A Blue Hill house band’s last contra dance

Posted Dec. 01, 2010, at 5:41 p.m.

Seemingly out of nowhere, George Fowler produced a fiddle case. He pulled the delicate instrument out and slowly drew his bow across the strings. Bill Schubeck found his fiddle, too. Heidi Daub fetched a five-string banjo and brought it to tune. Mesa Schubeck sat before a piano and stretched her fingers.

In less than a minute, they were playing. Mesa’s hands bounced off the keys and set the rhythm. The two fiddlers filled in with rich, familiar tones. Heidi’s left hand worked the banjo’s fret board, while her right hand bopped the strings, adding depth and complexity. Four feet tapped in unison.

The sounds that filled the room were traditional, vibrant and, for the musicians, effortless. The Oakum Bay String Band is a well-oiled machine.

On Dec. 4, the house band for the popular Blue Hill Contradance will perform its final show. A musical chapter will end.

“It’s time to pass the torch,” Daub explained recently from the Blue Hill farmhouse she shares with Schubeck and their daughters. “If [the dance] continues — and we hope it does — it will continue with someone else.”

Contradances are a throwback to community dances of the late 1800s and early 1900s. They went away for awhile, but have seen a resurgence thanks to musicians like those the Oakum Bay String Band, which is named after a local spot in Castine where the band originally formed.

Other regular dances are held in Bangor, Orono, Belfast, Trenton, Bar Harbor, Rockland, Unity and other parts of the state. On any given weekend, Fowler said, you could find a dance within an hour’s drive.

The Blue Hill dance is the grandfather of Maine contradances. Since 1984, it has featured the same band, which is rare. Fowler has been involved since the beginning, but the band has seen many added and subtracted pieces over the past 26 years. The latest incarnation spans two generations. Schubeck and Daub’s daughter, Mesa, 23, is a current member and another daughter, Fiona, 21, has often played.

Less formal than ballroom or square dancing, less “yee-haw” than square dances, contradances are fueled by upbeat music that draws from French and Irish cultures, bluegrass and country styles and ancient and contemporary steps.

The dances are formulaic and repetitive but also offer opportunities for improvisation.

“As long as you have 64 beats, you can do a lot of things. There is a lot of leeway,” Fowler said.

A good contradance, he said is like a triangle; if any side is weak, the whole thing fails. First, you need a caller, someone who sets the dances and guides the steps. On Saturday, the Blue Hill dance will feature John McIntire, who Fowler called one of the premier callers in the state.

Second, you need a kickin’ band such as, say, the Oakum Bay String Band.

The final piece is a room full of carefree, smiling dancers.

“It’s such a social thing,” Bill Schubeck said. “There is this room full of people and, at some point in the evening, you’ll get to meet that person across the room.”

The beauty of contradances is that they are one-size-fits-all. Anyone can do it. You learn the steps and then you dance. It’s at once complex and simple. Even if the dancing is difficult, patrons still get to hear live music.

As the Oakum Bay String Band played an impromptu set recently in the living room of Schubeck and Daub’s home, their love for the music was evident. Fowler is classically trained and has been playing for decades. Bill Schubeck teaches music at two local schools. His daughter Mesa recently graduated from the University of Maine and was a member of the University Singers. She has been around folk music since birth.

“It’s all about timing,” she said of performing at contradances. “Learning wasn’t easy.”

Mesa’s sister, Fiona, works at a bakery in Brooksville and is already a seasoned musician at age 21. Her parents said she plans to take over the Blue Hill Contradance, at least for a while.

There will be sadness Saturday, members of the Oakum Bay String Band agreed.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Daub said. “There aren’t a lot of house bands anymore.”

Inside the Schubeck-Daub home, the makeshift concert was coming to an end.

“You always end with a waltz,” Bill Schubeck said, as if that was common knowledge, because to him it is.

As the four musicians began to play “Amelia’s Waltz,” slowing their tempo down to the familiar, “one, two three … one two, three,” rythm, you could almost picture dancers moving around a wooden floor. You could almost see their last dance.

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