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The Joys of Contra Dancing

 

Contra dancing is an increasingly popular social dance, attracting people of all ages and walks of life including teens.  There are dance groups and “societies” all over the country.  People often attend local dances while “on the road".  Dance communities are generally friendly and welcoming, and inexperienced dancers are encouraged.  It is fine to arrive either with or without a partner.

Contra dancing works for people who consider themselves "clumsy", as the steps are easy; it also works for "good" dancers, who often add twirls and embellishments.  It's excellent for freezy nights --bring summer clothes as you will get warm. 

Contra dancing can be considered similar to square dancing, but is done in lines that face each other.  Partners move up and down the lines, dancing with everyone and forming intricate and lovely patterns.  At most dances the steps are easy, and all dances are taught; the caller also “calls” the steps as you dance.  The merry music can include fiddle, mandolin, flute, guitar, piano, etc.  A few waltzes are usually included; often there are squares as well.  Music can come from New England, the South, Canada, Ireland, Scandinavia, and more.  Contemporary tunes and twists are often added.  Eye contact is encouraged, as is dancing with people you don’t know. 

Good contra dance music makes you feel like you’re soaring; a set of “New England chestnuts” can make you feel you’re approaching the ceiling.  As a pianist, I learned that the glorious “lift” the dancers experience with reels and jigs comes not only from the downbeat, but from the rhythm and notes between the beats.  For the dancers, much of the “lift” comes not from where the feet go down, but from what happens between the steps.   

Contra dancing got its roots in Europe over 200 years ago from English country dancing; there has been much French influence.  The term “contra dance” may come from the French “contredans” or dancing facing each other; “dos a dos” comes from the French for “back to back”.  Everywhere the dance has spread, new influences have colored it; this includes Ireland and Scandinavia, the United States, Quebec, and the rest of Canada.  The “melting pot” is still growing; some groups add a little swing and Zydeco and some add flavors of jazz, rock, Latin and  Middle Eastern music plus exotic rhythms.  All of this makes contra dance music a vibrant style bridging past and progressive. 

The dances vary from silky smooth with flowing figures to bouncy with stomps and stops.  The music repertoire includes smooth and bouncy tunes.  New dances and tunes, some “traditional” and some very innovative, are constantly being created.  

I will end this with a warning.  Contra dancing is worth a try, but BEWARE – many new comers try it thinking they won’t like it – and then keep coming back.

 

 

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