I tried to get hold of everyone who was going to appear prominently in a big photo to get their permission). The small photo in the middle shows Harvey Tolman holding his fiddle in his inimical way, and Bob McQuillen in the background on piano. These musicians are national treasures--click on the links to learn more.
Here is a video from Nelson that I made in 2008
As a lifelong non-musician, who has always yearned to change that status, I am drawn to watch how music is made. In my travels to Ireland I would worm my way to the heart of the pub sessions to watch and photograph. My neighbor Sue Truman, knowing of my fascination, invites me to her Quebequois sessions to listen and watch. And of course, I have zillions of photographs of contra dance music being made.
I am trying, finally, to change my musical non-identity. A little over a year ago I bought a piano, which you see here. It's a upright Steinway I found for sale on-line, in the neighborhood. It sounds gorgeous. I adore the echoes and overtones that linger when I stop playing. I hosted a Thanksgiving music jam last year, and people who actually know how to make music, like my pianist friend Anita Anderson, came by. In a few years I might be the one playing at one of these sessions.
On the small calendar photos you see Marni Rachmiel on flute at Lake City with Contra Sutra, Cheryl Phillips on bass, also at Lake City, and Laurie Andres on accordian, at the Ralph Page Legacy Weekend. All moments when, instead of dancing, I watched the music.
The Peterborough Town Hall, in the dead center of Peterborough, New Hampshire, may be one of the most beautiful dance venues on the country. At least I thought so on this sunny, mid-January, well-below-zero winter afternoon.
This was taken during my second New England dance junket, and it was my first time at the Snow Ball, a 12 hour, noon-to-midnight feast of a dance. Every good contra dancer, at least once in their life, should do a hajj to the dance meccas of New England--Nelson, Greenfield, Concord, Peterborough. Yes, the dancing and the music may be excellent in Seattle, or San Francisco or Chicago or Asheville. But it's not the same. You need to dance where contra dance is indigenous. You feel, somehow, that this music and this dance belongs in this landscape, and even though the rhythms, choreography and costumes may be contemporary, this is where contra dance has lived for centuries. It's just different here.
These two Snow Balls, 2004 and 2007, both generated some of the signature dance images of my career. When I was editing for the calendar I couldn't use my favorite shot, a vertical, for the big image but I found another image in the archive. I think it's a great opening image for the work. Both times I was at the Snow Ball on a sunny afternoon, with a low sun streaming into the hall and the dust raised by the dancers giving me these great atmospherics.
I was just in Peterborough for the Fall Ball, an October version of the 12 hour marathon. Something has changed in the hall, perhaps the floor has been refinished, but there was no dust. The air stayed clear and breatheable. The circumstances that made this shot possible may be history.