How often do you score an opportunity like this? To come see one of your university professors play live, rockin’ folk and traditional music in one of TWO bands that he plays with, seriously! It’s not every day that you get to see such a vibrant otherside to a professor outside of academia. This past week I took some time to sit down with communication studies department chair Jeff Kerssen-Griep, to talk about his involvement in Portland’s contra dance scene.
The communication studies chair plays rhythm guitar and percussion for contra dances all over the Portland area in his bands Wild Hair and Joyride. Both bands’ sounds combine a ear-pleasing mix of guitar, fiddle, percussion, piano, tin whistle, as well as less typical instruments that you wouldn’t associate with this genre. By this, in Kerssen-Griep’s band Wild Hair, the bouzouki and alto saxophone play overtop some tunes which only cause the listener to want to dance or the dancer to sink deeper into the rhythm.
As Kerssen-Griep explained it, the music played for contra dance is drawn upon various styles of Celtic and North American folk music. Musical standards for this dancing style are primarily traditional fiddle music from various cultures. It is not to say though, that this style of dance relies exclusively on traditional music. Wild Hair’s whistle player Todd Silverstein had composed a contra jig based on a traditional Jewish melody. The dance itself is very much like square dancing minus the square. Contra dancing happens in lines where the dancer progresses down the line with every change of the tune. There is a caller onstage who calls out and teaches the different dances until everybody in each line knows the pattern. As dance partners are ever-changing in this dance style, contra dancing is a unique way to meet 40 or 50 people in the course of one dance. First-time couples who are new to contra dancing are very surprised to find themselves swept up by a host of other dancers. This dance style is all fun that really breaks free of today’s very exclusive conceptualization of dance.
Come check out Dr. Kerssen-Griep’s bands and dance a little at a few monthly venues that he plays at. His band Joyride plays every first Wednesday at the Polish Hall conveniently located near the Overlook Park MAX station. This dance runs from 7:30 till 10 so it gets done early enough to come back and finish up your homework! Kerssen-Griep’s other band Wild Hair plays from time to time at Fulton Community Center right off of Terwilliger Blvd. where there is always a contradance on Saturday nights from 8 to 11.