New Haven Farms Turns Up The Beet

Connecticut contra dance legend Billy Fischer gathered up his microphone’s cable. He waded out into the crowd milling on the dancefloor of the Whitneyville Cultural Commons in Hamden.

“The only requirement for dancing is that you put your drink down,” he announced. “Because you’re going to be using both hands—and both feet!”

Fischer emceed for New Haven Farms’ fourth Annual Harvest Celebration held Friday night. As dancers paired off, curious onlookers peered down from the second-floor gallery, gazing through a thicket of bright, fluttering pennants. They munched away at hors d’œuvres prepared fresh from New Haven Farms produce.

 Dave Howard and Bill Walach. Images courtesy New Haven Farms.

Dave Howard and Bill Walach. Images courtesy New Haven Farms.

New Haven Farms operates seven urban farms across the city in support of health education curricula. This year, the Celebration and Contra Dance came as the second part of New Haven Farms’ autumn fundraising efforts. The first, a “Fall Tastings” fundraiser, was held on Sept. 30 at a supporter’s home.

In addition to contra dance and snacks, the Harvest Celebration featured a silent auction, a custom cocktail dubbed "Turn Up The Beet," and a brief awards ceremony to recognize community heroes.

While some attendees browsed auction prizes and chatted over fresh carrots, cauliflower, and kohlrabi, Fischer carved up the hundred-odd remainder into three columns of couples. He drew the partners into parallel ranks so they faced one another.

Fischer called out the steps: Don’t touch your partner, now! Link hands with the people next to you, and step forward to say “hello” to your partner.

“Hello, partner!” the room echoed. Dancers stepped back, then passed around their partners, exchanging places.

“Now, swing your partner!”

Some people locked elbows and spun skipping. Others crossed their wrists and put tension on their arms, pushing each other around and out with dizzying centrifugal force. Many opted for gendered parings, the men propelling their ladies: one hand cupping the partner’s palm, the other guiding ahead in the small of her back.

Settling down from the swing, the pair at the head of the column was next ordered to run a gauntlet of couples. All the other partners tented their arms and fingers, forcing the ‘lead couple’ to crouch ahead at a run—giggling all the way.

One lead couple exited the tunnel and ran back up to the head of the column. One lead partner then ran through the tunnel-tent again and alone, while the other lead partner galloped down outside the column. The couple reunited at the column’s tail end, yielding the distinction of ‘lead couple’ to the new pair now at the head of the column.

Fischer whipped up musicians Dave Howard and Bill Walach, asking dancers to repeat these motions a half-dozen times at a rapid tempo. It was an exercise in pattern recognition and—after being swung around a few times—object avoidance.

He upped the ante with each cycle: One lead couple to start, then two lead couples at a go, then three lead couples, until everyone had threaded through our outstretched bodies.

Fischer then commanded everybody to link hands. He tenaciously sheep-dogged the separate columns of dancers into one big, wall-wrapping circle, cheekily admonishing any laughing, lollygagging contra novices.

“This is serious business, here—we have to this make this circle!”

 Celin Garcia and Liz Marsh. 

Celin Garcia and Liz Marsh. 

After a second dance and a charming ten-minute waltz demo, Fischer yielded his mic to Farm Director Jacqueline Maisonpierre. She explained how hard it is to describe all of New Haven Farms’ work.

She ticked off statistics: farm-based wellness programming three nights a week at two different gardens, 75 families enrolled in that wellness program. Not forgetting that she chaired a harvest celebration, Maisonpierre plugged their haul: New Haven Farms grew more than 17,000 pounds of organic produce this season.

“We’re using food as medicine to transform people’s lives,” Maisonpierre said.

Liz Marsh, wellness program manager, dispensed shout-outs and cut-glass trophies. Ruth Torres, recipient of the Food Justice Community Advocate award, was feted by chants of “Ruth! Ruth! Ruth!”

“She literally sustains us by cooking us dinner because we’re working strange hours,” Marsh glowed.

Marsh also called on Celin Garcia, New Haven Farms’ cooking and nutrition educator.

“Your food and your energy are amazing—we couldn’t do it without you!”

Garcia had engaged graduates of the farm-based wellness program to cater both the Fall Tastings fundraiser as well as the Harvest Celebration's spread. She spent four days with program participants, creating over 700 pieces of 10 unique appetizers towards a ‘dinner by the bite’ menu for the fundraiser's 110 guests.

She said she aimed to thoroughly squash the notion that “healthy food is boring,” agitating for the artistry of meals that are good and good for you.

“The idea was to showcase what we had grown at the farm and bring it up to a gourmet level,” Garcia said. “Healthy food can be absolutely stunning and delicious.”

Garcia and her team had prepared more modest fare for the celebration. She was particularly proud of the baba ganoush, generously spiked with harissa. She had sourced its Japanese eggplant from New Haven Farms’ Phoenix Press plot in Fair Haven, one of three varieties there currently under cultivation.

Emcee Fischer sung lowly into his microphone, trying to quiet the room and call everyone back again to contra dance.

“Hello! Hello! Hell-oo!”

Fischer flexed his choreographic muscle, crosshatching the ballroom with parallel lines of five to six couples, their columns arranged on north-south and east-west axes. He was laying the groundwork for this routine’s finale: A clockwork confection made from three concentric circles of rotating dancers.

The dance was structurally similar to the first run, but with a few twists: hold hands, come together, say ‘hello,’ do-si-do, spin through the right elbow, spin through the left elbow, now—spin with both hands! Spin your partner! Lead couples: gallop down the center!

Carried away and a not little tipsy, the crowd began pounding their heels against the commons’ hardwood paneling. It clapped in time with the string duet on stage, waving the lead couples along as they pranced ahead, hand-in-hand, hollering and cheering.

“Cut out that clapping,” Fischer growled playfully, ordering the partners back to where they’d been standing originally. He had chosen a demonstration group—some “victims.”

He had more moves to show the crowd. He needed its undivided attention.

To listen to an interview with Celin Garcia from WNHH Radio's "Kitchen Sync" program, click on or download the audio above.