How I play contra dance piano

So we all have our prejudices, and here's mine: I live and die for the whoops.

I've got three things to say about contra dance music:

The fiddler's groove keeps the dancers' feet moving. The piano's job is to match up with the phrases of the dance and to keep the excitement building. The dancers want to get into that Zone, where they don't have to think about the next move, they just move. There's no technique to this -- boom-chuck is as complicated as you'll ever need to do -- instead the suspense is built mostly by playing less, or even dropping out completely. Pound with both hands (block chords) on those balances, thump Thwam, thump THWAM! When they're doing something swirly like contra corners or a hey, play up high and swirly yourself, but always come back down again and land on those balances with punch. My favorite contra dance move ever is a circle left and star back, on to a new neighbor for a balance and swing. Starting softly-softly at the top of B2 (or even B1), build the volume all the way up and then come crashing into that balance. The whole room should know, without even thinking about it, exactly where that balance is happening. Don't ever stop on 8, ever; keep the phrasing going and the progressions hanging and the dynamics building until you've propelled those dancers into the arms of the next neighbor. Pat Spaeth (who knows what she's doing!) says it's like those rubber-band airplane toys, wind it and wind it and wind it and then let it fly. And then pick it up and wind it all over again.

And when you're not playing, get out there and dance. It's as simple as playing what you yourself would want to hear.
21 Aug 2001