A Chat With the Artist on Contra Dancing, Their New Album, and More
By Steacy Easton, Contributing Writer
Loving traditional folk forms and being queer can be a difficult bit of business, especially if those forms are English. Folk forms, be they dancing or singing, rest on binaries–man/woman, husband/wife, leader/follower, Christian/Heathen, even animal/human. It’s refreshing then to encounter the dancer, musician, and teacher Alex Sturbaum whose dancing and performing reconsider what it means to be gender-variant within these conservative traditions.
Sturbaum’s role as a contra dancer is an excellent example of this. Contra dancing is a form of folk movement which was brought over to the American Southeast from Northern England in the 19th century. The dance is mostly known as a move between partner dancing and something more collective. There are still partners and their movements are similar to square dancing, but these dances happen in large patterns–often a line through a hall. In the midst of collective movement, the participants are divided into male dancers and female dancers–re-enacting a kind of heterosexual courtship ritual. Watching these performances, queerness questions again and again: Why does this have to be between a man and a woman? Why do we have to re-enact straight rituals? How do we free ourselves from these limits and still respect tradition?
The chief organizing body of country dancing in the United States owns the form’s oppressive heritage. The society was founded by Cecil Sharp, the folk song collector in England and Appalachia, who also claimed to have revived the extant tradition of country dancing. Sharp revived dancing and singing for the usual 19th century racist reasons, and so to see the society he founded in the 19th century trying to navigate the 21st century, is heartening, if a little overdue.
One of the ways of working against that history of an Anglocentric worldview (recognizing Sturbaum is white) is to allow other people whose very existence functions against Sharp’s desires for respectability create meaning in new and difficult ways. Having a non-binary person move or sing rebukes Sharp, asserting the tradition is wider than some historians have allowed.
Sturbaum makes direct connections between dancing and music making, and between their body and tradition. It is a pleasure to hear someone who is so committed to returning dancing to diverse bodies, taking traditional reels and the like, which in the hands of people like Chris Thile have become concert pieces, and making them abstracted and disembodied. Sturbaum’s body radically welcomes those isolated from the history of gatekeeping born of people like Sharp.
Sharp gatekept what was folk music and what was folk dance, and there has been a century of prying open those gates – Sturbaum’s singing and dancing tied together liberates bodies and thus liberates history. Their new album Looming, estranges these hidebound folk traditions. Their new ballad “Sweet Mary Starbuck” is a song about a widow finding comfort with another woman. Centuries of songs about sailors being lost at sea are still there, but finding someone to ameliorate the loss is also present. The elegant inclusion of a queer narrative in old school tradition, knows the gaps in history and fills them with queer longing, an aesthetic and poltiical strategy. The political potential of an elegy can be seen more explicitly, in how they cover the 19th century folk ballad “Tom Paine’s Bones”.
Talking to Sturbaum via email, these questions about how to make old forms new is a current thread, as is the ongoing crisis of politics, and the joy of forms that might still have some life in them:
Just to begin generally, how did you find out about contra dancing, how did you get into it? What brings you joy about it?
I started playing traditional music when I was in my early teens. I had grown up surrounded by folk music (my father plays bluegrass and old-time), but it wasn’t until I discovered Irish and Newfoundland music at age twelve that I really got into it. I played Irish trad throughout my teens, and attended sessions regularly. When I started college at Oberlin, I started playing for contra dances because that’s where the tunes were, but immediately got sucked into the culture.
For one thing, the music itself is so much fun to play. In Irish trad, you generally play a tune three times through, and you generally stick to the melody. When you’re playing for contra dancing, you can play the tune as many times as you want, and you can improvise a lot more. Playing for dancers is one of my favorite things in the world; you throw the energy out onto the floor, and the dancers amplify it and throw it right back at you. I love dancing as well—not only is dancing fun, but everyone in the hall is there to have a good time, and the joy is infectious. The contra community is also one of the most welcoming, loving, and inclusive communities I’ve ever been part of; there is almost never any gatekeeping, and it’s full of weird and delightful people who want nothing more than to share a thing that they love.
As someone who is non-binary, do you find left out by some of the gender separation that occurs in folk dancing? Is contra dancing more comfortable by its group nature, or having that one long line, as opposed to more intimate forms of partner dancing?
I find that the amount that I feel left out by gender separation in folk dancing is directly proportional to how tied to gender expectations the roles are (more on that in the next question). I do think that contra dancing is made a lot more comfortable by its group nature; it’s very easy to switch dance roles. The fact that you dance with pretty much everyone in the hall is helpful as well; I know I feel a lot more comfortable doing a contra dance with someone I don’t know well than, say, a four-minute slow blues dance, which can be a little more intense. (That said, contra is the only social dance I’ve done a lot of, so that’s absolutely not a knock against blues).
I know that there are some recent movements to include gender-neutral contra dancing, can you talk a little bit about that, about how common it is, and whether you find it solves some other problems?
I’ve been really happy to see the movement towards gender-neutral contra dancing take off, and I think it’s extremely good for the community. Obviously, gender-neutral contra is more inclusive towards nonbinary folks, but it’s about more than that. I think that one of the most essential things that gender-neutral contra does is break down the assumption that you can determine a person’s behavior by how they present. I know a lot of people who have had trouble dancing at contras where gendered terms were used because they were dancing the “gent’s” role and presenting more feminine, or vice versa. Other dancers would attempt to correct them (despite the fact that they were where they were supposed to be), or make comments that made them feel uncomfortable. At a gender-neutral dance, it’s explicitly stated that you can’t make those assumptions. I also think it’s an excellent first step towards dealing with other issues in the contra dance community, especially those of consent. At a gender-neutral dance, you have to clarify at the start of every dance which roles you and your partner would prefer. The simple normalization of asking someone a question about their preference, and being okay with whatever the answer is, makes people more receptive to other healthy behaviors (for example, asking before dipping or twirling, or being okay with “no thank you” when asking someone to dance).
Gender-neutral contra dancing is becoming more commonplace, which makes me really happy. I know it’s common on the West Coast—there are explicitly gender-free dances in the Bay Area, and a lot of the Seattle dances use gender-free terms. It’s not taking off as strongly in other parts of the country, though, and some communities have pushed back pretty severely against people who have wanted to try it out. I’m pretty sad about that—I think it’s a really healthy thing for a community to try, and what’s more, a lot of younger dancers are on board with it. I see a lot of communities asking how they can get more young people excited about contra dancing, and being open to gender-neutral dances seems to be a pretty effective way.
Can you talk a bit about how you try to disrupt tradition, and rework older forms, in a contemporary context, personally? I am curious about some of the history of folk dancing, and Henry Ford, and that kind of toxic history, for example.
That’s an excellent question. I love traditional music and other folk arts, and I believe with all my heart that there’s a lot of wonderful stuff in the woodpile. I also believe firmly that the coolest thing about these traditions is that they are living traditions. That means you have to let them change, to adapt to the times. If you try to preserve them perfectly, like museum artifacts in glass cages, they will suffocate and die. People will lose interest, and no one but a few historians and hobbyists will remember them.
The thing about folk songs, folk dances, and fiddle tunes is that they’re fun. They weren’t designed to make money or to preserve history; they are what people have done for entertainment for thousands of years. So in my mind, the important thing is to keep people singing, to keep people dancing—not because the music or the art form has Important Cultural Significance, but because it’s really good! And if that means writing a new folk song about modern topics, or working a pop song into a contra dance, if it makes the people happy, so be it.
My identity as a folk musician has always been about the music itself and the folks who play it, not the countries from which it originally came. After all, if you try to claim that what came earlier is always the most pure and true form of the music, you’ll eventually be sitting in a circle hitting rocks together.
The flip side of that, however, is that if you change the source material too much and too fast, it’s not recognizable anymore, and therefore won’t be accessible to the folks who already sing it, or play it, or dance. When I write new songs, I try to strike a balance; my songs are usually instantly recognizable as folk songs in terms of structure and style, and are easy to pick up if you sing in the tradition, but I like to try and fill vacancies in the tradition and sing the songs I wish already existed in it.
Also, when it comes to the history of folk dance or folk songs, “preserving the tradition” too often is code for “preserving/maintaining whiteness”, and I’m not down with that.
In that historical mode, can you talk a little bit about how the message of the song “Tom Paine’s Bones” fits into your practice?
“Tom Paine’s Bones” is a song I learned this past January at Youth Traditional Song Weekend, which was an amazing experience. It was written by Graham Moore, an English songwriter. I love this song for a lot of reasons. First, Thomas Paine’s ideas are still incredibly relevant. Paine wrote about inherent human rights, that government’s job is to safeguard those rights, and that any institution that fails to do so is illegitimate. He risked arrest and castigation to speak out against injustice. Right now, when basic human rights are being threatened daily by our institutions, we have a moral responsibility to do the same. Also, it’s just a great folk song. It has a chorus that you can hear once and sing for the rest of your life.
On your album, you include some traditional dance forms, like reels. Do you think that there is a disconnection between these forms as just music, and these forms as accompaniment to dancing?
I wouldn’t say a disconnect necessarily, but there’s certainly a difference. When you’re playing tunes for dances, the dancers are feeling the tunes more than they’re listening, so your variations have to be bigger and more obvious if you want them to land. That said, I’ve always been more about the groove than about the melodic variations (I spent years as a rhythm player before I picked up the accordion), and I wanted the listener to want to dance when they heard the tracks. These tunes were written as dance music, and I think you hear that whether you hear them on an album or on a grange hall floor.
I also specifically picked the two sets of dance tunes (Minnie White’s/Hughie Wentzell’s/Fogo Island Mussels and Vince’s Triple/Gillis’s Favorite/Breakwater Boys) because they’re tunes from Newfoundland. I’ve loved Newfoundland tunes since my childhood, but I’ve always felt that they get passed over in traditional music circles in favor of tunes from Quebec, Cape Breton, Scotland, or Ireland. They have a really unique, accordion-driven groove that I adore, and they make me want to move my feet no matter where I hear them. I’m hoping that by putting some Newfoundland tunes on the album, I can get a few more people (especially in Washington state, where I live) excited about that particular tradition.
I am interested in how you think about gender in some of the music that you sing, about what it means to sing something like “Sweet Mary Starbuck”?
I wrote “Sweet Mary Starbuck” partly because I wanted there to be not only more explicitly queer folk songs, but more explicitly queer folk songs that were grounded in a specific time and place. Queer people have existed throughout history, and the fact that their stories have been erased doesn’t change that.
The song came to me while I was reading a book about the sinking of the whaleship Essex; the book opens with a chapter on the culture of 19th century Nantucket, where women had a comparatively large amount of freedom and influence over their lives. The author stated offhandedly that women had to go without companionship for long periods due to most of the male population of the island going whaling; I remember wondering if he had considered that queer women exist, and before I knew it the song was written. It was important to me that the song be very clear in its queer content, and also that it be a sweet love song. Enough queer media ends in tragedy; I wanted this song to be a happy one.
I didn’t really consider my gender that much when writing “Sweet Mary Starbuck”, except inasmuch as I tried extra hard to do a good job, as I was writing from a perspective I’ve never had. I also think that folk music is for everyone; I’m not the gender of the narrator of the song, but I’m also not a 19th-century Nantucketer. I think a good folk song puts you in a time and place, and it can be a fun way to explore different perspectives.
I did put some thought into gender when writing “By the Door”; the genders of the narrator and their partner, Sam, are never specified.
This is a less well formed question–but can you just tell me about “Alligator”, like where it is from, and how you found it? It’s a really fantastic song.
“Alligator” came out of a situation that is familiar to many songwriters: I wanted to write a song that would be powerful, a song of great emotional import, a deep and powerful song that would touch the hearts of people. After staring in frustration at a blank page for about an hour, I said “hell with it, I’ll write a song about an alligator.” I’ve always liked the ambiguous nature of the song; it’s left up to the listener whether the alligator is a figment of the narrator’s imagination, or a representation of something unknowable and evil, or just a literal alligator. I’ve been playing “Alligator” for years, but I’ve always wanted to put a full band behind it. I finally got my wish on this album, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. It fits well with the ominous sound of the album. Plus I got to play an electric guitar solo, about which I was very excited.