“Look at your feet. Your feet are where home is.”
Students and alums dressed in jeans, prairie dresses, and cowboy hats check their feet on the packed dirt floor. Dr. Bill Fischer surveys the crowd from his post. Standing on a heap of timber and leaning on the high rafters of the pavilion built just this morning at the Yale Farm, he watches the even lines of dancers and makes sure they are in position. The air is sweet with the smell of freshly cut white oak, and only a few of the roof beams have been placed, leaving the dance floor open to a starry sky.
Fischer, longtime local contra dance caller, music man, and lover of all things folk, is here to teach the age-old dance form step by step. Dressed in a red flannel shirt with a thick grey beard, long yellow-gray dreadlocks down his back, and a keen look in his eyes, he has a powerful physical presence. When he calls for a dance to begin, people listen. In the early fall air, the pavilion seems transformed into an old-time barn, draped with strings of lights and candles that illuminate the expression on his face.
“Barns have always had a special magic for me,” he told me, describing a childhood spent around his grandmother’s barn. In a place like this, Fischer is in his element and very much at home.
A weekend later I head to Fischer’s real home, an enormous converted barn in Bethany, Connecticut. Driving towards the house in the half-darkness, you can hear music floating into the yard.
This is Bethany Music and Dance, Fischer’s monthly informal gathering devoted to live music, good food, and contra dancing. Inside, there are musicians and instruments everywhere, along with perhaps 80 revelers. I push past a man who mumbles, “too many guitar cases” —there are four stacked up in this particular corner. To the side of a table piled with heirloom tomato salad and homemade cookies is a cluster of musicians strumming banjo, mandolin, and guitar to no audience in particular. Fischer comes in with a penny whistle and, without sitting, catches the gist of the music and improvises a little before addressing the crowd. Soon, he announces, we’ll all go upstairs for dancing.
Though Fischer spends most of his time and energy these days on the local contra dancing circuit calling dances and leading events, he is also a 1966 Yale College graduate and a retired doctor who still spends a few days each week tending to medical duties. Sometimes, the two circles of his life overlap, and one of his patients will become a guest at one of his dances, or vice-versa. But to him, being an expert in these two different areas is no big deal.
Looking at the newspaper clippings and mementos pasted to the walls of his house, you get a sense of a life full of curiosity and passion. The ceiling is hung with chimes, gongs, and a string of bright, now-withered balloons from some past celebration. The walls are covered in announcements for hurdy-gurdy workshops and barn dance events, and the rooms are studded with collectibles and oddities like a washboard and a collection of shaking gourds. A black and white picture shows Fischer at a May Day celebration. He has a thick bunch of maypole streamers in his hands, a crown of blossoms on his woolly head, and a radiant smile on his face.
The guests move to a rough dance floor upstairs where the planks will soon shift beneath their feet as they stomp and twirl. Tonight there are four dances. Before the first comes a hush of excitement, then a scramble to find partners. Even the shyest girls get pulled off the benches. Soon Fischer is calling out directions over the whirr and hum of the tuning band, aided by a wireless microphone that leaves him unfettered and able to dance. “I truly love to dance,” he says. “When I get to go someplace, dance and call, that’s everything in the whole bucket together.”
The tune starts with a fiddle and the high fluttering notes of flutes and pipes. The stooped accordionist jumps in with a lively accompaniment. Soon the band has another song underway, and Fischer is leading the dancers, many of them doing this for the first time. When asked what draws people to contra dancing, he says it’s the live music. Some callers, he said, work with cassettes, but he swears that he has never in his life backed up his dances with anything but the real thing. Prominently displayed on his website is a strict rule: “leave your amplifiers at home!”
Fischer says you can trace these dances back centuries. Contra dancing almost disappeared as a pastime around the turn of the last century, but it experienced a resurgence in the seventies, and Fischer was quick to join in the wake of this renaissance. He started contra dancing in 1980. “I only had to walk into that to know it was something I was entranced by,” he said.
Some dancers are bolder than others. A woman with toe rings and furry legs dances joyfully barefoot over the plank floor. A ten-year-old kid do-si-dos around his partner, a middle-aged woman with a long brown braid down her back. Some men spin their partners clear off the floor, while others exuberantly follow Bill Fischer’s shouted direction, “and now, a five elbow turn!” Soon, the only one sitting it out is a distinguished, white mustached, wool sweatered man in a neck brace.
“Did you hurt your neck at the last hoedown?” someone asks.
The fourth and last dance brings us into one big circle around the dance floor, and soon we’re off. You spin a few giddy measures with your partner, promenade a few steps forward, and then hook the elbow of the next person. It’s a new partner every minute. There are a lot of names for contra dancing, says Fischer — barn dances, country dances, social dancing, but what it’s really about is people dancing together.
After twirling with a handful of plaidshirted, sweating men, I reach Fischer himself. With a powerful spin that lifts my feet off the ground, Fischer breaks the circle and grabs my hand, leading us in a weaving, hairpin-turning, grape-vinedancing chain around the barn and briefly out into the cool night air of his backyard. Flying through the chain of dancers, I look at Bill Fischer. He is laughing.