Zydeco spices recent contradance with Cajun influence

Artful posters and a campus email distinguished by a skillful text drawing of a goose heralded the contradance held on April 5 in the First Congregational Church, played by Wild Goose Nation and called by Erica Weiss. The Dancing Folk, a group of students dedicated to bringing contradance in all its twirling glory to the Williams campus, arranged and sponsored the event, which drew dancers of all ages from the campus and surrounding community.

This month’s contradance brought in fewer Williams regulars but a solid number of new participants from off-campus, especially young children. Up to an hour into the dance, when dances are still on the easier levels and the night is young, a handful of elementary-school-aged children danced in the sets with the others, or just ran around, enjoying the music and friendly atmosphere. Contradance is exhausting even for robust college students, though, and one soon noticed the children’s bouncing getting less exuberant, their heads beginning to droop as their bedtimes approached. Soon the under-18 attendance level was reduced to one curly-haired boy who swayed precariously on his feet, counting on the other people in his circle to hold him up and pull him through the dance, and finally collapsed against his mother in exhaustion, who took him home after that dance even though she seemed ready to go on for another few hours.

Blessed are the Williams contradancers, for they have the souls of children, but the sleep patterns of college students. Certainly there came a point that night where all the children had gone, but all of the people acting like children did not leave until the dance was well over. Not content simply to walk in a “long lines, forward and back” formation, Williams contradancers typically hop, stomp, kick, shout and slap hands. Movements are repeated and simple enough for any beginner to learn, but lend themselves to countless embellishments and variations. The antics of the dancers before her made caller Weiss laugh out loud at one point, and drawl an inquisitive “Ohhh-kaaaay” through a smile, as she watched two dancers playfully demonstrate a move at a high speed.

Weiss, from Boston, plays guitar for a few New England bands, including Grand Bois and Money Up Front, but also calls contradances, as she did at the dance last Friday. As a caller, it was her job to teach each of the night’s dances, and also to prompt dancers as they danced to help them stay in step and not fall behind the music. Callers are the bridge between the band and the dancers at a contradance, and are responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly. Besides choosing and ordering dances for the night, they also influence the tempo of the music and how long a song is played. Skilled callers, like Weiss, are the reason why contradancing is so accessible. What a novice doesn’t know will be taught as needed, and when it is forgetten ten seconds later, reminders are delivered a few generous beats before it’s needed. Weiss in particular was sure to keep things well within the skill level of the room, asking permission to teach tricker steps before the music for the dance started up. One of her enthusiastic choices turned out to be my favorite dance of the night.

With contradances, the magic is in the mix. Because the dances themselves are broken into modules of movements, any dance can be done to any piece that has the right number of beats. This allows for a great deal of flexibility in what contradance bands, like Williams’ own Rude Cider and the zydeco-influenced Wild Goose Nation of Mystic, can choose to play with regard to tempo, style and even what instruments are used.

Much of the melodic fare traditionally played at contradances was originally influenced by Irish folk music, but it has been tempered by centuries of New England tradition. The fiddle is customarily the lead instrument, but woodwinds, other strings, and percussion of all kinds fill out the sound, and typically each musician will have at least one solo at some point in the night. Many bands like to spice up an old tune by having players fall out of the piece and join back in an alternating fashion, holding back at first, then joining in full force for the last few rounds through the dance to drive the piece strongly home.

It’s the sort of surge that is possible only at a dance with live music, which the contras at Williams always have. Contradance is not by any means limited to new renditions of the New England old. Bands draw on styles from all over the world, taking advantage of the flexibility that contradance allows. Wild Goose Nation in particular enjoys borrowing from zydeco music, as do the bands Erica plays in, making Friday’s pairing of band and caller especially felicitous.

Zydeco is a Creole style that evolved from traditional Cajun music, breaking from Cajun tradition when it mixed with blues and rock and roll after World War II. Traditional zydeco is played with accordion and a corrugated metal rub-board called a frottier and does not include the fiddle, making it a perfect candidate for a variegating addition to a contradance band’s repertoire.

Dancing Folk, which has held a dance every month this year, will have one more campus contra on May 12. Live music, refreshments, and the chance to tap into a dynamic tradition for “the most fun you can have with your clothes on” are all free to the public.