The Lively Arts
Fun with Footwork
In Mesilla, the old tradition of Contra dancing is drawing
a new generation to the dance floor.
by Karen Ray
Every third Friday they gather at the Community Center in the old village of Mesilla. The monthly Contra Dance is about to begin. A nearby plaque proclaims that Billy the Kid was once tried and sentenced to hang in this town. It is something the locals are proud of. History runs deep here along the ancient Camino Real trail.
As much fun as the dance is, the real show takes place up on the stage. The same stage that has witnessed generations of valedictorians, productions of Our Town and grade-school talent shows now hosts the members of the Contra dance band. A young girl in a long cotton skirt and bright T-shirt tucks her violin against her smooth cheek and smiles through a toe-tapping piece straight from the folk music her grandmother danced to.
Bill Bussmann, a smiling man with a penchant for practical jokes, plays an orange and yellow bass made from a Pontiac gas tank. Really. His white beard shakes in time to the music. Turns out he is a luthier and the proprietor of Old Wave Mandolins, producing a variety of stringed instruments, some traditional and others not so (see "Strings Attached," July 2006).
Contra dance originated in the English country dances of the 17th century. It was quite popular in the northeastern United States back in the country's early days. Ralph Page's book, A Guide to Contra Dance, cites a 1651 book, The English Dancing Master. Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, as "the oldest reliable source for contra dancing. It contains dances in many different formations…. Country dance may be a generic term for all group dancing with a traditional flavor…. Dances in long lanes with minor groups within the lane became the rule in the following editions."
In Contra dance, the dance forms are repeated throughout the song, with the dancers changing partners at each repeat, proceeding together up and down the hall. Each dance is typically a 64-beat square tune and takes anywhere from 8 to 12 minutes to complete. Contra dances are truly community events; dancers interact with everyone on the dance floor during the evening.
The popularity of Contra dancing has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but enthusiasts have always managed to revitalize it for a new generation. In the 1920s automaker Henry Ford was a passionate catalyst for reviving Contra dancing. He even paid for dance instructors to travel around the country teaching the steps to any group that wanted to learn. Although Contra dancing popularity has tended to be polarized to both coasts in the US, local dance coordinators note that it is spreading quickly into the interior.
Lonnie Ludeman and Julie Schmitt, two of the original members of the Southern New Mexico Music and Dance Society (SNMMDS) Contra dance group, maintain the group's website and are the primary organizers of the monthly dances. They are self- proclaimed "dance gypsies," participating in Contra dances wherever they travel around the country. They first danced together at Lake Valley back when what they refer to as "Generational Dances" were held in an old schoolhouse — live music followed by a midnight supper and more dancing.
Ludeman discovered Contra dancing over 25 years ago on vacation in Maine and was enthralled with the experience. Then, sometime in the early 1980s, a young woman named Becky McKenzie came to New Mexico State University for about a year from Tennessee. She "called" (the term for directing the dancers) for the fledgling dance group and taught the skill to a handful of others before she left. Ludeman, who teaches computer and electrical engineering at NMSU, and another engineer, Bill Cooper, designed and built an amplifier and speakers for the dances.
In 1988 the dancers began meeting in the Mesilla Community Center, two blocks off the plaza. The building is an old school built in 1934 by the WPA. It has wonderful wood floors, a stage and a low ceiling with good acoustics. Ludeman remembers, "I was there early one night to set up and an older couple in their eighties walked in. The man came up to me just beaming and said, 'When I was a little boy I went to school in this place.' They stayed around the whole evening listening to the music and just absorbing everything."
Bob Deitner, mandolin player with the Deming Fusiliers, was the primary catalyst for the local Contra dance group. In the early 1980s he started playing for the dances when the dance floors ran the gamut from gravel parking lots to tennis courts, churches and ballrooms. According to the Fusiliers' website, he continues to travel "the back roads of Texas and New Mexico looking for the old-time musicians and listening to their stories and playing their tunes with them." The Deming Fusiliers is one of the mainstay bands that regularly play for the Mesilla Contra dances. Other band members are Rus Bradburd, Bill Bussmann, Michel Robert, Marc Robert and Greg Gendall. The Fusiliers' music, says their site, "intertwines ancient fiddle melodies with gospel songs, dance tunes and songs that relate stories, tales and legends from early America."
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