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Seth Tepfer: Discovering the joy of contra dance

Seth Tepfer finds fulfillment serving others through his work in Oxford's Office of Information Technology and his avocation as a contra dance caller. Emory Photo/Video.

Working for the Office of Information Technology at Oxford College, Seth Tepfer loves a good challenge — pinpointing and unraveling problems to create computer-based solutions that make life a little easier for the campus community.

The same holds true on the dance floor, where Tepfer enjoys "creating order from chaos," as he uses humor, a steady voice and colorful persona to guide crowds through twirling patterns as a master caller for contra dancing, a form of folk dance.

Since calling his first contra dance in 1997, Tepfer's services have been in growing demand; he's logged more than 500 appearances at dances across the U.S. and Canada, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, Denmark and England.

These days, it's not unusual to find him booked for weekend dances up to two years before an event.

Tepfer's interest in dance was kindled while studying math and computer science at Emory College. Curiosity drew him to a ballroom dance class, which eventually led him to contra dance, whose roots stretch back to 17th century English country dance.

Following graduation, Tepfer began managing the computer labs at Emory, transferring to the Oxford campus in 1995, where he is now director of administrative technologies.

He talks with Emory Report about how the worlds of technology and dance fit together:

You say you've always been interested in dance — how did contra dance come into the picture?

In high school, I almost didn't go to my senior prom because I was afraid that I didn't know how to dance. So when I came to Emory, I decided to take a ballroom dance class. We had a field trip to the Knights of Columbus, where they held a ballroom dance once month, so we got to do ballroom dancing in the wild. It was with recorded music, but lots of people came out to dance.

While there, I noticed a flier for Cajun dancing, with an hour-long lesson beforehand, where they would teach you the Cajun waltz and Cajun two-step and just a little Cajun jitterbug. They had food and live bands and it was so much fun. After dancing Cajun for three years, one evening a guitar player with one of the local bands, who was also a square dance and contra dance caller, told me, "You know, Seth, if you like Cajun dancing, you should really try contra dancing." I gave it a try and fell in love with it.

What was it about contra dancing that you found so compelling?

Contra dancing is all about the community dancing together. It can be simple, doesn't have to involve intricate steps — you're basically walking. You and a partner are dancing with another couple, then you move on to another couple. For it to be successful you need a lot of people and you're all working together; the whole community is moving in time to music. At its best it can be transcendental. You definitely are lifted outside yourself into a feeling of fellowship and community. And it's very accessible. That's one of the pleasures of contra dancing — people can walk off the street and start doing it, moving to the music and feeling the joy of it. It's one of the things I like so much about it.

My wife and I met contra dancing. We have two boys — Jex is 7 and Zyle is 4 — who will also come to the dances. There are other kids there they play with and they're around live music and all these people who are dancing as a community, so there is community support for it as a family event.

How did you learn to become a dance caller?

There are dance weekends all over the region, with workshops that may include learning how to salsa dance or the Argentine tango or how to call. That's how I got my start. I went to a lot of dance weekends and then I attended a weeklong workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., and another folk school in Elkins, W.V.

At some point, you've just got to practice. So you start to call a couple of dances during an evening, then you start working with local and regional dances. In Atlanta, I'm a regular caller with the Chattahoochee Country Dancers, which dances every Friday at the Clarkston Community Center. Over the years I've also branched out, calling a lot of traditional square dances, English country dances and teaching others how to call.

Given your experience, are you considered a master caller?

Yes, I've earned my stripes. And yet, I'm still a baby in some ways. I've only been calling since 1997. There are people I've trained with who've been calling longer than I've been alive. There is always more room to learn and grow.

As a contra dance caller, what distinguishes you? The trademark bandana?

I like to wear silly and outrageous clothes. My persona is not quite a clown, but I'm there to have fun. I give people permission to make mistakes, so they don't have to worry about doing it right, but just have fun. One of the messages from the calling classes and workshops that I lead is that our job as a caller is to emanate joy. What we're putting out when we're on stage is what the dancers are picking up. If you're in a bad mood, or you're cranky or telling dancers that they're doing it wrong, then they're not going to have as much fun. They're not going to want to come back and dance.

Is there a common thread between working with technology and teaching dance?

At work, I delight in finding ways to serve the faculty and staff, to make their lives easier. In a similar way, I delight in teaching dance. The fundamental thing is that I believe we're all here to serve others — that's our purpose in life, to make other people's lives better. At work, it's how can I make your job easier so you can focus on the critical thing, or what you're teaching or your staff function. From a dance perspective, I want you to be able to dance and have fun with it.

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