Over the years, the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities has sponsored many student research projects. Here we’re highlighting one of the talented students who completed a Center-funded project before graduating in Spring 2019: Dylan Therriault, a Philosophy major. Dylan’s project is titled Tradition, Inclusivity, and Participation in Maine’s Contemporary Contra Dance Culture: An Example of a Progressive Traditional Practice. It is an all-encompassing ethnography of contemporary Maine contra dance as a traditional practice within the state. This impressive project won the Lise Waxer Award for an Outstanding Undergraduate Paper from the Northeast Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology, which met at Colby on April 6th, 2019.

Dylan’s interest in contra dance began when he attended his first dance at Colby. That first night, he immediately approached one of the musicians, a fiddler, to ask for lessons. The result? Dylan has been fiddling at contra dances for the last two and a half years now.

Dylan’s research took him an entire year of fieldwork, during which he participated in, observed, and conducted interviews at contra dances, festivals, and camps across the states. Wherever contra dance musicians gathered to share their music, Dylan was there, building connections and watching the ways in which the other musicians approached their music. He worked closely   with Assistant Professor of Music Natalie Zelensky to compile all of his observations and interviews into an ethnography of contra dance in Maine.

The project begins with a history of Maine contra dance. The tradition was brought to the United States in the 1600s by British, Scottish, and French colonists, and became established in rural communities. It persisted for centuries as a regularly occurring recreational event frequented by local amateur dancers and musicians and serving as a method of sealing social bonds in a circumscribed geographical region. Contra dance enjoyed a period of resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, when it became the flagship of the countercultural “back to the land movement.” It provided a noncommercial way to build community, which emphasized locality, equality, and inclusivity; as opposed to trends such as nationalism, militarism, and commercialism.

Today, contra dance still has a rural, folk ethos to it, and an explicit sense of counterculturalism is still associated with it.  Its continued popularity, Dylan argues, is due to its flexibility. Its participatory orientation means that it has changed as the people who are involved in it change. Modern-day participants told Dylan that they loved contra dance because it strengthens community bonds while constantly inviting new people to join; remaining inclusive and accessible to all, no matter their skill or experience level.

Dylan enthusiastically encourages anyone curious about contra dance to get involved, describing it as a great way to connect to the local community. Currently, the largest contra dance community near Colby is located in Belfast. There are also contra dance clubs in Augusta and Portland. The Colby contra dance group holds a dance once a semester. The biggest celebration of contra dance in Maine takes place at the Common Ground Country Fair, held each September by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

When asked what he would say to another student interested in applying for a Center research grant, Dylan replied, “Work like hell on that proposal. That’s not only where you set your expectations for yourself of what you’re trying to do, but it’s also your moment to show others that you’re able to do so, and you can be really rewarded for that. The second thing is to find faculty support. The faculty just have a treasure trove of knowledge and can offer you so much guidance that can really make these projects happen.”


Written by Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator