Even within some of the oldest and most traditional art forms, there is always room for change. Contra dancing, a style of partnered folk dance with a deeply rooted history in New England, is no exception.
“It’s a very old form of American country dancing that’s really gotten quite modernized, but still keeps in touch with its roots,” said Bob Nicholson, a longtime contra dance caller and president of the Syracuse Country Dancers. “Each generation comes in and changes it a little bit, and we adapt to that pretty well.”
You can enjoy the changes for yourself this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 5 and 6, at the United Church of Fayetteville. That’s when the Syracuse Country Dancers holds, for the 15th year, its Phylla Mae Fall Fest Dance Weekend, named for one of the organizers of the Country Dancers; she died in 1999.
Contra dancing is a form of dance where an individual, as the “caller,” guides couples dancing in two facing lines through an assortment of choreographed moves. The caller works with both a group of live folk musicians and the dancers to make sure the band maintains the right beat since the dancers know what dance moves to do, as well as when to do them.
“It’s a very interesting kind of dance because, unlike swing dancing, blues dancing or jazz where it’s you and your partner or you by yourself, with contra dancing, you’re affecting yourself, your partner, and everyone else,” said caller Sarah VanNorstrand, 25. “You’re dancing simultaneously because you’re all connected.”
This special weekend is shifting in a different direction under VanNorstrand’s new leadership as the event organizer. Events from previous years often involved booking a big band and a big caller for big money. This time around, she wants to return the festival to a more grass-roots level.
“I’m going with a more local focus,” she explained, “local musicians, local volunteers, and we’re going to have potluck on Friday before the dance. We’re trying to bring people in with a sort of community-party vibe.”
As luck would have it, the local talent is noteworthy on a national level as well. Central New York residents Andrew VanNorstrand and his brother Noah are immensely popular contra dance musicians in their own right. As members of groups such as the Great Bear Trio and the seven-piece Andrew and Noah Band, they have carved out a fan base within the contra dance scene that has made them a draw throughout the United States.
Sarah often put her talents to use as their caller. “It gives me a way to travel with the band,” she noted. “I can do dance weekends and travel all across the country, call, and pay my way.” She and Andrew are especially happy with the arrangement: they married in 2008.
The brothers see their part in the Phylla Mae Fall Fest as a way to change up their usual routine. “We’re playing with friends of ours that we’ve never actually had an opportunity to play with before rather than our typical band and our typical setlist,” said Andrew. “It’s our hometown, so it’s easy for me to plug right into it.”
Andrew and Noah will be sharing the bill at the Phylla Mae Fall Fest with notable artists such as the contra dance trio Montage, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Marcus, fiddle player Eileen Nicholson, Bob’s daughter, and other local musicians. Adina Gordon, a celebrated figure in the national scene, will be serving as the main caller for the festival.
Andrew and Noah are already planning ahead, hoping to carry the spirit of local collaboration that the Phylla Mae Fall Fest’s new direction exemplifies into a monthly concert series at the Syracuse University adjacent café and performance space Funk ‘N Waffles. Dubbed “Americana Groove Night,” it will include sets by Andrew and Noah, as well as performances by other Central New York musicians.
The brothers hope to cultivate a local scene with as much energy as they’ve seen on their national tours. “We’ve been on the road a lot over the past few years, and we’re trying to come up with a lot of new ways to play locally and develop the local roots music scene a little bit,” said Andrew.
One trait many in the contra dance community seem to share is a love of bringing new dancers into the fold. In fact, the welcoming of people from all walks of life is one of Sarah’s favorite qualities of the scene.
“We have everybody. We have babies on backs, and we have people in their 70s who are still dancing and doing well,” she said. “That’s what we really go for, we’re not really shooting for one particular demographic. We’re very inclusive, that’s kind of the goal.”
Their doors are still open to those who may be hesitant to join the fun because of an admission price. “It’s really ‘pay what you can.’ We have a suggested fee, but we would always rather have people come than their money. It’s more important to us to have dancers than paychecks.”
With her hard work in planning the Phylla Mae Fall Fest finally coming to fruition this weekend, VanNorstrand is thrilled to showcase the contra dance scene that has become a central focus of her life. “It’s really good, clean fun. You can show up with $5 in your pocket and dance for three hours to live music with people of all ages, all generations, and it’s active,” she noted. “It’s when you’re doing things simultaneously with everyone else that you get that really cool feeling, because you’re connecting with everybody. It’s all about the connection.”
As a larger undertaking, however, the 2012 Phylla Mae Fall Fest Dance Weekend charges an admission, $18 each for Friday, Saturday during the day and Saturday evening, or $50 for the weekend, still no one will be turned away for inability to pay. It takes place Friday, Oct. 5, 7 to 11:30 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 6, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Events during the day on Saturday include workshops and dance lessons. Both evenings will end with contra dancing. For the event schedule and admission suggestions, visit syracusecountrydancers.org.