Historic dance expert to share talents

With two Contra dance workshops under their belts, a group of Alcona County residents are primed for a special event Friday.

The Jon Stevenson Memorial Dance, set for 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Senior Center, will feature this unique form of American folk dance that was all the rage in rural New England in the 1800s and is once again gaining popularity. Expert Glen Morningstar will serve as the caller.

“There is so much history around Contra dancing, and many Michigan towns hold monthly dances around the state,” said Mary Ellen Jones, a board member of Inspiration Alcona, sponsor of the dance. “What we’ve noticed is the sense of community around these dances.”

This old-fashioned style of dance combines elements of line and square dances, and is usually accompanied by traditional instruments playing Americana music. Alcona County resident Jon Stevenson, for whom Friday’s dance is named, found great pleasure in playing many of the old-time tunes on his banjo. When he passed away last year, Stevenson’s wife, Maureen Castern, asked friends and family in lieu of flowers to donate money to host a dance in his honor.

“He’d been a real old-time music player, and his wife knew he was passionate about it and that he really enjoyed playing,” said his friend and fellow musician, Eric Dunckel. “He wanted to try to bring this to the area, and he wanted to be involved in the community.”

It is through the memorial donations that Inspiration Alcona was able to hold the two previous workshops introducing the area to Contra dancing. The memorial money also is being used to bring Morningstar to town.

“Glen is one of the few top tier callers,” said Dunckel, an Inspiration Alcona board member. Before his death, Stevenson also served as a board member.

Prior to Friday night’s dance, Morningstar will be conducting a three-day dance education program at Alcona Elementary School. Today through Friday he will be at the school to provide the students with a survey of period dances from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.

Morningstar has taught and led dances across the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe. His Olde Michigan Ruffwater Stringband has released three CDs. He has published a music book, “Dance the Winter Away,” and co-authored “Great Contras and Squares from the Great Lakes State” for Michigan Dance Heritage.

Additionally, Morningstar has served on the boards of Michigan Dance Heritage, the Paint Creek Folklore Society and the Country Dance and Song Society. He and his wife, Judi, have been awarded the Lifetime Contribution Award from the Country Song and Dance Society for 2013.

Dunckel said the two workshops leading up to Friday’s dance were extremely well received, with about 70 showing up for the second one.

“We were bursting at the seams, but we were able to get everyone on the floor,” Dunckel said. “It was a challenge with a large group and a small space, plus only about 20 who had danced before. But it was a lot of fun, and what we took away from it was a lot of smiles and a lot of people looking forward to the dance.”

The memorial dance will take place in the larger venue of the Lincoln Senior Center, located at 207 Church Street. It is expected to be a fun, social night out with Morningstar there to give instruction as needed. Cost to attend is $5, with refreshments included.

Dunckel and others in on the planning process are hoping this will be the first of many such events as they would like to see a monthly Contra dance take root. The dances also provide an opportunity for musicians to jam, since all the music is live.

Morningstar will be returning to the area in September as a presenter for the second annual Alcona Arts Retreat. The retreat, centered at Lost Lake Woods Club on Sept. 5-8, will feature a wide array of art and music workshops inspired by the woods and water of Northeast Michigan.

For more information about the Contra dance, Inspiration Alcona or the Alcona Arts Retreat, go online to www.inspirationalcona.org.