MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So when you're doing a show all about invention and innovation, square dancing might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But square dancing and its super popular cousin, contra dancing, are enjoying something of resurgence among young Washingtonians.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
There's an Appalachian style square dance in Mount Pleasant on Saturday nights and in Rosslyn you can contra dance to backdrop of pop and electronic music at Artisphere. Jonna McKone went to two dances to find out more about these ballrooms innovations.
MS. JONNA MCKONE
Gabe Papkin is a 30-year-old fiddler from Lexington, Kentucky. He now lives in Mount Rainier, Md., right on the D.C. border and he's been organizing traditional Appalachian Mountain square dances for the past three years. The dances started out as fundraisers for issues like mountaintop removal.
MR. GABE PAPKIN
I started organizing them at house parties. I saw that there was a lot of interest that had been untapped by the dances that were going on so I started working with a group of friends to put on some larger square dances, which is what we're doing now.
They've been calling their events "The Great American Square Dance Revival." It's a blend of old and new inspired by the old-time music they play.
I guess it's somewhat ironic. A lot of the old-time musicians I know now live in the city. In fact, I would say D.C. has one of the best old-time scenes in the country.
A group of banjo and fiddle players filter into Papkin's living room where they circle around a table in tune to an upright piano.
It's played by people who all know each other and who are all friends with each other. Basically, anywhere you go and you meet one old-time musician, you'll find you know dozens of people in common.
And Papkin and friends are building another broader community at St. Stephen's Church in Mount Pleasant.
MR. ANDREW TIMMONS
I think it's a real great thing for the community, everyone can just come out and there are people of all skill levels. I have no idea what I'm doing.
Andrew Timmons has been to both dances so far.
I see a very old man in a button-down t-shirt, people who look like they're under 18, couples, college kids. I see people with beards and people who are extremely clean-shaven. It's quite a hodgepodge.
The Great American Square Dance Revival events, all two of them thus far, seem to draw younger District denizens but the dance is by no means exclusive. Assuming you're into the California Twirl or whatever else the caller throws your way.
I just the past is always being reinvented.
And it's not just on the dance floor. Papkin says a group of dancers is doing something at once traditional and uniquely modern. There's a Facebook page and the word of mouth mostly spreads over the Internet. Rosslyn's new-ish Artisphere, an ultra-modern massive multi-media art space, that houses a 4,000 square foot ballroom, is another popular venue for square and contra dancing.
MS. PENELOPE WEINBURGER
I'm Penelope Weinburger. I’m the dance chair for The Folklore Society of Greater Washington. I'm the mother to D.J. Improper.
Weinburger and son, Jeremiah Seligman, also known as D.J. Improper, started a regular series of contra dances back in November.
I don't like techno contra because I'm kind of a purist. I don't want to limit myself so I just call it Contra Sonic because sonic doesn't actually have a musical affiliation or connotation. It just sort of indicates that it's different from what you're used to.
MR. JEREMIAH SELIGMAN
My name is Jeremiah "D.J. Improper" Seligman. I'm 18. I've been contra dancing for about that long and I'm a D.J. for the Contra Sonic.
Fanatical dancers and apprehensive newbies line dance to D.J. Improper's mash-ups and remixes.
There's a lot of prep work that people don't really think about. They think I just come up and throw down tunes.
Seligman changes a count in the songs he plays to conform to the dance. The Contra Sonic events too involve a caller, in this case, longtime caller Jeanne Smith or...
J9, her calling Contra Sonic name.
J9 sets the figures or moves for the dance, slowly falling back as the dance goes on. Weinburger and D.J. Improper were inspired in part by YouTube videos of contra dances to alternative music.
When we started looking at the videos, we decided we wanted to do something that was better. We watched the videos and we realized they had a lot of pauses in the dancing where the music didn't quite work so we decided we were going to make it the best dance it could be by making the music conform to the rules of regular contra dance music.
A few weeks ago Artisphere's ballroom was full of glow sticks, thunderous beats, black lights and folks dancing to techno pop and Indie rock. But not everyone supports the reinvention.
There's a lot of controversy about this kind of dancing too, you know, musicians are very taken back by it. There's a solid group of curmudgeons that contact me regularly and tell me that I've ruined everything.
Weinburger organizes other contra dances too including one at Glenn Echo National Park, which has a long history of drawing people to folkdances. But she's pretty happy young people are passing on their growing interest in the tradition.
All of the good music I listen to, I started listening to probably because of my mom.
Jere, you flatter me.
In a way, D.J. Improper's feature as a DJ is much like these urban traditional dances.
I don't know where deejaying will go. Either I'll just keep deejaying contra dances and one day in the future I'll say, yes, I deejayed contra dances or it will branch out and I'll eventually be one of those big name DJ's playing arenas and stadiums and that'd be cool too. I don't know yet. Take me where it takes me.
And the same could be said for the future of American Folk dancing, as young people reshape their idea of traditional dance and Americana into a blend of the modern and the past. I'm Jonna McKone.
To see photos of the dances in Mount Pleasant and Rosslyn, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's David Schultz, Bryan Russo and Sabri Ben-Achour and reporters Peter Granitz and Jonna McKone. Jim Asendio is our news director. Our managing producer is Tara Boyle. Thanks to Tobey Schreiner, Jonathon Charry, Andrew Chadwick, Margo Kelly, Timmy Olmstead and Kelin Quigley for their production help.
And to Dana Farrington and the WAMU digital media team for keeping our website up to date. Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts'' and our ''Door To Door'' theme "No Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks," by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. Visit our website, metroconnection.org, for a list of all the music we use.
While you're there, you can find links to our Facebook page and Twitter feed. You can subscribe to our free weekly podcast and you can send us an e-mail by clicking the contact link. We hope you can join us next Friday afternoon at 1:00 and Saturday morning at 7:00 when we pass over and look back by airing some of your favorite stories from the past few months, from panda passion to the agony and ecstasy of being on a rolling team.
Not a lot of people can say they watched the sunrise over the monuments, but we get to do it.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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