Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2009

Previous     Next     Table of Contents

August, 2009
Cape Breton Dancing



In August, I went to Nova Scotia on vacation. Part of my travels were through Cape Breton at the northeastern end of the province. I wanted to sample some of the music and dancing I'd heard so much about.

We stopped in the Red Shoe Inn in Mabou, Natalie MacMaster's old stomping grounds, and asked around where we might find a session or a dance. "Oh, there's a regular Tuesday night square dance in the Fire Hall over in Scotsdale. Starts at 10:00." Starts at 10:00 on a Tuesday night??

OK. Set the GPS for Scotsdale and proceeded to follow its nose. 8 miles along the main drag, and then off on a little side road that quickly degraded to gravel, and then dirt, and then not much more than a goat track over the top of the mountain. Are the locals having fun with us tourists? But the road emerged sure enough at a main road in the hamlet of Scotsdale, and a little searching found us the Fire hall, where indeed lights were on, cars were parked, and the music wafted into the dark.

We wandered in just as the dance was starting, not knowing what to expect. With no preamble, announcement, or introduction, the band got up on the stand and commenced to play. And people got up and began to dance. As a contra dancer, I had heard and danced to many Cape Breton tunes. The general format was familiar, but some of the differences were striking. The dancing was in figures like contra dancing or square dancing, but there was no caller calling the figures. Although the dance was billed as a "square dance", the formation was in circles of anywhere between 4 to 8 couples. The figures were rather simple, and performed somewhat raggedly. But how did they know the sequence of the figures? I eventually pigeonholed one of the dancers (and later one of the organizers) and all was explained.

  • The dance consisted of a set of 3 dances, a jig, a jig, and a reel, followed by a short break. And then the same three dances and another break. And again. All night long. Every week. Year round. They only do three dances.
  • The dancers gathered in groups of maybe 4 to 8 couples in a circle. I'm told it used to be always groups of 4 couples, (and is still called a "square dance" even though that's no longer the formation.)
  • Unlike contra dancing, people dance with the same partner all night long, rather than switching partners each dance. And there's little of the interaction between couples one finds in contra dancing.
  • There's no caller because people know the dances. There are only three of them to learn, and the figures are much simpler than contra dance figures. Forward and back. Swing. Promenade. Grand Right-and-Left. That's about it. I caught on pretty quick.
  • In contra dancing, the figures change along with the phrasing of the music. Not so in Cape Breton square dancing. The changes come sort of at random when it strikes the individual dancers. And it doesn't always strike everyone at the same time. So there are often minor train wrecks on the floor as some dancers doing a Grand Right-and-Left come up upon others who are still swinging. It didn't seem to bother anyone.
  • The focus seems much more on the footwork than on the figures. The dances are done in a step-dance shuffle that the music suggests, rather than the smooth stride of contras.
  • The music is great! The band consisted of a fiddler and pianist, and they really moved the dancers. Some of the tunes were familiar to me, and others not, but all had that relentless driving beat that propelled the dance and the dancers, and has spread that music far beyond the shores of Cape Breton. They changed tunes much more often than a contra band will. They would play a tune maybe 2 or 3 times through, and then transition into another, while a contra band might play only 2 or 3 tunes in a set. They had a huge repertoire. (Although I did catch them repeating a set of tunes about 2 hours into the dance.)
  • Beer is served at the dance.
  • The age demographic was similar to what I'm used to; mostly folks from their 40's through 60's with one or two younger couples. But they danced until 1:00AM, and were presumably off to work the next morning.

Interesting. A bit unsatisfying to a contra dancer like me who relishes the more complex patterns of contra figures, the interaction with many other dancers over the course of the evening, and the precision of everyone changing figures simultaneously in response to the musical phrase. But fun and fascinating nevertheless.

May 23, 2009
Brattleboro Dawn Dance

On Memorial Day weekend, I went up to visit my friend Jenny in Vermont and to attend the Brattleboro Dawn Dance. The Dawn Dance is a 20+ year tradition in Brattleboro, and is pretty much what its name implies: a dance starting at 8:00 PM and continuing until dawn. What is assumed, but not implied is that what goes on there is primarily contra dancing.

Contra dancing is one of the best-kept open secrets in America. If I wanted to take a foreigner to see a slice of Americana that was not manufactured in Hollywood or Madison Avenue, I'd take them to a contra dance. More specifically, I'd take them to NEFFA (The New England Folk Festival) or to the Brattleboro Dawn Dance. Contra dancing shares DNA with square dancing; both have their roots in 17th and 18th Century European court and social dances where the dancers executed specific patterns or "figures" as they interacted with their partners and other dancers on the floor. Think fancy balls in Jane Austen movies. In the olden days, one would attend dancing classes to learn the specific sequence of figures for each dance, which would be done to a tune written specifically for the particular dance. Contra and square dancing use the more modern advent of a caller, who calls out the figures during the music, obviating the dancers' need to memorize all the multiple sequences of figures. They need only know the figures themselves, and be able to execute them on the brief advance notice of hearing the call. Also, most modern contra dances have broken the link of a specific tune for each dance, and can be danced to any of hundreds of tunes in several different tempi and time signatures, provided the tune fits a standard format 64 measures long.

There is debate as to the origin of the term "contra" dancing. One explanation is that it is a corruption of "country" dancing. Another school of thought attributes the term to the fact that the dancers form up in two lines "contra" or opposite to each other. Everyone agrees that the term has nothing to do with Central American guerrilla fighters.

The contra dance / square dance split is a fairly recent phenomenon; maybe 60 years old according to one fellow I encountered while I was waiting on line to get into the dance. The more widely known Western Squares are somewhat more formal and stylized than Contras. The dances are done in groups of 4 couples starting from the square formation that gives the genre its name. Cowboy attire and crinoline skirts are de rigueur; music tends to be modern Country & Western, and is usually recorded. Figures tend to be more complex than in contras, and can require some classes to learn. Millions of American school children have been turned off square dancing for life thanks to its inclusion in elementary school phys-ed curricula.

Contra dancing is always done to live music. The music is traditionally fiddle-based, with other acoustic instruments such as flute, accordion, or mandolin also carrying the tune. Rhythm is generally held down by piano, guitar and/or bass. Drums are less common. The repertoire commonly has roots in Scots or Irish music, sometimes by way of Canada, or Appalachia. But anything is fair game, and you'll encounter all sorts of out-of-genre instruments and music from the more adventuresome bands. The dancing uses a lot of the more basic figures from square dancing (ladies chain, do-si-do, partner swing, etc.), but the formation is in long lines. You and your partner dance through the tune with another couple. At the end of the tune, you're facing a new couple, and you do the same series of figures with them. And so on down the line. So you get to dance with everyone in the hall. Dress is less formal, although you can still spot a contra dancer if you know what to look for. Women's apparel tends towards long dresses or skirts and gents sport tee shirts and jeans or shorts and bandana headbands. (You work up a sweat.)

The scene definitely has character. The dancers range in age from high-schoolers to septuagenarains and beyond. There's lots of long hair on both genders, although moustaches and beards are pretty much restricted to the men. You'll often find gents dancing the ladies' part and vice versa, which isn't always indicative of the dancers' sexual orientation. A lot of guys, particularly the younger ones are sporting long skirts. (Also not necessarily an indication of homosexuality.) Footwear is either thin-sole dancing shoes or sneakers, and bare feet are not uncommon. The custom is to not dance every dance with the one you came with, but to shop around. The last waltz, however, is a different story. Women will ask men to dance as often as the other way around. The crowd tends to be mostly white, middle class, and educated. You'll find an inordinate percentage of social workers and I.T. experts on the dance floor.

Contra dancing rescued me from a lifetime of dance-klutziness. As a kid, I couldn't dance a step. My problem with rock & roll or other free-form dances of my youth is that I can't turn off my forebrain. I'm continually thinking and analyzing my motions, and you can't do that and dance at the same time. But contra dancing has a structure to occupy my left brain, which leaves my right brain free to rock out. So I've become a really good contra dancer even though I still can't rock & roll my way out of a paper bag. And now I get to dance with all the pretty school girls I never got to dance with when I was in school.

There are pockets of contra-craziness all over the country: Central Michigan, North Carolina, and most notably New England, especially the Western Mass / Vermont I-91 Corridor. (Probably lots more places that the dance gypsies could cite that I'm not aware of.) My local area of New Jersey has a good following, particularly in the Princeton area, but would not be considered one of the hot spots. The Greenfield MA and Brattleboro VT dances and dance personnel are living legends, and Meccas for all the best bands and callers. Jenny and I thought to catch the middle few hours of the Dawn Dance, so we arrived around 10:30 PM, only to find the dance was full to capacity, and they were letting folks in only as others left.

SOLD OUT??? I did a rough calculation. An entire full-size gymnasium would hold about 5 lines of 32 couples each…320 dancers. Wow, this is Contra-Dance Country. So we joined the line outside, and waited for midnight, when they were scheduled to take a break while they changed bands, figuring some folks would leave then. We bantered with the other people on line, comparing the situation to the hot New York night clubs where folks might queue up around the same hour to get in. Then we looked again…Naw. This ain't a New York club. In NYC clubs, when the gents wear dresses, they're sequined. The $20 a person we're spending for 10 hours of dancing might be enough to tip the headwaiter. Not to many high-end night spots feature such a wide range of age in their clientele. And try and find an alcohol-free night club.

We finally got in just before the break. The band was smokin'. The dancing was great. And I pretty much exhausted myself. We finally called it quits around 3:30 AM. It's been a while since I could dance until dawn. In my exhaustion, I left my PDA in the entryway where I changed my shoes. Why was I not worried? Sure enough, a few inquiries the next day produced the news that the PDA was found, and in the mail on its way home. Nope. Not a NYC night club by a long shot.

May 3, 2009
My 5 Minutes of Fame in Madison Square Garden

On May 3 there was a giant gala in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the 90th Birthday of Pete Seeger. 70 or 80 thousand fans gathered to hear Pete's songs sung by 40 or more luminaries including Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, and of course Pete himself. (Ever the supporter of the common man, I wonder what Pete had to say about the $50 to $250 ticket prices.) When Tom Chapin stepped forward to sing "Garbage!" along with Oscar the Grouch, he announced it as having been written by Pete Seeger and Mike Agranoff.

I wasn't there for the event, but I was innundated by phone calls and e-mails from folks who were. I got a bit of a wry chuckle about the whole thing. Because not only was my part in the authorship of the song pretty minimal, but I actually tried my best to not be associated with Pete's rendition of it. Here's the story:

The song was actually written by Bill Steele of Ithaca, NY. It is a lighthearted poke at our society for producing more refuse than we know how to deal with with a catchy call-and-response chorus. Click here for the lyrics. The song was pretty much a staple of the folk community in the mid 70's. And being drawn towards that kind of material, I learned and performed it back then. At one point, I wrote an extra verse to the song in much the same vein.

So I was sitting at home one night in the late 70s, when the phone rang. I picked it up, and the voice at the other end said, "Hello, this is Pete Seeger." When I picked the receiver and my jaw off the floor, I said "Hi, Pete." Well, it seemed that Pete had somehow come across the extra verse that I wrote, and was calling to ask my permission to sing it himself. "Well, I dunno, Pete. I'll have to talk to my lawyers about this. We'll get back to you."


"But wait a minute," Pete says, "I changed it around a little." And he proceded to sing me what he wrote. Well, he changed it more than a little. What I wrote was:

In Mr. Thompson's factory they're making plastic Christmas trees
Complete with silver tinsel and an artificial stand.
The plastic's mixed in giant vats from some conglomeration that's been
Piped from deep within the ground or strip-mined from the land.
The residue gets flushed away through pipes beneath the ground.
Gets dumped into the river and fills up Long Island Sound.
Garbage! Garbage! We're killing off the fish with garbage.
Garbage! Garbage! What will we do when there's nothing left to catch
And no place left to swim, and nothing left to drink but garbage?

Much in keeping with the lighthearted nature of the original song.

What Pete turned that into was:

In Mr. Thompson's factory they're making plastic Christmas trees
Complete with silver tinsel and a geodesic stand.
The plastic's mixed in giant vats from some conglomeration that's been
Piped from deep within the ground or strip-mined from the land.
And if they ask you questions, they say, "Why, don't you see?
It's absolutely needed for the ec-o-no-mee!
Garbage! Garbage! Their stocks and their bonds, all garbage!
Garbage! Garbage! What will they do when their system goes to smash,
There's no value to their cash,
There's no money to be made, but there's a world to be repaid
Their kids will read in history books 'bout financiers and other crooks
And feudalism and slavery and nukes and all their knavery
To history's dustbin they're consigned along with many other kinds of garbage!

A very different message and feel to the verse, and one to which I was uncomfortable attaching my name. I told him, "Well, Pete. By all means feel free to sing or record it, but your changes do not reflect my sentiments. So please do not mention my name in connection with the verse. And Pete complied with that request for many years, until his autobiograpy came out, in which he told the story of the evolution of the song to his current form.

I guess my name has been put back on the verse, because it got credited in front of 75,000 people in Madison Square Garden. Not a big deal. But I just wanted to set the record straight.

Post Script: July 30 More phone calls. PBS just aired the Pete Seeger tribute on Great Performances, and my name got mentioned to an even larger audience, some of who e-mailed and phoned me to tell me. Thanks.

Previous     Next     Table of Contents