Work: Contra and Square Dance Caller Nils Fredland | Work | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Work: Contra and Square Dance Caller Nils Fredland

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Nils Fredland - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Nils Fredland

Name: Nils Fredland
Town: Hartland
Job: Contra and square dance caller

At first glance, a room full of contra dancers looks like mildly organized chaos. But look more closely, and patterns emerge: Four dancers with right hands touching create a spinning star. Long lines of dancers facing one another move together and apart like waves on a shore. Individuals weave in and out, evoking a double helix.

Who's responsible for such elegance? No matter how naturally coordinated contra or square dancers might be, they'd have all left feet without one person: the caller. That person chooses the dances for an event, teaches novice and experienced dancers the choreography, and then guides the group to dance in sync with live music.

"I went to my first contra dance in 1995 in Plainfield, New Hampshire," says Nils Fredland. "I remember a lot about that evening, especially being captivated by the caller, Fred Park. He was so passionate about his role. I felt more drawn to what he was doing than to what I was doing as a dancer."

Four years later, at age 26, while studying music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Fredland tried calling at an open mic night. "It fit," he says. "It felt right, and that started my journey as a dance caller."

Literally. For three subsequent years, he practiced by "driving a lot and calling wherever people were willing to hire me," says Fredland. He drove coast to coast several times and called throughout the North and South. "You'd actually be surprised by how many contra dance communities there are across the country that are enthusiastic about hiring callers from out of town," he says.

Contra and square dances — 18th-century blends of English, Scottish and French dances — are found worldwide but are most common in the U.S. In contra dances, couples dance in long lines, working their way up or down the line during a song. In square dances, groups of four couples generally stay together throughout a song.

Fredland, now 45, is artistic director of Revels North, a nonprofit that presents programming in traditional song, dance and storytelling. But he still makes time to call dances in Vermont and beyond, particularly in the spring and summer.

SEVEN DAYS: What's it like to call a contra or square dance?

NILS FREDLAND: There's technical skill involved. You have to understand how to teach a dance, how the dance fits with the music, and you have to be able to deliver the calls in a way that is clear and that the dancers can follow.

The thing that sets great dance callers apart is the ability to read a crowd and realize what needs to happen in order to create a good mood — know what the next right step is for the majority to have as close to a peak experience as they can. It's an impossible thing to be able to do that for everyone in the room, but I always try. I want people to feel taken care of.

SD: It sounds like the role a DJ plays, but you're guiding dancers' movements.

NS: I've never heard anyone make that particular connection, but it's exactly like the role a DJ plays. I often think about the arc of energy. Between 10 and 12 contra or square dances fit into an evening. For each of those slots, I have a baseline approach, and it can change based on the crowd in front of me.

SD: How does it feel when you see that you've achieved peak moments for a majority in the room?

NS: It feels great. What I really like about the caller's role is that I can set the mood, provide the appropriate guidance, and then get out of the way and watch the floor connect without me. That's a wonderfully satisfying thing.

SD: What are some differences between calling for contra versus square dances?

NS: Inherent to a contra dance is the concept of repetition. The figures go for 64 beats; then you move up or down the line, and you're dancing with a new couple. You do the same set of figures for another 64 beats and move again. That gets into people's bodies, and they're able to ride that wave.

A lot of square dance calling is improvisatory. Sometimes it's based on what I see happening. It looks like they want a grand right and left now, so I'll drop that in. Or They look a little confused. I'll throw in a circle that I know everybody can do. This is what's going through my brain.

It's a very different activity to call for squares versus contras. I love both.

SD: Have you seen anything change since you started calling?

NS: Things have changed dramatically in the social aspects. There's a real move toward calling with language that's gender neutral: instead of "gents" and "ladies," using [the self-chosen monikers] "larks" and "ravens." Anyone can dance in either role, and I've seen this simple change in terms really broadening people's experience on the dance floor. We talk a lot in the dance community about being inclusive, and this is one more level of inclusivity.

I'm fascinated by the fact that, even after 20-plus years, there are things that can turn the whole profession on its head. It keeps me growing. Any crowd does that to some extent. Every time I pick up the microphone, it's different, and that's pretty cool. It's people being together, and people are unpredictable.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Turn of Phrase"

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