Coquitlam contra dance

Photo courtesy of The Sybaritic String Band

The Sybaritic String Band will bring the sound of contra dance – their blend of Celtic, English Country and French-Canadian music – to the Festival du Bois in Mackin Park, Coquitlam on Mar. 22 with a goal of creating a thoroughly danceable atmosphere for all.

“It’s an interesting mixture between the dancers, the musicians and the caller. A really great dance includes great music that fits with the dance… played at the right speed in the right way [to] energize the dancers,” says band member Leith Davis.

A history of music and dance

The current iteration of the Sybaritic String Band has been around for almost nine years, with the history of the band dating back even further. And the origins of music they play go back further still, even before the careers of longest-standing members Barry Cole, (mandolin, tenor banjo, guitar, harmonica) and Rich Sobel (fiddle, mandolin, djembe, podorythmie).

Bearing resemblance to square-dancing, contra dance music dates back to the 17th century, drawing from various forms of English, French-Canadian and American folk music. As Davis (string bass, fiddle, piano) notes, it’s a traditional style that’s featured some changes over time.

“They used Celtic, Scottish and Irish tunes because that was kind of in vogue [in the 18th and 19th centuries]. So you have these pretty simple-to-play tunes, and there’d be set dances for specific tunes,” says Davis. “They still maintain some of the traditions, but they’ve changed them a little bit.”

As time has passed, Davis says that contra dance took on a variety of regional influences further from its European roots, including Appalachian and French-Canadian stylings. Yet, as band member Claire McCague (woodwinds, triangle) notes, one thing has remained the same: the music is all about the dance, and vice versa.

“There’s certain music that’s written to draw attention to the performer, but with this type of music it’s about the dancers. The musicians serve the music, the music serves the dancers,” says McCague.

Being in the moment

For the Sybarites, as they call themselves, much of the enjoyment and challenge of playing contra dance music is in adapting to the demands of the caller. In contra dance there are three main parties: the audience of dancers, the musician performers and the caller, who announces and leads various dances for the audience to perform.

For the band, there’s usually little indication before the concert as to which dances the caller is going to call, and so it’s up to the band to figure out which songs in their repertoire to perform to best match the dance that’s about to come up. For the Sybarites, this task generally falls to long-time member Barry Cole.

“What usually happens is I look at the dance card, go through our repertoire and [see] if there are some things that are really good for certain moves,” says Cole. “Sometimes the caller will give some instruction saying, ‘I’d really like old-timey with this’ or ‘this is an English country move, so maybe something a little more cultured.’ But [I] try to get balances happening at the right part of the dance.”

In finding a balance of tempo, mood and general vibe, the band says that beyond just performing the music, being a dancer is both enjoyable and essential to being able to feel and internalize the groove of contra dance.

“It’s so rhythmic, it’s so groove. You have to kind of be dancing yourself while you’re playing,” says Davis. “I’ve always been a dancer, that’s kind of what I’ve always done and playing has kind of been an extension of dancing for me.”

In the end, contra dance is meant as an enjoyable experience, whether one is responsible for calling, playing or dancing. As band member Sobel explains, it’s all about having a good time.

“For me, the only reason to play music, other than personal drive to play it, is to make people happy. If they’re not happy then I’m doing something wrong. So that’s what brings me joy is when I give joy or set the context for other people to have joy,” says Sobel.


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