Downtown Amherst: I attended one dance at the Downtown Amherst Contradance series in February. I spoke with Will Loving, the coordinator, for roughly 20 minutes. He explained that Perpetual e-Motion is a really “big deal” band in the contradance world, and he told me that the morris dancers who performed during the between-sets break are traditional English folk dancers whose movements are rooted in pagan traditions. He also mentioned that the English folk dancers are seen frequently during contradances because the two styles come from the same traditions. Ian and I have not yet investigated this link, but I found it to be fascinating.
Greenfield: I attended a dance in Greenfield last Saturday (26 February). I met the Kenney family–Stuart, Alice, Matt, and a daughter whose name I do not yet know. I accidentally arrived one-and-a-half hours before the dance started, so I sat awkwardly while the family prepared the stage for the show. Finally, I was able to help them set up. I grabbed a few folding chairs and carried them to the stage. After that, the family was very warm and receptive to my presence. Alice told me that I should grab my camera and set up on stage, but that we would have to ask Stuart where I could put the equipment. Next time, I will take a Marantz so I can plug it directly into their mixing board. Alice was very enthusiastic about my (our) project, and she invited me to attend the Family Friendly contradance, which includes traditional activities for the itty bitties, next Sunday in Leyden. Unfortunately, both Ian and I will be out of the state, so we won’t be able to attend. I think, though, that we will attend next month’s venue.
I also attended a charity dance on Sunday, 6 March. Caitlin, a girl who is very involved in the local contradance scene, and her boyfriend lost their home and all of their possessions in a fire last month. Her friends organized the contradance so they could raise money to help Caitlin and her boyfriend replace some of the things they lost in the fire. I only danced at this event; I did not film. I danced with Ralph Sturgen again, and I will be calling him today (Monday, 7 March) to set up a meeting. He does live in Easthampton, and I told him that I would drive to him for the interview. I also danced with three men who had never before asked me to dance. This was good because it allowed me to talk about the documentary with new people and to get new perspectives. I learned about another documentary title I should watch, but I cannot remember the name. When I started Googling to find it, I ran across a documentary called “Paid to Eat Ice Cream,” which is also about contradance.
Two of them men with whom I danced had attended a charity benefit dance in Peterborough, NH on Saturday evening. Perhaps Ian and I will be able to attend (and film?) a dance in Peterborough. We could use this to compare and contrast the specific contradance traditions in and around the Valley.
Red Barn at Hampshire College: I attended a dance at Hampshire last weekend as well. The quality of the music, the caller, and the dances did not compare to that of the other dances I have attended. That being said, the evening was very productive because I met two men who seem to be very knowledgable about the contradance community and its history: Ralph Sturgen, and a man named Chang (I do not yet know his last name). The caller’s father also gave me his email address and encouraged me to email him and ask for the contact information for Dudley Laufman (a very important caller) and a few other “big names” in the Valley’s contra scene. After this dance, I googled the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, Dudley Laufman, and Ralph Sweet to do a little bit of reading. We have also asked Professor Engelhardt to ask the library to purchase the Dudley Laufman documentary DVD (by David Millstone, who is the official documenter of the contradance community). I have also borrowed three films and three books from the AC library.
Greenfield and Amherst: I've gone to the Greenfield Guiding Star Grange once as a preliminary trip. I wanted to see what the typical contra dance experience was like at this venue and compare it to my initial encounter with techno-contra at the Amherst Masonic Lodge. Essentially, Greenfield was my first real, traditional contra dance. The music was different and so was the audience, but not in the way I had anticipated. I suspected the techno contra would drive away the traditionalists who grew up with the contra dance in its original form: fiddle, guitar, banjo, and occasionally woodwinds. The techno contra had many young people along with the older generation. They seemed very happy to be there with this new type of contra. At this contra in Greenfield, the demographics leaned towards an older audience (35+ vs. the high school/college student age group at techno). However, it was not devoid of youngsters. The instruments were traditional: fiddle and piano or fiddle and guitar. There I met Mary Shonk, a woman with considerable knowledge and experience with contra dancing and its history. She introduced me to her cousin, Renn Tolman, a flute player from the contra bands of the 30's to 50's. Hopefully I will be able to re-establish contact with these two and interview Renn. I would also like to hear him play and her the musician's side of the story from that era. Shonk also enlightened me to the amount of other documentaries filmed about contra dancing. A prominent one is by David Millstone called The Other Way Back: Dancing with Dudley. This highlights a prominent caller from the 60's and 70's, Dudley Laufman. We are going to watch this documentary so we do not repeat any of the material in our project. This will be done hopefully with the help of Matt Kenney.
2. Renn Tolman is from Nelson, NH and has been involved in contra dancing since the 30's. I have met him only once but I hope to meet him again at the Greenfield contra dances. I met him through Mary Shonk but did not get his personal contact information. I did, however, get a bit of his story. Although he must now be in his 80's and is partially deaf, Tolman must have been quite a riot. From speaking with him for a short while, I could sense his enthusiasm for contra dancing. He told me how he was a flute player for contra bands. He also offered "when we meet up" to bring his flute and play some tunes for me. That's quite a feat to still remember those songs all these years (almost 6 decades) later.
Matt Kenney is a thirteen-year-old drummer who lives in Leyden. He plays with his father and whatever other contra bands perform at the Guiding Star Greenfield Grange on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month. He looks very young for his age, and his talent is very impressive, especially because he has never taken formal percussion lessons. More impressive than his musical abilities is his attitude. Matt is a professional musician who carries himself as such when he is onstage. However, before the shows and during the breaks, he is very much a thirteen-year-old boy. He is involved with a local sports team (I assume a soccer team) and he attends a local school. His father plays the upright bass, and Alice said Stuart has always made Matt feel included in the musical world. The family frequently hosts or attends (I am not sure) in-home jam sessions, and Matt usually plays. He is a kind and helpful kid who doesn’t seem to complain much, and he does not seem to have any sort of ego or overly-inflated sense of self. He simply enjoys playing music. I think working with him would be a joy. I am also very aware of the fact that I think he is an adorably precocious kid and that he probably isn’t a “big” as I am making him out to be. (This is one of many reasons I’m glad to be working with Ian. I don’t think he will let me run too far with the idea to include Matt in the film.) Matt’s mother, Alice Kenney, has also said that she would like us to film him and give her any material we do not use so she can add it to his portfolio. I have his mother’s email address, so I can use that to make contact with the family.
3. Musical moment: After each song ended on 26 February, Matt and Stuart Kenney would touch hands, as if to say, “Yeah! That was awesome. Good job!” I noticed this for the first time after Donna had left the stage for a bathroom break. She came back onstage in the middle of a tune, and she faced Matt while she played. The two of them seemed to be playing with/against each other, and Stuart smiled when he listened. Donna and Matt seemed to be playing jazz for a few minutes; she would start a phrase and he would end it, or vice versa. At this moment, I forgot that Matt is a thirteen-year-old kid, and I saw him solely as a professional musician. After this moment was over, Matt leaned forward, reached out his hand, and clasped his Dad’s hand.
- See our earlier blog post!
Though I introduced myself and explained my purpose before I started filming at the Greenfield Grange, I did not do so at the Red Barn. In Greenfield, people were excited to know that I was filming for a documentary, and they wanted to talk to me and share their stories. At the Red Barn, people seemed unsure about the camera, and I got a few “evil eye” types of looks. One woman looked at her fiance who was kissing her and said, “There’s a camera! Stop!” I wasn’t filming at that point, but I could understand her panic. Ian and I will not be using footage from the Red Barn in our final documentary. We’ll consider the footage I took as a trial run of sorts, and we repeat some of the shots once we have gotten informed consent. In the future, I will make sure to introduce myself before the dance and explain why I will be filming. I will also make sure that I (or Ian if we are there together) dance up and down each line at least once so I can interact, albeit very briefly, with most of the attendees. This would allow anyone who does not want to be filmed to tell me so in a discreet way.
The differences in atmospheres and attitudes between Greenfield and the Red Barn were like night and day. This was a good experience for me to have at this early stage, I think, because it has made me more conscious of my presence and involvement, and it has made me determined to stand up on stage and ask for informed consent.
Ian: Overall, doing fieldwork on contra dancing is a pleasure. The people are very enthusiastic and are eager to share their knowledge about it. As soon as I say I am a college student working on a documentary, their faces light up and they draw me aside as soon as the dance ends to share some gem of information.
6. I can see us spending a lot of time focusing on Matt Kenney, as well as some of the older and more seasoned contradance musicians and/or callers. I’m realizing that making a documentary about “contradance in the Valley” is far too broad of a topic. I would like to explore contradance with Matt Kenney at the center. Perhaps another option would be to focus on two or three musicians, including Renn Tollman, Donna Hébert, and Matt Kenney. If we do focus on Matt Kenney, or at least include him in a substantial portion of the documentary, we could potentially help him get in to a performing arts high school. I will most likely strongly suggest that we include (feature) Matt Kenney in our documentary. I enjoyed meeting him, interacting with him, and filming him, and I would love to help advance his career. (caveat: I realize that this is likely not a good idea.)
That being said, we will not be focusing solely on Matt Kenney right now. We will continue to interact with him and his family and to film him, but he will not be our only focus. We will request interviews Dudley Laufman and David Kaynor, two influential names in the contradance world, and we will drive to New Hampshire to film Renn Tollman either in late March or early April. We will also drive to Easthampton to interview and film Ralph Sturgen. We will continue to attend multiple contradances at multiple locations, and we will mostly likely continue to “divide and conquer.” Because we do not yet have enough information to start streamlining our project, we don’t know how we will let our ideas shape our work. We will continue to be present and to interact with the attendees; we will allow our conversations to shape our projects.
7. Devon: If we work with Matt Kenney, we will have to make sure we get his parents’ informed consent. This shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is something that concerns me. I am most worried that Ian and I will try to tackle and document too much and that our story will be lost in the middle of too much information. People at every venue have told me that Ian and I are not the first to make a documentary about contradance in the Valley. Perhaps I am being slightly snotty here, but I don’t want to make the same film fifteen other people have. Rather, I would like to explore one aspect or part of contradance that has never before been documented.
I haven’t yet called to set up meetings or interviews because I do not yet know where Ian and I want to focus. I am also worried about the fact that neither of us will be around for Spring Break.
(Ian) So far I have not met Stuart and Matt Kenney. I am keenly interested in this duo, not only in their relationship as musicians but in the age difference between the two. How would this affect their dynamics as business partners but also relatives? I fear that pursuing this line of questioning might also be too intrusive. Outside of that, I'm worried we will get too side-tracked with trying to go to all the contra dances and then not really have meaningful relations with the people we meet. I think I would rather have a few meaningful contacts rather than a contact at every contra dance venue