Step To It

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Aromas Community Grange will be alive with the sounds of fiddle, mandolin, guitar and dancing feet this Saturday as Stump Tail Dog plays music for the Grange’s monthly Contra Dance. 

Contra dancing was all the rage in the United States in the 1800s and is still hugely popular today.  It is considered to be the “most social of all traditional social dances” because each dancer gets to change partners roughly every 30 seconds.  The dancers form two parallel lines and, under the direction of a caller, go through a sequence of steps which, when complete, leaves them facing a different person each time.  Contra dancing has only ten basic steps or calls, so is extremely easy to learn even for the complete novice.

The caller for Saturday’s dance will be Lynn Ackerson, one of California’s most popular dance callers.  She is renowned for her ability to bring dancers of all experience levels together for a fun evening of dancing.

Of course, one of the major attractions of Contra dancing is the music, which is usually drawn from the Scots and Irish traditions.    Saturday’s band, Stump Tail Dog, is unusual in that much of their music is original, although written in the traditional style.  The two members of Stump Tail Dog are Dan Engle on fiddle and mandolin and Ray Frank on guitar.  Engle has been playing fiddle since the late 1970s and has played for dances for 25 years.  Frank is a classically trained guitarist (he studied with Andres Segovia) and has played guitar for over 50 years.  He also teaches guitar and has recently worked as guitarist and arranger on recordings by several local bands.

The duo has been playing together since 1992, at which time they were a quartet playing traditional Irish music.  However, their bassist was unable to play more than one show a month and their drummer left to pursue other work so Engle and Frank carried on as a duo.  The name Stump Tail Dog comes from a traditional American fiddle tune that they used to play.  “It’s not really that much to listen to,” said Engle, “but we liked the name so that was that.”

Stump Tail Dog usually plays at around four Contra dances per month, and the duo travels all over California to play at dances and festivals as well as performing at some out-of-state engagements.  “We love what we do,” said Engle.  “We put out all of our energy in the music and it speaks to the dancers’ feet.  Then they dance and their energy feeds back in to us and it just makes for a great atmosphere, a great time.”

If you’d like to try Contra dancing yourself this Saturday but feel like a nervous newcomer, there is a brief beginners’ orientation session at 7:15 pm before the dance proper begins at 7:30.  There is no need to bring a partner.  Casual, light clothing and flat, soft-soled shoes are recommended.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, January 6, 2005

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