History of Ottawa Contra

Oral History of the Old Sod Society and Ottawa Contra Dance

In January, 2021 we presented an online session on the history of the Old Sod Society and Ottawa Contra Dance. A number of long-serving volunteers and organizers reflected on how the Society was founded and how it has evolved through the years. The session is now available on YouTube, reformatted as a playlist of short presentations by the individual speakers.

The speakers at the session were Ian Robb, Margaret Sommerville, Tim Cutts, Ivan Emke, Gord Peeling, Catherine Burns, Shelley Posen, and John Argus. It’s an interesting document, whether you’ve been a regular for decades or are a relative newcomer intrigued by how the whole Concert and Dance scene in Ottawa has developed over four and a bit decades. To watch the playlist, click here: Oral History Video. Enjoy!

The Old Sod Folk Music Society

The Old Sod Folk Music Society of Ottawa was founded by Ian Robb and Gord Peeling in the early 1980s as a non-profit corporation promoting traditionally-based folk performance in Ottawa. The name “Old Sod” arose as a reference to the type of music promoted by the organization – that of English, Scottish and Irish origin, quite literally meaning “the old country”. At one time, there were up to 12 members on the Old Sod Society Board of Directors! Catherine Burns was heavily involved in the early years of the Old Sod Folk Music Society and later became the lead organizer of the contra dances.

The Friends of Fiddlers Green

For the first 15 years, the Society hosted regular concerts by top touring artists from both sides of the Atlantic, mostly in informal community halls. In March 1999, the Board of Directors announced their decision to cease promoting concerts given declining attendance at concerts. Many regular concert attendees lamented the demise of the series, but market realities could not be ignored.

In 2014, a renewed interest in promoting concerts was prompted by the desire of some of our visiting dance musicians to perform a concert, as well as play for a contra dance. Over subsequent years, concerts have broadened to include traditional musicians touring locally and were interested in playing a concert in Ottawa.

Currently these concerts take place 6 or 7 times a year and are still held in informal community settings. We are grateful to our long-time concert goers for their regular support!

Contra Dancing in Ottawa

In 1989, in response to a perceived interest in more participatory community events, the Old Sod Society sponsored its first contra dance series with local callers and a house band comprised of local musicians – the first contra dances in the Ottawa area.

The house band for these dances eventually became the Old Sod Band which played monthly dances with house caller Catherine Burns for many years. The band, which still plays for the occasional Saturday night contra, currently draws on a roster of great Ottawa-area musicians and has included James Stephens, Ian Robb, Ann Downey, Tim Cutts, Ian Clark, Philip Murphy, Dan Schryer, Greg T. Brown, and Duncan Gillis.

The first contra dances in Ottawa were held at the Champlain Field house, a little hall north of Scott Street. Dances were free while the band and caller were learning to call and play for contras. Later the dance series moved to the McNabb Community Centre and then to the Multicultural centre/Firefighters community hall on Richmond Road before finding its final home at All Saints Anglican Church in Sandy Hill.

In addition to the Old Sod Contra Dances, another dance series was started in 1998. This was the Ottawa Valley Contra Dance series started by John Argus with the help of the band Shindigo as his house band and with Pippa Hall as the regular caller.

Shindigo (a local band including James Stephens, Greg Brown, Duncan Gillis, Rob Graves, Ken Harper, Ian Clark, Chris Bartos, and Ken Easton) was interested in playing for dances and John agreed to organize a new monthly series. Shindigo was the house band during the early years of the series and later John booked a wide variety of callers and bands. Ottawa Valley Contra Dances were also held at All Saints Anglican Church.

Shindigo playing at the Ottawa Folk Festival

In November 2008, the organizers of these two long-running Ottawa dance series (Old Sod Society 20 years; Ottawa Valley Contra Dance 10 years) met with a group of community members who shared an interest in revitalizing contra dancing in Ottawa. After an open meeting, a new committee was formed to organize twice monthly dances. Roger Williams and Emily Addison were instrumental in this effort and with renewed energy and excitement the merged dance committee has promoted many new ideas while keeping all of the great aspects of what had been in place over the years.

2014-2015 marked our 25th Anniversary celebrated at our annual Ball with special treats!

2020 – 30th Anniversary!
Celebrating 30 years of contra dancing in Ottawa – despite the COVID pandemic, we gathered safely to celebrate with modified summer picnics.

2022- Corporation no longer!
In 2022 the Old Sod Society non-profit corporation was officially ended. This simplified managing dances (e.g. no tax returns are now required). The Contra Dance committee (used to be the board) continues to organize contra dances and the Old Sod committee continues to organized concerts, etc. Each group looks after their own areas separately.

Hey Fever!

In November 2000, The Old Sod Society produced Ottawa’s first ever dance weekend. Called “Hey Fever!”, the weekend was such a success that it became an annual event. After five consecutive years, the committee that organized the weekend decided to organize the occasional special event rather than organizing a full dance weekend.

In 2013, the dance weekend was revived under the name Capital Contra. The dance weekend continued under the original name, Hey Fever!, from 2014 to 2019. The Covid pandemic took a hit on Hey Fever! for 2020 to 2023, causing those ones not to be held. Happily, it is returning in 2024!