Project Thank-A-Dancer

Is there someone in your contra dance community that has had a big impact on your life? This is your chance to raise that person up.

Perhaps there is someone who showed you kindness at a time when the world was not being particularly kind to you. Perhaps you know someone who has quietly been volunteering for years with little recognition. Or maybe there is a particular musician who took you under her wing and helped you learn the finer points of your instrument.

The purpose of project Thank-A-Dancer is to collect those expressions of gratitude so that the people who are appreciated can know just what an impact they’ve had. They might not even realize that someone is so grateful to them. The other purpose of the project is for us as a community to see all the ways in which our acts make a difference.

It might be that the person to whom you are thankful is no longer living. That’s fine. They are still a part of our community. And it’s possible that you are thankful to something that is not a person. That’s okay, too. The most important thing is to be specific. Say exactly what you are thankful for and how it affected your life.

I’ll start.


I would like to thank Jack Mitchell of the Triangle Country Dancers. For years Jack has been a reliable source of positive energy for the dance community in North Carolina. In recent times he’s gained notice as a caller of repute. But it’s the consistency of his many acts of goodwill that I truly appreciate. He’s learned the craft of doing sound (goodness knows we need more folks like that), he organizes caller workshops, he welcomes beginners, and he teaches essential and new skills. Thanks, Jack, for all you do!


Please record your own thanks in the comments below.

Poetry & Celtic Music at McIntyre’s Books

Come to McIntyre’s Books for a reading by three outstanding local poets and enjoy live Celtic music and dance. This year’s kickoff reading sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society is sure to be 2015’s most lively literary event.

January 25, 2015 at 1:45pm


David_ManningDavid Manning

David Manning is the author of eight books of poetry. Twice nominated for the Pushcart prize, he is also a three time winner of the NC Poetry Society’s Poet Laureate award. David will be reading from his just-released book “Soledad.” NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti says, “Manning recognizes each signpost on the plat, claims it, christens it, forgets nothing.” Listeners are fortunate to hear from one of North Carolina’s finest writers.

Alice_OsbornAlice Osborn

Alice Osborn is a Pushcart-nominated poet, editor-for-hire, writing coach and dynamic speaker/facilitator. She’ll be reading from her forthcoming collection “Heroes Without Capes.” These poems about the personal lives of famous and infamous figures from history, including Boba Fett, the Virgin Mary, and the Roadrunner, are sure to delight. Alice is the author of “After the Steaming Stops” and “Unfinished Projects.” She’s also the editor of the short fiction anthology “Tatoos” from Main Street Rag. Alice is an avid Irish step dancer and might be cajoled into kicking her heals if the audience is enthusiastic enough.

tyler_headshot_colorTyler Johnson

Tyler Johnson is an author, poet, and musician whose work revolves around traditional music and dance. Tyler will be reading from his just-released collection “Dancing the Haw,” which features poems set along the Haw River. His other books include “Tales from the Red Book of Tunes (fiction),” and “The Swamps that Close (poetry).” When not writing, Tyler can often be found playing Irish music for contra dances.

Haw BurnHaw Burn

Haw Burn plays traditional celtic dance music. Featuring Jon Amos on fiddle, Jen Hamel on guitar, and Tyler Johnson on tenor banjo, this trio is certain to get your toes tapping.


Click here for a map to the bookstore.

Gaelic Festival at Johnny’s

johnnys-logoCelebrate the Celtic New Year at Johnny’s in Carrboro on November 1, 2014.

Gaelic Song Workshop

It all starts around 5pm when Cape Breton stepdancer Stephanie Johnston holds a workshop on Gaelic songs. If you love group singing this will be a real treat. She’ll teach the words to several simple work songs. No previous Gaelic experience necessary!

phrasebookTalk Dirty to Me (in Gaelic)

Noted Celtic scholar Michael Newton will regale us with lowbrow language and inappropriate phrases from his new book The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic: All the Scottish Gaelic You Need to Curse, Swear, Drink, Smoke, and Fool Around. This will certainly come in handy on your next romp in the highlands.


Starting around 6pm there will be a Cape Breton and Scottish dance music session. Bring your instruments and join in! Although this session will focus on music of Scottish origin, we’d not be surprised if some other Gaelic musics crept in. Perhaps we’ll hear some tunes from Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Galacia if we are lucky. You’ll see familiar faces from the local traditional music scene, including Alison Arnold, Trish Hornick, and Gordon Arnold.


Stephanie will be offering an introduction to Cape Breton stepdance while the music plays. She’s been teaching this percussive dance in the area and some of her students may come to practice and show off their steps as well. If you’re interested in Cape Breton stepdance this is a great time to learn more about it.


Johnny’s has great food and drink. The Capp’s Pizza truck will be there as well. (Sadly, Carrboro as yet has no haggis truck.) You can enjoy your food inside or outdoors while listening to the music and song.

A Note for Contra Dancers

TCD is hosting the Wicked Whirlwind dance festival on this weekend. Earlier in the day you can dance to the music of Tickle, Scratch, and Groove with Susan Taylor and Janine Smith at the Carrboro Century Center. Then come on over to Johnny’s for dinner and music. Afterward, you can return to the Century Center to dance to the music of Contraversial with Shawn Brenneman.



See you at Johnny’s!

Photos of musicians and dancers by Chris Florio of FlorioPics. If you need a photographer, he’s the best.

Dance Writing Contest Winner – Spring 2014

Congratulations to Elizabeth Bloom Albert, the winner of the Spring 2014 Dance Writing Contest. Elizabeth took on the challenge of writing dances to match two tunes from the dance adventure Tales from the Red Book of Tunes. Her dance “A Carriage Works” was selected by Tyler Johnson and a group of experienced callers as the best in contest.

Tyler notes, “the dance is a Sicilian circle, and when viewed from above the dancers form the spokes of a wheel, making the dancers themselves a part of the story. The figures match the music quite well, making it a fun and accessible dance.”

View the dance and listen to the tune at the story page for “A Carriage Works.”

A donation has been made to CDSS in honor of Elizabeth’s winning. Please let her know what you think of her dance.


Chicagoan Elizabeth Bloom Albert has been a contra dancer since 1999, but she’s been dancing–(international) folk dance and (East coast) swing—for a long, long time. Elizabeth began writing contra dances about five years ago; she’d become bored with Sudoku and crosswords and needed a new challenge. When she’s not writing dances, she’s writing prose. Her short stories and essays have won, placed, or showed in a number of writing contests and have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Karamu, Permafrost, Canteen, Southern Women’s Review, Quarter After Eight and elsewhere.


Tyler asked Elizabeth some questions about her involvement with the dance community

– What’s your home dance community?

I do most of my dancing in Chicago with the Chicago Barn Dance Company. I also want to give a shout-out to the Huntsville, Alabama dance, where my husband and I dance 2-3 times a year.

– When and where did you start dancing?

I have been dancing contra since 1999. Before I was a contra dancer, I did a lot of (East coast) swing and (international) folk dance—and still do some on occasion.

– When did you start calling and writing dances? What drew you to that?

I am not a caller. I have been writing dances for about 5 years. I’ve always loved puzzles (crossword; Sudoku; acrostics); writing a dance is the best puzzle there is because when you solve one successfully a whole room full of people get to share the joy.

– What does the dance community mean to you?

When you think about it, social dancing is a cooperative endeavor and cooperation is at the core of any good community. So my weekly dance group is probably the most community-minded thing I do all week.

– Do you play an instrument?

No, but I plan to do so in my next life. (And I really hope my next-life mom steers me to the violin.)

– What do you do when you are not dancing?

In the summer you’ll find me riding my bike or out in our garden, where we grow vegetables and perennials. I also love to cook and bake. And one of these days I will get back to knitting, sewing, and quilting.  But mostly, I am a writer (of short stories and essays). I have yet to have a book published, but I have won, placed or showed in a number of writing contests sponsored by literary magazines. These prizes let me know that I have at least some talent and convince me to keep plugging away (in spite of hundreds of rejection slips).

Fear of Dancing

I accidentally learned how to dance. I was trying really hard for this not to happen.

Here’s what happened.

I had just moved to Richmond, Virginia. I was living in a beautiful old farmhouse in Goochland, past rolling pastures along the James River. I didn’t know many people from the area and I was hoping to meet some fellow musicians with whom I could share some tunes and perhaps a pint or two.

I found Style Weekly magazine in a rack outside of the health food store. Your town probably has a version of this paper. It’s an alternative weekly that lists indy rock bands with names like Salmon Finger that you are too old to ever really understand or like. It features a modicum of liberal journalism and has plenty of ads where you can get your mountain bike serviced. You know the one.

In the back there was a classified section for musicians. Here you could find ads like “Bass player needed. Must be able to play in G and D,” or “Dynamic frontman/singer looking for band to back me up.” I knew from experience that you have to be careful with folks from theses ads. Once I had gotten together with someone advertised as a “talented guitarist.” He showed up with perfectly quaffed and permed blond 80’s metal hair. After he set up his guitar he took out one of those oscillating fans, saying, “Do you have somewhere I can plug this in?” He put the fan on the floor and aimed it at himself at an angle like a floor monitor so it would blow his hair in dramatic wisps while he played. It was one of the longest hours of my life.

So I knew to target my audience carefully. I placed an ad saying that I was a musician, new to town, that was interested in playing Irish traditional music. I gave a few particulars and my phone number and sent it off.

I picked up a copy of the paper the following week to see if my ad was there. It was. There was just a minor hitch. Instead of putting the ad in the music classifieds, they had put it in the personals section.

Let me just stop for a moment to offer a bit of advice. Under no circumstances should you ever, ever, put your phone number in a personals ad.

The little green counter on my answering machine started to increment. I received a number of very forward propositions and offers of service. One woman breathed into the handset, “I adore musicians.” I could hear crying in the background. I’m not sure what that meant. I didn’t return any of these messages.

But there was one message, one short message, from a woman named C. that was different. It said simply, “I’m not sure, but I saw your ad in the paper and I just think that you should probably be a part of our community. Can you come to a contra dance?”

There are moments around which worlds turn. You don’t realize it when it happens because the relativity dictates that you turn at the same rate as the world itself. But looking back it’s dead clear that the universe on that day took a different path.

I had heard of contra dancing but hadn’t tried it. To be honest I didn’t really want to try it, as I couldn’t dance. But I was really interested in the music and was in need of new friends. I called her up and we met for lunch. When she found out that I knew how to operate a sound system she suggested that I help out since their community was in need of some help in that regard.

So I started running sound for the dances. I would set up the soundboard just offstage. That way I was out of sight of the dancers but could easily communicate with the musicians. And, my, what music it was! I was enthralled.

The problem was that, despite my best efforts, women would always find me and drag me out of my hiding place and onto the dance floor. I would explain that no, I was the sound guy, but they were much too persistent to be put off by that, or even the fact that I was utterly confused on the floor. Around and around they pushed me as the weeks and months drew on. And little by little I began to understand, more and more frequently forgetting myself until I was swinging and laughing with wild abandon.

I thought that it ended there. That there was a straight line between not knowing how to dance and being able to dance. I didn’t realize at the time that I was being pulled into a dense, rich community. That my roots were entwining with an extended colony of dancers until we held each other in a solid mass of interdependent lives. Or that we were really all just a part of the same life.

It was a homecoming.

That’s how I came to dance. What’s your story?

photo by Chris Florio at FlorioPics.

Stephanie Johnston | Cape Breton Stepdancer


Tell us a little about your music and dance career. Where have you lived and danced?

I’ve lived in England, Tennessee, Arizona, North Carolina, and Nova Scotia (and I became a Canadian citizen three days ago!). I’ve been playing Celtic music since high school, but didn’t stephanie_johnston_01begin step dancing until I was nearly thirty. I went to Warren Wilson College in Asheville and have been involved with the Swannanoa Gathering on campus over the years as a volunteer, staff member and instructor (if you don’t already know about the Gathering, check out It was there that I saw Cape Breton step dancing for the first time and decided I had to learn, although at the time I had idea how I’d go about it. Less than a year later, I met Malke Rosenfeld, a phenomenal percussive dancer who was living and teaching in the Triangle area at the time. I ended up joining Cucanandy, a band founded by her and her partner, quit my day job, and went on the road with them for five years. Malke was very generous about teaching me as much about percussive dance, and Cape Breton dance in particular, as I wanted to learn, and I began to dance with her a little bit in performance (I spent most of my time onstage singing and playing bodhran and rhythm guitar). After the the band split up in 2002, I began teaching Cape Breton dance in Asheville, eventually forming a semi-professional performance group called Twisty Cuffs Percussive Dance. In 2008 I married a wonderful man who had just gotten a job as a Celtic studies professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, which happens to be about half an hour from Cape Breton Island, so I spent five years surrounded by people who had grown up immersed in step dancing and Gaelic culture. We have just moved back to North Carolina, and I’m excited to reconnect with the music and dance scene down here.

What do you do when you are not dancing?

At the moment most of my energy is going into raising our sixteen month-old daughter, Róisín (whose name means “Little Rose” in Irish), but I tend to have my fingers in lots of creative pies. I’m a Scottish Gaelic learner, and I directed a Gaelic choir in Nova Scotia for three years, which is something I’d like to try to get going down here in the next year or two. I’m also an avid knitter and sweater designer, although having a curious toddler in the house makes it hard to get much knitting done these days.

What’s one funny thing that happened to you while dancing?

stephanie_johnston_03Cucanandy used to top off the night with a big set of tunes, at the end of which I would hop up onto Malke’s 3’ x 3’ dance board and join her for a fairly manic piece of choreography. It was usually the only time the audience saw me dance, so it was our big surprise knock-’em dead number. If you take a moment to visualize a three-foot platform of plywood, you may realize that’s not a lot of room for two people in tap shoes who are hopping up and down and swinging their legs around. There were many times that we each came perilously close to one edge or the other of the board, but I remember one night in particular: Malke’s shoelace came untied and all she could manage to do to warn me was yell “Danger!” By the end of the piece we were both in giggles, but neither one of us tripped on her lace.

It seems like dancing in community is a really common thing across cultures and times. What purpose do you think dance serves?

I think it serves many purposes, but what I love most about dancing, and percussive dance in particular, is that it’s a full-body way to enjoy great music. I’m one of those people who can’t sit still if the music’s good, and getting to play along with my feet is about as joyful an experience as I can imagine.

How does percussive dance relate to community dance?

Percussive dance is often incorporated into community dance styles. There’s a great tradition in Cape Breton of community “square dances” which are very similar to Southern Appalachian square dances: couples move through a set of figures with other couples, often while doing fairly simple percussive steps. And, like the flatfooting and clogging traditions down here, particularly skilled dancers will often get up and perform more complicated steps during breaks between sets.

How long did it take you to become proficient at percussive dance?

I was performing a French Canadian waltz clog onstage with Cucanandy within a few months of starting to learn, but I had an exceptionally good teacher and was highly motivated to get good fast.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

Malke was my first and biggest influence, but I’ve known some other wonderful dancers along the way, including Ira Bernstein, Wendy MacIsaac, and Benoit Bourque. I was introduced to Malke by a lovely rhythm tap dancer in Blacksburg named Ann Kilkelly, who turned me on to Bill Robinson and other classic dancers of his era. Ellie Grace (of the Grace Sisters) is a good friend who showed up one day for a dance class and ended up playing a big a big part in the formation of Twisty Cuffs.

What’s one thing that you hope to do in your life that you haven’t gotten around to yet?

I started working on a novel about flamenco dance (another obsession of mine) the year before my daughter was born, and I fantasize that some day I will managed to pick it back up and finish it.


Stephanie Johnston has been teaching dance since 2002, and was the founding director of the Asheville-based percussive dance group Twisty Cuffs. She toured with the Carrboro group Cucanandy from 1997 to 2002, and has taught classes and workshops up and down the East Coast in the US and Canada. She studied dance with Malke Rosenfeld, Bonnie Jean MacDonald and Jean MacNeil (“mother of the Barra MacNeils”), and has danced onstage with Buddy MacMaster, Ira Bernstein, John Doyle, Liz Carroll, and numerous other luminaries of Celtic music and dance. To stay updated, “like” Step Gael on Facebook. Information on her April classes can be found on the ArtsCenter website at

Dance pictures by Chris Florio at FlorioPics.

Why I Irish Dance

Alice Osborn is a dynamic poet, editor, and writing coach in Raleigh, North Carolina. What I recently learned is that she also has the Irish fiddle and dance bug. Bad. In my never-ending quest to understand why we dance, I reached out to her to find out just what it was that was drawing her deeper and deeper into traditional music and dance. This is what she said.

I can’t remember why I stopped dancing, but now I never want to stop. Since I was three to about twelve years old I took ballet and a year of tap in Northern Virginia. My last two years of dancing were with the Christina Heimlich International School of Dance and I especially loved the solo stuff. I re-started Alice Osborn - headshot1my dancing practice last fall when I joined Rince Go Halainn in North Raleigh, one of North Carolina’s only non-competitive dance schools. And get this, my teacher, Catrina Mineo, noticed that my folk dancing never left my body—it seems my moves were imprinted from 30 something years ago. That’s pretty cool and it gives me a great deal of hope that I can master this Irish dance thing.

I want to dance to feel more connected to my body again. To loosen up and let go of stress. As a writer, I’m all in my head most days and I’m totally ignoring what my body is doing. Plus I’m editing, sitting down and that’s way too much pressure on my lower back—my posture sucks! And within the content of my writing, I usually ignore anything that has to do with someone’s body. As an aspiring musician, Irish dancing is based on beats and it’s all about your timing. Plus Irish dancing is great exercise and I’m keeping my mind sharp learning all of the dance moves—it’s like learning to recite a poem, but much more intense.

With Catrina’s encouragement and support, I’ve been in three pub shows at Tir Na Nog. Where else can you drink a Guinness immediately post show? The first two shows I totally did some freestyle moves and at the second show almost fell over taking my bow. The third show was a lot smoother. I’m now practicing feverishly for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and need to kick my butt more. Ouch, my lower back is protesting.

Alice Osborn - dancingI’ve got my blue/brown school dress, wig, tights, bloomers and shoes all lined up and ready. My family thinks nothing of me doing butterflies, hop jumps, light jigs, reels and slip jigs in the kitchen. My six-year-old daughter, Erin, scours You Tube to help me find Irish dance instruction videos and “how-tos” for putting on your wig. Turns out you need lots and lots of bobby pins and a doughnut (I used this non-edible accessory in ballet class when I needed a quickie bun).

I had originally wanted Erin to Irish dance because I thought with her name she’d fit right in and figured she’d totally go for the sparkling dresses. But after a demo at another school’s open house, Erin adamantly said, “No!” She’s taking singing lessons instead and is my accountability partner.

Anyone can Irish dance as long as you’re willing to listen and learn. I’ve had back surgery for Pete’s sake. Some coordination helps, but you don’t have to be a kid! And you certainly don’t have to be Irish (I’m Scottish on my dad’s side—the wrong side, by the way).

It’s fun, it makes you smile, and hold your head up high. And when you’re dancing you forget about everything except the moves and the music. Erin Go Bragh!

Alice Osborn is the author of three books of poetry, After the Steaming Stops, Unfinished Projects and Right Lane Ends and is the editor of the anthology, Tattoos. She’s working on her next poetry book, Heroes without Capes. Her past educational and work experience is unusually varied and now it feeds her strengths as an editor for hire and writing coach who takes good writers and turns them into great authors. Her pieces have appeared in the News and Observer, The Broad River Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Soundings Review and in numerous journals and anthologies. She serves on the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers’ Network and is a leader in several women’s networking organizations. Alice lives in Raleigh with her husband and two children and three birds. When she’s not writing or Irish dancing, she’s playing her violin or guitar. Visit Alice’s website at

Contra Dance & Book Release Party

book releaseTales from the Red Book of Tunes

Calling by Louie Cromartie

Music by Rip the Calico

Location: Pleasant Green Community Center

Date: March 23, 2014

Dance: 7-10pm

Beginner Lesson: 6:30pm

Admission: $10

Come celebrate the release of Tales from the Red Book of Tunes, the new book by author Tyler Johnson that takes you from a modern contra dance back to the murky myths where the music was born.

There will be a mini-concert featuring tunes from the book! Joining Rip the Calico will be special guest fiddlers Trish Hornick and Mairead Brady.

You can purchase the book online at Tyler Johnson’s Bookshop. Or pick up a copy at the dance.

  • Paperback: $15
  • Hardback: $25
  • e-Books from Kindle/Nook/Kobo/Apple stores


A note to non-dancers: This event is structured to allow participation from folks that are not regular dancers during the early part of the evening. You will be able to enjoy a concert and reading. You’ll be able to watch experienced dancers and have a try at it yourself. You are strongly encouraged to come to the beginner lesson at 6:30 because this will give you some important background information about contra dancing. It will help you understand the book. And it could just possibly save your life.

Please download and print the flyer and distribute at your local dance event!

Directions to Pleasant Green Community Center

The address is Pleasant Green Community Center Rd, Durham, NC 27705

Pleasant Green

From points north and east: Take I-85 through Durham to exit 173, Cole Mill Road. Take Cole Mill Road to the end at Pleasant Green Road, turn right, then make the next right onto Pleasant Green Community Center Road, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From points west and south: Take I-85 to exit 170. Get in the left lane as exiting, and take a sharp left onto US 70 west. Follow the first traffic light. Turn right here onto Pleasant Green Road. Follow 2.4 miles and turn right on Pleasant Green Community Center Road. The community center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From Durham: Take Cole Mill Road to the end at Pleasant Green Road, turn right, then make the next right onto Pleasant Green Community Center Road, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From Chapel Hill: Take NC 86 north, go to Mt. Sinai Road and turn right, follow to University Station Road, turn left, follow to US 70, turn right, turn left at first traffic light, Pleasant Green Road, follow about 2.4 miles to Pleasant Green Community Center Road, turn right, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From Raleigh: Take NC 147 (Durham Expressway) when aproachng Durham. Follow through Durham and rejoin I-85 south. Follow to exit 170. Continue to light. Turn right, this is Pleasant Green Road. Follow about 2.4 miles to Pleasant Green Community Center Road, turn right, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

Spring Dance Romance 2013

swingIf you had special glasses you would see that as the dancers weave across the floor their souls entwine like vapor trails in the rafters. It makes a kind of spiritual soup with all of the burdens and joys in the dancers’ hearts intermingling like flavors: strong, sweet, and bitter. Whether it’s compost, the river bottom, or plasma in the center of the sun, something in the universe knows that soup is good.

Here’s what I found at Spring Dance Romance at Camp Sertoma this year. I invite you to share your thoughts and memories.

One Armed Dancing

OK. I need some advice. I love to waltz. But I have an injury to my right shoulder.

How do I lead?

For you non-dancers (and you are really missing out on one of life’s most exquisite activities here), it goes like this. The man takes his partner’s hand in his left, extending them out from the body. These hands are beautiful and graceful, like an elegant masthead. But the truth is, they don’t do much.

On the other hand (ahem) the man’s right arm is the rudder. It goes around his partner. Her arm lays across his. These arms form a semi-rigid structure. This is called frame. He uses this to steer them across the dance floor. Subtle shifts in the right arm queue your partner whether to turn, or step back, or pull in close. It’s the critical arm.

Except I don’t have one.

At least, not right now.

I keep it in a sling while dancing so some yahoo showing off (which more than once has been yours truly) doesn’t yank it into some unnatural angle.

So, the question is, how do I lead with only one arm? Surely someone out there has solved this problem.

Help me! I’m adrift.