Three years ago, I’d timed my move to the mountains on North Georgia to coincide with a Saturday night contra dance at the John C Campbell Folk School, because I knew a stranger would feel welcome there. So it was fitting that this past Saturday night, my last in North Georgia for who knows how long, I danced at the Folk School once more. And it was a superb dance to go out on.
Charlotte Crittendon, whom I remember as a very beginner caller, has grown into one of the most well prepared, friendliest, and clearest contra callers that I’ve seen. Charlotte makes every dance seem like a house party with your best chums, even well things go awry, as when a dark chocolate Labrador? puppy waltzed onto the floor in the middle of last night’s dance. Charlotte chuckled, the dancers laughed and maneuvered deftly around the pup, and a wrangler jumped off the sidelines to carry it out of harm’s way. The music kept flowing, everyone chuckled, and it was a sweet, shared moment. New caller, Sharon King, also took turns calling a few simpler, well called dances.
The band was from the Atlanta, GA area but new to me. Mick Kinney & the Hick Hoppers were simply stellar. They played a variety of instruments from piano to guitar to combination banjo-guitars and banjo-mandolins, and seemed to switch up instruments and styles every few songs. We heard a bit of the wild west, ragtime, New Orleans style jazz, and traditional contra music. Every song was zippy and put a smile on my face.
The charm of dancing at John C Campbell Folk School is that it’s like stepping back 100 years into a barn dance. There is a true sense of community here in the craftsmen and artisans that teach and learn at the school throughout the year, in addition to huge art festivals and a full slate of musical and cultural events.
The wood floor is polished by years of dancing. Festive quilts decorate the walls, and a massive stone fireplace to the side of the room keeps the callers warning “Move this line over so you don’t fall into the fireplace!” Sometimes the contra dancing seems a bit tame for my tastes compared to other venues, since more squares, English set dances, and circle dances are thrown into the mix than usual. I’ve celebrated a few New Year’s Eve’s here, and really enjoy the nightly advanced dances during the Winter Dance Week (December 26, 2015 – January 1, 2016). This year’s lineup includes Maivish, A Joyful Noise, DoubleDate, and the Canote Brothers. The dancing is enhanced by group skits, Morris dancing, and an outdoor recitation and musket salute to the New Year.
This evening, there were a handful of specially-abled adults in attendance. They’ve been practicing a while, since most were keep up and dance with the best of them. It was great to partner with some of these folks as well as some seasoned dancers. That’s what contra dancing is all about – meeting the next person in line as they are, and quickly finding a way to dance together despite apparent differences. This dance organization typifies this quality of being part of a community better than any other.
The best part of the evening, in my view, is another Folk School tradition – the “Goodnight Song”. Everyone who’s still around holds hands in a circle, gently sways, and sings the sweetest lullaby to one another as they gaze around the circle into each other’s eyes. The harmony achieved on the last, sustained note will warm any heart. And make every stranger feel welcome.