Techno contra brings new life to traditional dance in Sitka

If you live in Sitka, you’ve definitely heard of contra dance. And if you live on planet Earth, you’ve certainly heard of techno or electronic dance music (EDM).

A lively crowd dances at Techno Contra. (Photo by Katherine Rose, KCAW - Sitka)
A lively crowd dances at Techno Contra. (Photo by Katherine Rose, KCAW – Sitka)

You may not expect much of a cross-section between the two communities, but once a month at the Larkspur Cafe that’s exactly what you’ll find.

Contra dancing is a type of folk dance, with European and Appalachian origins. It’s sort of like square dancing, but couples stand in lines. They progress down the line, repeating the dance with the couple standing across from them, all set to folk music.

“I never liked dancing actually,” Ben Timby said. “Then someone roped me into a dance from the band. So I set down my banjo and was like ‘okay.’”

Timby has been dancing contra for a while. He even met his girlfriend, Tiffany Justice at a contra dance in Asheville, North Carolina. Once she tried it, she was hooked. She loves all kinds of dancing, but contra offers a special sense of togetherness.

“I had a few friends who asked me to try it out,” she said. “It seemed like it was very inclusive, which i liked about it. In the same night I danced with a 16-year-old and a 90-year-old. I just really really liked that I felt this sense of community in the dancing and it wasn’t exclusive in any way.”

The couple kindled their relationship at Sitka’s traditional contra dance held once a month with music by a local group, Fishing for Cats. About December of last year, Thimby wanted to try something different.

“There’s a number of us who’d already been doing the traditional contra dancing,” Timby said. “I think we were just sitting around having beers or at a jam and I just mentioned this idea, and Kari (Lundgren) was on board.”

Lundgren is a contra dance caller, the person that teaches the group each of the dances. She is a longtime Sitka caller, but Timby wasn’t sure what she’d think about some of the music.

Lundgren loved the idea, though there were a few logistical challenges. Contra tunes are between 100 and 120 beats per minutes. Techno music is more like 120 to 150 beats per minute. Tempo-wise it’s the difference between a stroll and jog. So, Timby and Lundgren had to find the sweet spot where upbeat music meets danceable meter.

“Ben picked really good music. People can only dance so fast. You have to actually give them time to complete the move,” Lundgren said. “Some of the music has an extra measure in it. Sometimes we have to pause and go ‘and wait’ and wait and wait. Go now!”

Techno contra also attracts a younger crowd, and often participants have little to no experience. Seeing a younger crowd at a contra dance helps keep the tradition alive,” Lundgren said.

“The tradition is graying a little bit. When you look at some of the dance camp footage,” she said. “This is actually bringing in the next generation of dancing, and that’s the important part, is just keeping contra alive and making it relevant. Very likely some of those folks would feel confident walking into a fiddle dance if they were in Minneapolis visiting their sister.”

The group is looking into holding dances in Juneau, Fairbanks, and even Bellingham, Washington and Portland, Oregon. In Sitka, techno contra has become so popular, the partipcants are considering upgrading to a bigger space for the next dance in August.

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