OK, I admit it. I’m a contra dance fanatic. No, it’s not South American. No, I’m not against everything. I’m just a big fan of the greatest social and aerobic workout available. Remember doing the Virginia Reel in 4th grade gym class? This is like that, only better.
Contra dancing is a tradition form of dance in the U.S. that sprung off the stately English Country dance form back when we were colonies. It was a form of social gathering that brought the whole community together. As America moved west, the dance moved with us and has been around ever since. Henry Ford was convinced that the salvation of America lay in dancing, and started building dance halls in the 20’s and 30’s. This dance form experienced another resurgence during the folk revival of the 60’s and 70’s. The latest transformation seems to be in dancing to club-style music, referred to as “crossover contra.”
The great attractions of this dance are the community level of involvement, the high energy, the accessibility, and the live music. The dance truly is a community event, and my regular dance partners range in age from 11 to 82. When not dancing, there is always someone on the sidelines that you can chat with. In fact, dances are a great way for singles to meet up and many a romance and marriage has blossomed on the dance floor. It’s also a great high-energy, relatively low-impact aerobic workout and far more fun than two hours on the treadmill at the gym. It’s a welcoming community, and one of the few forms of dance where a total beginner can come in and almost immediately begin successfully dancing with thirty-year veterans. If you can walk, if you can tap out a beat on your steering wheel while you’re driving, you can do this. And yes, there is that beat. Since before recorded music, there has been a tradition of live music at dances.
You are likely to hear a huge variety of live music. Like the United States itself, the musical traditions of contra dance come from all over the world. England, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Quebec, the American South, Russia, Cape Breton – an evening of dance is a musical tour of the world. Most bands have a fiddle and either guitar or piano. Other than that, the sky’s the limit. I’ve danced to mandolin, banjo, saxophone, accordion, full drum kit, clarinet, and even musical saw.
So how best to enjoy your evening of dance? Wear comfortable shoes with a sole you can slide on a bit; no flip flops or high heels. Bring lots of drinking water. Many dancers wear flared skirts (sometimes even the guys) that look pretty during twirls, and short sleeves or tank tops are a must, even in winter. Put a smile on your face, and get there early as the dances build in challenge during the evening. If you get dizzy, look in your partner’s eyes or at their forehead. And enjoy being a part of a musical tradition going back hundreds of years. See you at the dance!
Gary Shapiro, “What is Contra Dance?”
Charlie Seelig, “Contra Dance Links”, contradancelinks.com
Country Dance and Song Society