November puts us smack in the middle of the fall contra dance season, as good a time as any to familiarize yourself with this timeless and invigorating communal activity. Contra dances are so called not, as I once thought, because of some complicated syncopation that underlies the dance steps, but because of the two opposite, contra, lines of dancers who face each other and offer both boundaries and encouragement to couples as they dance “down the hall.”
Contra dancing is nothing like country line dancing or square dancing. Rather, it’s a form of traditional folk dancing that traces its origins back to old English, Irish, Scottish and French dance styles, with a strong African influence via Appalachia once imported to our shores.
I have a friend whose sister is a well known fiddler in Midwest contra circles and so have been an unwitting tyro (I like that better than “novice.”) at a couple of big contra events, along with some programs hosted locally by the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers.
The gatherings are less about dance technique and more about evolving social etiquette. Music and dancing aside, their purpose seems to be to promote a kind of enthusiastic connection among like-minded strangers of various skill levels — without the discomfort that can so often accompany an unsolicited dance request. At my first dance, as potential partners serially slid by, I remember thinking that this is how normal people used to meet other normal people in the eons before telephones, Tinder or speed dating.
Outside of the caller’s dance instructions, there are few rules. But some guidelines become apparent:
Dress comfortably and expect to sweat (some men wear kilts)
Sneakers are too squeaky. Wear shoes with smooth soles so you can glide instead of bounce.
Come prepared to listen to the caller’s instructions at the beginning and during the dance.
Beginners (even if you come as a couple) should pair up with more experienced dancers. Also, the two of you will need to decide who will be the “lady” and who will be the “gent.” These quaint terms are not gender specific (I have never danced as the gent). Rather they refer to the positioning and execution of each role in the course of a dance. Partners change over the course of an evening, as do roles within each couple.
Touching, smiling and eye contact are encouraged (both as acknowledgement of your partner and as antidote to dizziness, as there is spinning involved.)
You can expect all kinds of encouragement no matter how many mistakes you make. This sense of being amidst a non-judgmental community of fellow dancers is certainly the No. 1 delight for me. While manners and etiquette are not specifically part of the program, respectful interaction definitely is: a strong sense of community prevails.
The Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers have been hosting regular dances and large, regional convocations since the late 1970s. Because of BoCoMo’s location and cultural resources, the organization has flourished. Since all contra events are family friendly (alcohol is not part of the culture), children and teens grow up in the tradition. Any kind of music — as long as it is live — is adaptable to the practice of contra, so favorite, local traditional musicians of every stripe are regulars and guests at events —Cathy Barton & Dave Para, Thom Howard, Tom Verdot and Ironweed Bluegrass Band’s Dierik Leonhard among them. So why not give it a try?
Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers
The group offers other kinds of traditional dance programs, too — meeting two or three times a month at the Columbia Ballroom Academy, 3910 Peachtree Dr., with its “floating” dance floor. (No cowboy boots or spiked heels, please). Dancing starts at 7:30 p.m. Beginner’s lessons at 7 p.m.
All ages and experience levels welcome • No partner needed
More details at www.mmtdcolumbia.org
• Nov. 4 — Contra Dance
Band: James River Scraphounds, Caller: Valerie Young
• Nov. 18 — Contra Dance
Band: Cathy Barton & Dave Para, Caller: Paula McFarling