Contra is Their Calling: A Conversation with Louie and Robert Cromartie

March 01, 2012

Louie and Robert Cromartie are a true contra couple. They met at a contra dance, got married, continue to dance and now both are well-known callers in and out of NC.

The couple met in 1989 when each was urged by friends to come to Winston-Salem for a contra dance. They did and fell in love with contra dancing and each other. They both feel live music is essential for the spirit of a contra dance. Robert says, “One of the great things about calling a contra dance is the music and getting to work with great musicians.” Louie concurs: “ The relationship developed between a caller and the band is essential.”

When did you get interested in calling and what got you interested? Who are some of your mentors?

Robert: When I started dancing the Winston-Salem dances were run by Gene Hubert who, as I soon discovered, happened to be the best-known contra dance choreographer of modern times. He came to North Carolina in the late 1980s from the Midwest. Gene wrote three books on contra choreography. He was extremely influential in the world of contra for his use of flow--the main distinguishing feature of a dance. He got me interested in how a dance is choreographed. I started writing dances and continue to do so, but calling became my primary focus.

Louie: I attended callers' workshops and attended many dances. I was surrounded by callers and decided to give it a shot. I’ve been calling ever since. I was determined to call squares. Kathy Anderson, an amazing square caller who has been calling for 30 plus years, got me started. She is always encouraging and checks in with you to see if you’re still calling squares.

How did you learn to call a dance?

Robert: Gene really wanted other people to call, in part so that he could dance. So I called my first dance in Winston-Salem in 1990 and, shortly after that, called in Chapel Hill. Since there were not as many callers in the early 1990s as there are today, I got many opportunities to call regionally. I then began traveling more extensively, including touring regularly with a very influential contra band from Asheville, The String Beings. I learned to call by calling.

Louie: In workshops you learn basic things: timing, rhythm, when to call, phrasing, and how to interact with the music. We are fortunate to have a great local caller’s collective that has been around almost continuously for 25 years. It gives us a chance to practice informally, but the only way to really learn is by doing.

What is the role of the caller?

Robert: Ideally, the caller’s role is to get the dancers and the band in tune with each other and get out of the way. Teach the dance, call it a few times through, and then step back. That’s when it really works best.

Louie: I agree. The caller is the liaison between the dancers and the band.

How would you describe the type of dance you create?

Louie: What I’m looking for in a dance is the shape of it, the up and down and across of it. I like adding in something I haven’t seen before to a dance. Our long car trips are where we tend to discuss and sometimes write dances.

Robert: My dances are relatively straightforward. I don’t go in for great complications for their own sake. I want my dance to have an interesting story line, an interplay among moves in the dance that creates an overall feeling.

What’s the best part of calling?

Robert: Going to a new community where I don’t know folks and being able to communicate with them in the language of contra, assessing what’s going to make them happy and then giving that to them through my calling.

Louie: It’s watching my friends have fun.

What’s the most challenging?

Louie: Trying to find balance between helping new dancers be successful and making sure experienced dancers feel fulfilled.

Robert: The interesting challenge is the chemistry between the band and the caller. Communication between band and caller is one of the most important aspects for making a dance go well, and there’s a common language between caller and band that has been developed to communicate about dances.

When they’re not calling, Robert is a computer scientist with VMware, a software company in CA. Louie is transitioning from being a full-time mom to their daughter, Thankful, a sophomore at UNC. Louie will be one of the callers at TCD’s Spring Dance Romance dance weekend in late April. “I’m looking forward to it. Seth is insane, so I follow his lead, but I’m the calm one. Weekend plans are in the works!”

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