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."
Those involved with Contra dancing agree that the music is key to the experience. The Mesilla group has always danced to live music. Lonnie Ludeman grins as he relates how "some experienced bands play with the dancers, tweaking the music a bit or working in something unexpected." He describes the whole Contra dance experience as a joyful "trifecta of dancers, music and caller."
The main callers for the Mesilla dances are Ludeman and Lewis Land. Ludeman has a great interest in passing on the skill of calling the dances and recently held a callers workshop at his home. Land drives over from Carlsbad to call dances. There are also occasional guests such as Merri Rudd from Albuquerque, another talented caller with more than 20 years experience.
Traditional musicians have staunchly refused to let the wonderful music played at the dances die out. They've kept it alive like sourdough starter, spreading the tangy goodness around the country to all classes and regions. Many of the tunes are over 100 years old and originate in the music of England, Scotland and Ireland as well as other parts of Europe and even French Canada.
Musicians travel from all over to play at a Contra dance. In addition to two regular bands, the Deming Fusiliers and the Muletones, sometimes an open band of talented guest musicians will add their skills on fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin and banjo. Dancers have also enjoyed the sounds of Bayou Seco from Silver City, The Virginia Creepers, and, with what has to be one of the most unusual band names, the Boiled Buzzards. The names incite almost as many grins as the irresistible beat of the music.
The Mullany family of Albuquerque — Marj, Jim, Riley and Maddy — played for a large gathering at the April dance. Three members of this talented family are also skilled dance callers. Song titles include classics such as "Black Eyed Susie," "Frosty Morning," "The Old Grey Cat" and "Nail that Catfish to a Tree." Now, doesn't that just make you smile?
Brian and Amy Muise of the Muletones have been together since 2008, playing their old-time string music not only at the Contra dances, but entertaining audiences throughout the Southwest. Andrew Stuart on guitar and Jim McNeil on bass and guitar complete the Muletones band. The Muises have two children who are growing up to the beat and rhythm of the dances. Amy has played her fiddle many times with one of her babies strapped to her back, swaying to the music. She smiles and says, "They both have spent hours that way. They find it soothing and they watch the dancers." The couple runs a cow/calf operation near Dell City when not on the road playing music. They are interested in grass-fed direct marketing of beef for the Carlsbad and Alamogordo markets.
Brian Muise has always been interested in old country music. When he moved out to the Otero Mesa area he became part of a strong musical tradition among the area ranchers.
Amy says, "I began playing the old-time music because I enjoyed Contra dancing so much. I lived in a little town and there was no band. So I took up the music to facilitate the dancing."
She started Contra dancing back in Massachusetts at the famous Greenfield dance. Later, during a stint as a field researcher in the Costa Rican rain forest, she began playing fiddle with other on-site musicians after a Contra-dancing friend bought her an $80 instrument on eBay. When asked how the climate in Costa Rica affected the instruments at the research station, she laughs. "Well, wooden stringed instruments sound really good in a humid environment but you have to keep a careful watch over them. When they took down a fiddle that had been hung on the wall for six months or so, they found that the entire back of it was eaten by termites."
The Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS), a nationwide organization, has been intrigued by the success of the SNMMDS group in Mesilla. Julie Schmitt says that the society is quite interested in how the group gets new people involved. The primary reason for the success, according to Ludeman, has been the enthusiastic influx of new dancers. Schmitt agrees: "It's all about word of mouth. If you have fun, you will tell someone."
The monthly dances begin with a half-hour lesson to initiate newcomers into the rhythmic footwork and forms of the dance. The dress code is casual and folks are free to wear what is comfortable for them to dance in. On one dance floor everything from shorts to fancy dresses will be evident; during the themed dances held several times a year, costumes are encouraged and thoroughly enjoyed. When the August through May dances resume next month, the first dance will be a Hawaiian luau dress theme.
As the band warms up, "Dance Angels" — experienced dancers on an inspired mission — work the crowd, making sure all get a chance to dance. They won't stand for much shyness. The high-spirited music romps across the dance floor as girls in jeans and T-shirts and women in breezy skirts raise their arms to spin through the steps. Five minutes into the dance and the age barriers have dropped while everyone just has a laughing, rollicking good time. The sense of community and friendship is palpable. Squares of partners move through the intricate, repetitive steps. Partners change and recombine, whirling down the line in an ever-changing array of pattern and color. The dances are as enjoyable to watch as they are to dance.
There has been a great resurgence in this social dance form among the teenage and college set. In January 2009 a Facebook invite made the rounds, encouraging younger people to come and try out this new dance. Schmitt and Ludeman laugh at the memory of that night. They got a call from local student Samuel Wong that 40 young people had showed up in the parking lot hoping to join the dance, and was there room for them?
Schmitt recalls, "Forty young dancers was the most pleasant shock I've ever had! There was the excitement of all new dancers experiencing Contra for the first time."
The newcomers were enthusiastically welcomed into the dance with a quick lesson and patient guidance from the more experienced dancers they were paired up with. They were hooked and most of them still won't miss that monthly dance for anything.
Amy Muise adds, "The history of Mesilla Contra Dance is pretty interesting because it went through this generational shift.... That day was one of the most exciting days of my life! One day I'm sitting up on stage tuning my fiddle and all of these 16-year-olds start coming in. Not just 10 of them; they just kept coming. I thought it was wonderful! They took to it like fish to water." The Gallus and Wong families of Las Cruces have continued to be eager promoters of the Contra dances.
People interested in learning more about Contra dancing, calling or playing traditional music have a great number of workshops available at dance and music festivals around the country. The New Mexico Folk Music and Dance Society, FolkMADS, sponsors an annual music and dance camp in Socorro over Memorial Day weekend. Recently marking its 20th year, the three-day event is full of dancing, great music and a multitude of workshops on everything related to Contra dancing. This year there was even an improvisational comedy seminar.
Julie Schmitt says she heard once that "Contra is a case of lost and found. You start out with a new partner at each dance and you… always end up back with your partner, hopefully." She adds, "Once you get hooked, you're hooked for life."
Contra dances are held the third Friday of every month, August through May, except the second Friday in December, and will resume August 17 at the Mesilla Community Center at 2251 Calle de Santiago, just two blocks off the plaza. Dances start with a half-hour lesson and run from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Price is $6 for live music and an entire evening of family-friendly dancing; kids 17 and under are $5. Sometime in the fall the dances will move to a temporary location while the Mesilla Community Center undergoes restoration. For more information check out the Southern New Mexico Music and Dance Society website at www.snmmds.org.
Karen Ray is a nearly lifelong resident of Las Cruces, who grew up here, attended NMSU, then returned 17 years ago to finish raising her family. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.