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Contra Addiction Exposed

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on June 26, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version. 

Indy has a strange way of surprising me on a regular basis. Just when I think I have a clear notion of what our town is about, an unexplored facet of its personality surfaces. One such epiphany occurred at Fountain Square’s fairly new collaborative, creative space Grove Haus on a recent Tuesday evening, when I stumbled upon the tight-knit community that is Indy Contra.

Volunteers prepped for the arrival of dancers as I entered the renovated and repurposed church at the corner of Hosbrook and Grove avenues — one block east of Virginia Avenue. After greeted by friendly faces and extended handshakes, I steered toward the building’s main performance space. There Indy Contra President Dianna Davis was setting the stage for a performance by her three-piece band, Troika. (For details on how Grove Haus came to fruition, scope Seth Johnson’s feature for Sky Blue Window from earlier this spring.)

As I assumed my position like a fly on the wall, dancers of all ages, gender and dress trickled into Grove Haus, exchanging work shoes for something more comfortable. Boyfriends and girlfriends, older married couples and teenagers greeted each other warmly with hugs and how-are-yous. After Troika adjusted the sound according to its liking, the caller assembled those ready in a line near the front of the stage and began with the instructions for the first dance.

Face your neighbor on the side of the set. With your neighbor — gypsy. So, gypsy your neighbor and then swing your neighbor on the side of the set. Let’s swing in a circle. Circle left three places until you can swing your partner around the side of the set. Then swing facing across. Right and left through, across the set. Ladies chain back across, with a courtesy turn. Now take your hands in a ring. As you have your hands in a ring, look at the person in your right hand. Hopefully you’re looking at their ear, because they should be looking at your right hand. Now remember where their feet are. That’s where you want your feet to be in just a second …


Photo by Rhonda Minnich

After a few more instructions, the music begins. The dance is lively and energetic. The moves of the individual dancers appear straightforward and simple enough, though watching the entire group move together proves dizzying. Partners progress through the line together, trading constantly as if conversing in an unspoken language. By the end of the song every pair has danced with every other. The exchanges are occasionally punctuated with double high fives and resounding foot stomps.

“It’s tough to describe what Contra dancing is without showing it to people,” Davis says later in an interview. “It’s really hard to describe without having a visual.”

Jan Sims, who regularly drives down from Richmond with her husband to attend the Indy dance echoed Davis while chastising me for my position as wallflower, “You are diligently taking notes,” she said. “Are you learning to be a caller? You cannot just sit there and write it; you must dance it.”

Sims fell for Contra when she moved to Indy from Atlanta about 20 years ago, when her future husband introduced her to the dance. Over the years Sims has watched as interest in Contra has experienced waves of popularity. “Right now, it’s probably at a little bit of a low point, but this particular group is doing well,” she says. “Almost everybody you see here has been dancing for at least a couple of years. So the quality of dancing is pretty good and high. Indy has always been a really friendly, open group. So, I felt right at home when I first moved here.”

Ben Smith, a music professor at IUPUI underscored Sims’ description of Indy as a welcoming Contra group. He moved here from Cleveland less than a year ago. “I can’t say I was too excited about the scene in Cleveland,” he says. “They have three different groups that run dances on different nights of the week. I didn’t go very often. It was so big that I only knew a handful of people. Indy is more intimate.”

One unusual aspect of Contra is its use of a live band as accompaniment. Bands vary widely from group to group and region to region. “Every dance and every piece of music is exactly the same length,” Davis says. “In technical terms, it’s all 64 measures long. It’s about the same speed. You can vary it a little bit. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing an Irish tune, a gypsy Roma tune, a swing tune or an old-time tune.”

Davis is a classically trained clarinetist who received her undergrad degree at Millikin University before earning a masters degree from Indiana University. Contra dancing found her at a time when she confessed to having burnt out on classical music. She currently plays in two Contra bands, Troika and The Coffee Zombies. For her part, Davis views Contra’s tendency to adapt and transform multiple musical genres as a strength rather than a weakness. “I see folk dancing and folk music as two different things,” she says. “One has folk traditions that they’re preserving, and contra is the other side, where it’s evolving folk traditions. We don’t wear the funny costumes, and we’re not preserving the folk art. We’re creating the folk art. Contra is actually thriving because of that.”


Photo by Rhonda Minnich

As Indy Contra’s dance at Grove Haus rolled along, the seat next to mine became a rotating confessional booth for dancers looking to catch their breath. The news of a reporter’s presence had quickly dispersed throughout the dance. One such visitor was Dan Fisher, who spent decades as a square dancer before finding Contra later in life. “The thing I like about contra is what I like about square dancing in the rural areas, where you’ve got a wide range of ages and it’s multigenerational,” he says. “This is multigenerational. Now, square dancing in the cities is kind of like a senior citizens activity.”

The Minnichs, a family of Indy Contra regulars, serves as the living embodiment of Fisher’s observation. Parents, Tom and Rhonda Minnich, recently fell for Contra after three of their daughters began dancing a couple of years ago. Their 12-year-old daughter, Naomi, was the youngest attendee at Indy Contra on the night I visited. “This is fun,” Tom says. “It gives you the opportunity to laugh. It’s social. There’s humor. If you’re new and you make a mistake … [however] no matter who you are, you make a mistake, but there is always a hand to pull you in the right direction.”

“One of the things that has most impressed me about Contra is this amazing sense of community,” Rhonda says. “Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s like, ‘I don’t know you. Let’s dance.’ There’s no judging that goes on.”

“It’s such a joyous thing to be dancing,” Davis agrees. “No one goes to Contra to show off, to compete, to make money or to prove anything. It’s just about having fun, building a community, and to be somewhere you can be accepted and have a good time. There’s really no other point to being there.”

Written by Rob Peoni


Big Car’s Fun Fleet: Mission Possible

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on July 14, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version. 

If you bring the art, food and fun, the kids will come. That’s the plan with a Big Car program that brings creativity and support to kids in areas where cultural enrichment isn’t always the top priority.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday throughout June and July, members of Big Car travel by van into neighborhoods and apartment complexes to bring healthy snacks and cultural programming to Indy doorsteps. The initiative, called Fun Fleet, is a partnership with Indianapolis Public Library. Each week volunteers and staff plan short, one-hour activities and make them available to anyone interested.

“Some of these complexes are pretty isolated,” Big Car Program Director, Anne Laker says, explaining that there’ not a lot of walkability at some of the areas. “Not everyone has a car, and there’s not a ton of cultural amenities already there. Big Car’s mission is to bring art to people and bring people to art. In this case, we’re definitely completing our mission.”

Courtesy of Big Car

Courtesy of Big Car

Art Ambassadors

The Fun Fleet serves as an extension of the library’s bookmobile. At each location, kids line up with tote bags full of books to exchange for points, prizes and more books. While the kids meander through the library’s converted RV, the Fun Fleet unloads its tables, markers, crayons, colored pencils, bags of apples, a canopy and folding chairs with the silent precision of a veteran ambulance team. Before long, kids of all ages begin to trickle toward the group, grinning with hands full of new reading material, temporary tattoos, mustache erasers and packets of Jelly Belly candies.

The Fun Fleet program kicked off last summer at a handful of apartment complexes on Indy’s far Eastside. This summer, the program expanded, adding two new stops on the Eastside and a handful of additional neighborhoods surrounding International Marketplace, formerly Lafayette Square Mall. Each Fun Fleet crew is comprised of a leader, Tom Streit on the Westside and Jarrod Dortch on the Eastside, and a handful of additional volunteers.

“They call me the Eastside Ambassador,” says Dortch, who also donates a significant amount of time to after-school programs through Community Alliance of the Far Eastside when he’s not busy with his day job as an instructor at Ivy Tech in Muncie. Dortch lives near the neighborhoods along the Fun Fleet’s route. “Sometimes I’ll be at the grocery and I’ll run into one of the kids from Fun Fleet,” he says. “They usually remember me and say hi, which feels great.”

Esteban Ortiz is the lone member of the Fun Fleet that works on both the East and Westside routes during the week that I visited. He came to Big Car as part of the Immigrant & Refugee Service Corps. IRSC works with organizations, local universities, faith-based charities and others to bridge gaps and collaborate more effectively with Indianapolis’ immigrant population. Ortiz’s skills as a bilingual interpreter come in handy. While most of the kids are capable of communicating in English, some prefer Spanish. The language barrier is more significant among the parents at the various stops, and more than once Esteban’s skills have proven useful. He’s also working on a graduate degree with a focus on conflict resolution.

Along with art supplies and snacks, the Fun Fleet also uses a Big Car mailbox that allows the participants to send drawings and notes to their counterparts across town.

At the end of August, there’s going to be an art gallery at Big Car’s new space in a largely empty strip mall off of 38th Street and Lafayette Road.

Courtesy of Big Car

Courtesy of Big Car

Creative Renewal & Relationships

I met the Fun Fleet crew there prior to embarking on its Westside route. That morning, Streit led a team of volunteers clearing overgrowth along a nearby creek, which they will convert into outdoor furniture. The new space is still a work-in-progress, with construction materials scattered around tables covered in pipe cleaner sculptures from another Big Car meeting. “We’re just trying to plant a flag in communities where the arts are usually an afterthought,” Streit says. With proper funding and access, Big Car could conceivably convert under-utilized commercial spaces into hubs of creative activity all over the city.

Minutes after arriving at Stratford Apartments, a boy named Barry rides in on a bike. It’s his first time drawing with the Fun Fleet, but he’s a regular at the bookmobile. He’s saving library points to earn tickets to the State Fair next month. He recently moved to Indy from Walkerton, Indiana, to live with his mom. He sports a Walkerton soccer T-shirt, though he prefers baseball. Barry says he plays catcher, because he gets to wear his cap backward and a mask. But of more importance on this day is his gripe with apples (jokingly). “The reason I hate apples is there are fleas inside. See!” Barry says while sampling a snack.

“Those are seeds, dude.” Streit replies to resounding laughter.

And such is the rapport Streit and the other volunteers have with the kids.

The apple is an example of the snacks Fun Fleet volunteers pass out, thanks to a partnership with Georgetown Market. It donates fruit and healthy granola bars.

“Maybe we can inspire kids to expand their palates and provide nutrition at the same time we’re drawing and being creative,” Laker says.  “It’s not the reason we’re there, but it’s a great enhancement … and many of the kids ask if they can take one home to grandma or a little brother.”

As I draw and eavesdrop on the Fun Fleet activities, my mind wanders toward the recent rise in violence that has dominated local headlines since the issue came to a boiling point over 4th of July weekend. I can’t help but think that the Fun Fleet and like-minded initiatives are positioned on the frontlines of this fight to deter crime in our youth. That isn’t to say the neighborhoods were hostile environments, not in the least. I mostly saw kids and families scrapping to get by with the limited resources at their disposal. The complexes were clean, often had new(ish) playground equipment and better manicured landscapes than many of the lawns in Fountain Square where I live.

“We’ll see groups of kids where the older kid is the boss,” Dortch says. “They’re just running free. Sometimes you’ll see a grandparent, but rarely. It’s the Wild West. Every child for themselves out here.”

Courtesy of Big Car

Courtesy of Big Car

Spanish Oaks is the lone exception to Dortch’s description on the far Eastside. There, Big Car accommodates around 25 kids who stop by to draw and eat strawberries. Nearby, a group of five or six mothers converse in Spanish. 12-year-old Antonio clutches a copy of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as he takes a seat at the picnic table. His family read the Spanish version together, but Antonio wants to read the English version before watching the movie. He’s one of the kids that has returned to hang with Fun Fleet after getting acquainted last summer. “I come every week,” he says. “It’s nice. I like to draw and I can get books. The other libraries we have to drive to and we don’t usually have time.”

Among the many benefits of the program, one of the most promising for its future and that of its kid is that its organizers and volunteers are seeing some of the same faces from last year. “We’re actually developing relationships, and kids are finding the opportunity to be creative, and they’re starting to count on that,” Laker says.

Written by Rob Peoni


Music on my Mind: Indy music festival pulse-check

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on July 31, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version. 

Last week, I was scrambling around my apartment, assembling necessities for a weekend in Louisville at Forecastle music festival. As I printed tickets, gathered clothes, and iced down a cooler of beer, my mind drifted toward Indy’s recent festival forays and where cultural events fit into the landscape of a town whose reputation revolves around sports. To gain insight, I sat down with local concert promoters and other stakeholders to answer several questions. Among them were: Is a top-tier music festival necessary for a healthy music scene in a city? Is a thriving music culture central to Indy’s image nationally? What are the latest developments? What are the possibilities going forward?

“We have a pretty packed calendar of cultural events currently being offered, whether that’s concerts at The Lawn at White River State Park to Dig-In from Irish Fest to Indy Pride,” says Chris Gahl of Visit Indy. “It’s very eclectic and often surprises our visitors when they see the lineup of events. We feel confident in what we’re currently offering, however there’s always room to grow.”

Photo by John Ellison

Photo by John Ellison

One such sign of growth is WARMfest, Indy’s latest and most substantial attempt at a rock festival with regional reach. Dan Ripley launched the event last year, incorporating Broad Ripple Music Fest and Indie Arts & Vintage Market Place into a four-day showcase of music and artisans in Broad Ripple Park. For Ripley, WARMfest’s larger mission aims to fund the restoration of White River’s banks, removing invasive honeysuckle and other debris that has limited access to the waterway for years.

“For decades, Broad Ripple’s identity was tied to the park and the amusement park, and public docks, and canoe liveries and social gatherings on the river,” Ripley says during a recent boat ride along White River. “When you look at all of these things, I sort of justify my vision as not being hair-brained. People say, ‘Well, that will never work.’ It did work. It worked for decades.”

A look at more established regional festivals should provide Ripley with a bit of optimism. In 2013, Forecastle conducted a financial impact study to track the monetary windfall to Louisville’s tourism and hospitality sector. The results were impressive. Each year, tens of thousands of energetic fans spend an average of $98 per day, pumping a cumulative $14 million into Louisville. Last year, organizers invested $460,000 on local employment. Like WARMfest, Forecastle operates a nonprofit arm, which funds environmental conservation efforts in both Kentucky and South America.

“I think one of the reasons that Forecastle has been so successful and continues to be a success is because we didn’t come out of the gates big,” says Forecastle Media Manager Holly Weyler. “We started small. Like really small. Like 100 people small. So it has been an organic, grassroots growth that’s happened over the last 13 years that got us here.”

A recent Indianapolis festival with humble beginnings is Cataracts Music Festival, launched by Jacob Gardner in several backyards off of Morris Street. in Fountain Square in 2011. Gardner pulled off the event without any formal sponsorship agreements, just the support of a few, eager, like-minded friends. “I wanted it to light a fire under people’s asses to realize that you can do this anywhere,” he says. “You can do this in your front yard. It’s called DIY for a reason. Do it yourself. Don’t complain about not having a show space. Go find one. Go create one.”

Photos by Rachel Enneking / Bryan Moore

Photos by Rachel Enneking / Bryan Moore

Cataracts spent two years on Morris Street before moving to Garfield Park in 2013 after police declined to issue Gardner the necessary permits to hold the event at Fountain Square Brewery, citing noise complaints after the 2012 event. Those circumstances led Gardner to take a year off and regroup in 2014. “If somebody could see that we’re just doing this so that Indianapolis can have something to hold onto, then I would keep doing it,” he says. “As it is now, I’m letting it rest and fall where it needs to naturally.”

“We can do Cataracts again,” Gardner says. “We just have to appropriate funds correctly. Even if I have to pay for the majority of it, I’ll do it. But it’s gotta be in a really unique place. It’s gotta be in the right setting. It’s gotta be at the right time. The right bands have to be coming through. I would really like to do it in houses again, and scale it back. Maybe two stages with 15 bands all day or something like that.”

Josh Baker, who manages MOKB Presents and local events website Do317, recognizes the value that people like Gardner bring to Indy. “We need more younger music promoters who want to go out and do shows and take risks,” he says. “We need people who want to open more venues or change venue formats to be centered around live music. We need more people buying music and supporting bands. All of those things are catalysts and vital to a thriving music scene and I think a market has to have a thriving music scene in order to have a successful festival.”

Baker oversaw talent-hiring and filled a variety of other roles during the inaugural WARMfest. He chose to forego involvement this year to focus on opening a new Fountain square venue, The Hi-Fi. He has a long history with music festivals on a local and national level. He was the primary force behind Midwest Music Summit, a SXSW-style conference held in Indy in the mid-2000s, Monolith Music Festival at Red Rocks in Colorado, and other events like First Friday Food Truck Fest at Old National Centre. “The city is the direct benefactor of a festival,” Baker says. “The festival takes all of this risk and spends all of this money on marketing on behalf of the city and their brand. I think there’s something there from a city and tourism standpoint. They should commit a financial investment into some of these events to help them grow, because the city will see the rewards.”

Courtesy of FX Media / Phierce Photography

Courtesy of FX Media / Phierce Photography

Gahl echoed Baker’s assertion, saying, “To ensure the long-term stability of tourism in Indianapolis, you have to have a healthy mix of convention tourism and leisure tourism. Leisure tourism is driven by sporting events and cultural activities. We can’t get enough of those. We need to keep feeding the funnel and coming up with new events, new ideas, and new spins on existing events to make sure that Indianapolis is fresh and positioned as not only a convention town and a sports city, but a cultural hub.”

For his part, Ripley believes the necessary pieces are in place in Indianapolis. “There are plenty of local promoters,” he says. “There’s a lot of people involved in community development. There’s great support for this music community and there’s a million people in this county. That’s enough.”

The final WARMfest “Warm-Up” concert will be held in Broad Ripple Park on Sunday, August 10, just a few weeks prior to the festival itself. The free, all-ages event will feature performances from Hyryder, Chad Mills, and a kid-friendly set from Ruditoonz. To learn more about WARMfest, scope SBW’s coverage of the lineup announcement and keep your eyes peeled for more in this space in the coming weeks.

Written by Rob Peoni