Since 1994, Long Island native Beth Molaro has made a name for herself as a contra dance caller. Known as far away as Denmark, Molaro will be calling dances at the Lake Eden Arts Festival. She shares her love of this American art form with Bold Life readers.
For someone who has not experienced it before, what is traditional contra dancing?
I refer to it as the melting pot version of all the dances that were brought to this country by the people who settled here. There are elements of English country dance, Irish country dance, Scottish country dance and French country dance all rolled into one, but there are also elements of square dancing because it developed at the same time.
What is the caller’s role in the dance?
We teach the dance before it begins and direct the action on the floor. People familiar with modern square dancing understand you have to know all the moves before you can do it. With contra dancing, it’s more accessible in that you come to the dance and the caller teaches the movements, then the music starts and the caller prompts the dancers.
How did you get interested in contra dancing and being a caller?
My high school sweetheart gave me a dulcimer and I went looking for the music to play on it. That’s how I discovered Appalachian music. In 1990, I was making my living as a potter and went to the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia for a workshop. That’s where I saw this music had a dance that went along with it.
I went to my first dance in 1990 when I was living in Charleston, S.C. I parked my car, peeked in the windows of the dance hall and was terrified to go in by myself. When I finally did, people were telling me how they were glad I was there and wanted to show me how to do the dance. I dove right into it and within a year I thought I would like to try calling the dances.
The next year, I went back to Elkins and took a caller’s workshop. I never opened my mouth the entire week I was in class because I wanted to observe. When I came home, I told our main caller he had to let me try that night or I might never do it. He did. Then the next week he let me call two dances. The next week I called three and it turned out he really wanted to dance, so I just did it more and more after that.
What makes your style distinctive?
I don’t bark commands like some callers and I work really hard on the vocal style. I sing a lot when I call, so its very musical and very pleasant, not like being directed around by a drill sergeant. I would love to dance to my own calling, but haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
I work really hard at being clear and making my descriptions accessible so the dancers don’t have to work so hard. I can take a room full of beginners and make them feel like they know the dance right away.