Dance: 2012 spring newsletter for Friends of the Guiding Star Grange

I was touched to be invited by Val LaBelle to write the article below appearing in the 2012 Spring newsletter for the Friends of the Guiding Star Grange. It was almost 15 years ago that I became a dancer on the Guiding Star’s floor.

Old-time contra dancing, tradition and modernity in New Mexico
by Erik Erhardt, a New England transplant

At first glance, walking into a contra dance in New Mexico will have the look and feel of dances we experience all over the country: groups people in brightly colored clothing laughingly catching up since the last dance, a table with a small cashbox and dance fliers, a stage with musicians and technicians preparing the sound, and a buzz of anticipation for a fun evening of dance (and sometimes song). But if you’re from New England, as I am, you’ll start to notice little differences reflecting the culture, music, and style of the southwest. Cue harp strumming as we go back in time…

What Albuquerque-based 50-year caller William “Doc” Litchman calls “Rocky Mountain Square Dancing” has been around the Rocky Mountain West — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, western Montana, Eastern Nevada, and the western half of Texas — at least from the 1820s or so, brought by the people migrating westward. The music is almost always reels played with a lead fiddle or banjo in the southern style. Figures are simple and can be learned quickly. From the late 1940s, as communication and transportation became easier, square dancing integrated figures from other places, such as the quadrille-style figures from the northeast. A decade later, standardization and creativity in choreography and style has resulted in Modern Western (or club) square dancing.

In Lloyd Shaw’s “Cowboy Dances”, first published in 1939, he discusses the two main sources of Western dances as the New England Quadrille and the Kentucky Running Set (head to Berea, KY, in the last week of the year for some of the best), with additional credits to old European folk dances as well as dances from Mexico. In the preface he credits Henry Ford, of automobile fame, for permission to adapt a singing quadrille from one of Ford’s dance publications, and opens with this poem, by James Barton Adams, “At a Cowboy Dance” (first of five stanzas):

Git yo’ little stagehens ready;
Trot ‘em out upon the floor—
Line up there, you critters! Steady!
Lively, now! One couple more.
Shorty, shed that ol’ sombrero;
Broncho, douse that cigaret;
Stop yer cussin’, Casimero,
‘Fore the ladies. Now, all set:

While callers aren’t reminding us to shed our sombreros and stop our cussin’, our long history of cowboy dance culture remains present in today’s New Mexico contra dance community through the dances we dance and the music we play. Also, local dance flavor continues to change as people move to the area and bring their dance traditions with them, or travel and bring back their experiences. Wendy Graham will include Kentucky Running Sets brought back from Berea, KY, in a program in Santa Fe, Doc Litchman will call square figures from teaching in Denmark, and I’ll call an all-Rick Mohr contra set or teach Scandinavian dance that I originally learned from David Kaynor at the Montague Grange (who brought them from the source).

New Mexico dancing has a fondness and tradition of the western-style squares described in Shaw’s and Litchman’s books, which are well-accompanied by that driving southern old-time sound. The popular and vibrant old-time music colors our dances, giving them more of a barn dance feel. Old-time house party jams are as popular as the dancing, and often at a house jam there’ll be a circle of musicians in the living room, in the kitchen, and on the porch all playing different tunes. For the hundreds of tunes they know, many don’t have jigs in their repertoire. The old-time music festival is as big as our large annual dance festival.

Albuquerque and Santa Fe each developed open megabands that play for the dances each month. Anyone can start playing an instrument, go to weekly practices, and then play monthly at a dance. We have a few strong leaders on microphone in the front row with up to 20 musicians behind. Curiously, the Albuquerque megaband has members who primarily play by ear, while the Santa Fe megaband members are primarily paper-trained.

The New Mexico dances are shaped by our spacious, mountainous, desert environment. There are four regular dances in New Mexico: Albuquerque (1st/3rd Sat), Santa Fe (2nd/4th Sat) north of Albuquerque by 65 miles, Taos (3rd Sat) north of Santa Fe by 70 miles, and Las Cruces (3rd Fri) south of Albuquerque by 225 miles. The dance in Durango, CO, (1st Sat) is about 215 miles northwest from either Albuquerque or Santa Fe. In most parts of NM you’re closer to a hot spring than to a contra dance! The dances alternate between Albuquerque and Santa Fe every other week, and Taos, Las Cruces, and Durango have monthly dances. Most people pick one “local” dance and stick to it, dancing once or twice per month; I drive between Albuquerque and Santa Fe to maximize my dancing each week. In contrast, as you know, in New England, more and more it seems that neighboring towns have dances, and sometimes more than one per week. Want to dance 3-5 times a week? Not a problem in New England!

The southwestern environment affects us. For example, caller Wendy Graham in Durango, has tried for five years to have a June dance, but finally gave up because everyone heads outside for summer river rafting, climbing, hiking, biking, etc. — face it, they don’t want to come inside and dance. On the other hand, head to the swampy Glen Echo dance in Maryland even when it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 90% humidity and there’s over a hundred dancers in the Spanish ballroom!

Our weekly dances are smaller, between twenty and sixty at a dance. In southwest culture, salsa dancing is extremely popular, as is swing and international, and there are many other dancing options. In Greenfield, MA, I recall booking ahead up to five dances when I was young, but in the southwest no one books ahead, it’s not part of our culture. Our community is multigenerational, like most, though our twenty-somethings are currently underrepresented, even with our large university. We have several young leaders, including an eleven year-old caller and a dynamic brother/sister duo in high school each playing a handful of instruments and calling. At festivals a few guys bring out their skirts, some shorter than others…

We are really into socializing! If you’re a New England caller invited to call a dance in New Mexico, don’t be surprised if it takes some time after the break to bring people back to dance in the second half — we need another 5 minutes of socializing. In California, my experience is that guys want the break to end quickly to get back to dancing with their favorite partners.

In addition to our weekly/monthly dances, New Mexico has five festivals each year: Memorial Day weekend’s FolkMADness, Halloween weekend’s Fall Harvest (Boo!) camp, January’s Fantasy English Country Dance Ball, June’s Albuquerque Folk Festival, and August’s Santa Fe Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Festival. It’s at the festivals that we revisit with our large extended dance and music family who come from Arizona, Colorado, California, and even New England (e.g., Nils Fredland). Travelling dancers and musicians comment to me regularly at camps about how friendly their camp experiences are, that the local dancers engage them, bring them in, and make them feel part of our community.

Learn more about New Mexico dancing at folkmads.org. Erik Erhardt, assistant professor of statistics at the University of New Mexico, danced regularly at Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange from 1998-2004. He now calls contras, English, and squares, and teaches couples dancing around the country; for more see statacumen.com/dance. Thanks to Wendy Graham and Jane Phillips whose ideas and comments improved this article.

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