Musicians tap into the contra dance groove |

Musicians tap into the contra dance groove

Hammer dulcimer player Sharon Mitchell, right, seen with guitarist Steve Hewson, will perform in the bands that will play for the Spring community dance at Rockport Old Church on Saturday, April 13. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Mitchell)

A few hundred years ago, England and France developed the contra dance, a social activity based on walking that features a handful of turns and partner switching.

Unlike other social dances, the contra style isn’t a waltz or a tango. It’s like a Virginia Reel that features more intricate movements, said Danielle Montague-Judd, who organizes the annual Spring community dance at Rockport Old Church at Rockport State Park.

"It’s a group dance and at the beginning, the caller will do a walk-through to get people familiar with it," Montague-Judd said during an interview with The Park Record. "There is no set partner, although you start with one, but you end up switching partners throughout the dance."

On Saturday, April 13, the Rockport Old Church will host the 2013 Spring community dance from 7:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Admission is $5 per person. Proceeds will benefit Friends of Rockport Old Church, what maintain the historic building.

When the dancers hit the floor that night, Montague-Judd will be playing fiddle with the Rockport Dam Band. The night will also feature another group, Loose Shoes, which features Sharon Mitchell on the hammer dulcimer.

Both musicians are looking forward to playing for the dance and both like the response they get from the dancers when their bands play.

"It’s great fun to play a tune and see the dancers respond to the music and enjoy what we’re doing," Montague-Judd said.

"When people dance, they have a great time with the music, and at the same time we, as musicians, are preserving the traditional music," Mitchell said.

Montague-Judd and her fiddle

Montague-Judd started playing classical violin when she was a child, and branched out into folk fiddling in college.

In 2007, she began playing in the sit-in bands at the contra dances in Salt Lake.

"I sat in the back of the band to get the feel of the music," Montague-Judd said. "Each band has a list of tunes they start with and the songs are played many times during the night, so if you are on top of things, you can learn how to play them in one night.

"Contra dance music draws from many different folk traditions such as Irish. Scottish, French Canadian and Klezmer tunes," she said. "We also play what we call old-time music, which many think of as Southern or Appalachian music."

In addition, the dances have a pattern and the music needs to follow that pattern.

"So there is already a structure in place," she said. "If you continue to attend these dances, you can learn the songs pretty quickly, because the band and the dance caller have to work together."

The biggest adjustment in moving from classical violin to folk fiddling was learning how to play by ear, Montague-Judd said.

"It’s a big change, and it was difficult not to peek at the sheet music," she said. "I’m glad it’s gotten easier and I’m still learning."

Montague-Judd likes the fact that the dances are fun and open to anyone who wants to join the fun.

"Anyone can show up and learn how to dance and there are experienced dancers that will help the newcomers out," she said. "There is no need to feel intimidated if you are new to contra dancing."

Sharon Mitchell and her hammer dulcimer

The hammer dulcimer is a stringed percussion instrument that is mentioned in the book of Daniel in the Bible and migrated through Irish and Scottish folk music.

"It came over with the immigrants and went north for New England contra dancing and south for Appalachian music," said Mitchell, who plays it in the band Loose Shoes and in the Red Desert Ramblers.

It caught Mitchell’s ear when she was attending New York University in the 1980s.

"I was traveling and met someone from Boston who played it and he taught me a tune," she said. "I thought it would be a great instrument for me, so, I bought one."

When playing the dulcimer for dances, Mitchell is constantly thinking of ways to keep the music as percussive as possible.

"I also have to make sure the rhythms are impeccable as well," she said. "Dance music is focused not on an audience, but on a participating group, such as the dancers themselves."

When playing with the Red Desert Ramblers, Mitchell has to make other adjustments.

"With them, I have to make a nontraditional instrument fit in the traditional boundaries of a bluegrass band," she said. "So, when I play Old Time music and Irish music for the dances, I need to keep aware of the tune and the melody, and try to lift the dancers into the tune. When I play in the band, I’m always looking for improvisational breaks, however, it’s fun playing no matter where it is."

A spring community dance will be held at Rockport Old Church in Wanship on Saturday, April 13, beginning with a workshop at 7:30 p.m. All dances are taught and dancers rotate partners through each dance, so single dancers are welcome. Rob Snow will call the dance and the music will be performed by Loose Shoes and the Rockport Dam Band. Dancing will begin at 8 p.m. through 10:30 p.m. The event is a non-profit event sponsored by Utah State Parks, Friends of Rockport Old Church, and Loose Shoes. Admission is $5 per person. Proceeds benefit Friends of Rockport Old Church. For more Information, email or visit .

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