You’ve likely driven past the sign or come across it on the list serv: “Contradance Tonight!” Just another event taking place at Tracy Hall. But who goes? What’s it like? I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to go take a look. I mean, I don’t dance, and here was an entire evening supposedly committed to nothing but dancing.
The harsh fluorescent lighting and basketball line markings on the floor didn’t exactly lend a nightclub atmosphere to the venue, but that didn’t seem to deter any of the early arrivals. This was a casual affair, to be sure, the dancers all showing up in work clothes, street wear, or shorts and a t-shirt. Contradancing, at least at this level, has no dress code, so the only common theme was soft-soled shoes or socks, in part to spare the floor, in part to facilitate the dance moves while also keeping the noise level down.
An impressive sound system was rigged on stage for pianist Sarah Nelson and violinist Tom Moreau of the evening’s band, Gypsy Minor. Next to them stood the caller, David Kaynor from Massachusetts, beaming expectantly while acknowledging and welcoming the dancers as they trickled in.
Invigorating and entertaining, an evening of contradancing leaves all participants smiling broadly.
Bow to Your Partner. Bow to Your Neighbor
A handful of hesitant newcomers had come early for the scheduled beginner’s introduction, and Keynor patiently and cheerfully walked them through the basics with easy-to-follow explanations and hints. The trickier transitions were demonstrated by some volunteer veterans, and while those new to the game mastered the hand-offs and spins, the crowd around them grew steadily.
To get the show underway, Keynor grabbed the microphone and explained the basics: “If you’re new to this, then remember: wash your hands, and drink lots of water.” He then encouraged veterans to be sure invite someone out to dance. “A complete stranger would be great, since it gets people out on the floor,” he said. And so they did; lines formed, and by the time the band struck up the first chords, there were close to 40 eager dancers on the floor. By the halftime intermission, the place would be packed with close to double that number.
Impressive as that might be, these “bush-league Norwich events,” as one dancer affectionately called them, are nothing compared to the seriously hopping world of greater New England contradancing. A weekly gathering just up the road in Montpelier draws a sizeable crowd, and the competitive leagues in Massachusetts have hundreds of enthusiastic dancers – there, apparently, you can find an entire subculture of contradancing to techno music that’s attracting scores of younger dancers, too. Several of the regulars at Tracy Hall spoke in awe of the Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs, a three day contradancing extravaganza held in February each year, that draws thousands. Contradancing, apparently, is quite a “thing.” Who knew? Still, grassroots and local is a comfortable place to start, and with a great band and an experienced, enthusiastic caller, the Norwich dance had nothing to be ashamed of.
Balance and Swing Your Partner
Contradancing belongs to the same realm as square dancing and other folk dances, but apparently there’s something particularly appealing about this format, as many dancers end up sticking with contradancing after trying other forms of traditional dance. Chip Hedler of Muskeg Music, one of the driving forces behind our vibrant regional contradancing scene, has described the genre as, “A lifetime of enjoyment of moving in time to live music that can be quite exhilarating.”
It’s certainly fast paced in an old-timey sort of way, rich with legacy and pageantry, delightfully respectful and restrained, but with just enough innovation and novelty to remain relevant. The name comes from the tradition of dancing across from a partner as part of two parallel lines of participants (the caller will issue a cry for, “Long Lines, Forward and Back!”) – although that’s seen less often in contemporary contradacing.
Typically, groups of four dancers form a circle, with two designated as gentlemen and two as ladies, no matter what the actual gender mix of the circle may be. The circles then line up in rows on the dance floor. As a prelude to each dance, the caller will walk everyone through the sequence of steps, typically no more than four or five at a low-key affair like tonight. A couple of twirls, some elaborate trading places, a bit of back-and-forth – by the second walk-thru pretty much everyone will have it down, and then the dance can begin in earnest as the musicians count it off.
Circle Left, New Partner
With an experienced caller like Keynor at the helm, the timing is invariably perfect, and between the easy-to-follow toe-tapping beat of the music and his clear instructions, the challenge for the dancers is mainly to avoid screwing up too badly in the heat of the moment. In the event they do, it’s quickly sorted with a smile and a shrug – nobody is in this to win it. It’s a group effort for all to have as much fun as possible, and there’s a palpable, shared sense of accomplishment when the entire group makes it through a particularly tricky transition unscathed.
The caller is your considerate, caring – and sometimes daring – guide and mentor. It’s his call, literally, when to spin or twirl, how to hold, and how to move. And while it’s all structured and choreographed, in the sense that you do what he tells you when he tells you to do it, there’s enough artistic freedom left for each pair to strut their stuff if they feel so inclined.
And as they get comfortable with the sequence, bolder and more accomplished dancers will add little flourishes and twirls to the moves, while others appear content to simply relish their growing confidence in mastering the basics.
If things are going well, the caller will eventually grab his violin and join the band for a beat, allowing the room to revel in their collective newfound skill and independence without his guidance. Each completed sequence of the dance ends with a trade-off of partners to the adjoining circles, and then the pattern repeats with the new configuration of dancers until the entire line has rotated through.
Once the dance is over, the circles dissolve, dancers from the sidelines will get invited to join in, while others take a well-earned break. And then it’s time for the next dance.
Down the Hall, Four In Line
The appeal is evident: the learning curve isn’t all that steep, and you don’t need gear or any particular skills or athletic ability. Having said that, an evening of contradancing is a genuine workout (the veterans all bring water bottles and heed the admonition to hydrate between dances), and many dancers sit out a dance or two to recover. One veteran dancer jokes that the skills you learn from contradancing, the weaves and the tight turns back-to-back, are perfectly suited for getting through a crowded airport.
More importantly, perhaps, it’s an incredibly friendly crowd and a great social scene; for many, the dance provides an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. There’s animated chatter and lots of laughter during breaks. It’s a community gathering at its finest.
What’s truly remarkable, however, are the persistent smiles throughout the evening; smiles of pure enjoyment, of accomplishment, and of overcoming awkwardness – in public, no less. Goofy guys suddenly turn out to be surprisingly agile and graceful, shy wallflowers blossom and beam with pride.
Do-si-do Your Partner
Part of the charm is the constant swapping of partners and neighbors: in the course of any given dance you’ll be teamed up with someone old, someone young, someone you know, and someone who’s new to the scene. Not only does it make things more interesting and allow beginners to learn from the pros, it also means that you’re more than welcome to show up on your own to a dance – you’ll fit right in and become an integral part of the evening’s collective dance squad.
I had half expected this to be a grandpa-and-grandma-night-out affair, but I would have been wrong. Granted, there weren’t too many teenagers to be found swinging partners around, but there was a respectable spread of every age group, from Dartmouth students to young-at-heart folks of all ages.
Ladies Chain Across
“Are you having fun?” inquires a poster at the front door. “Are you helping others to have fun?” It is part of New England contradancing tradition to actively encourage veteran dancers to invite those on the sideline to dance, and to go out of their way to welcome newcomers. “Aim to please every person with whom you dance by being sensitive to everyone’s unique preferences and abilities,” say the guidelines, and they appear to have been taken to heart.
There’s a dance every couple of weeks somewhere near Norwich, and it’s not just a winter thing. Keep an eye out on the Listserv or DailyUV events calendar, or visit www.uvdm.org for a schedule. If you’re at all curious, you really owe it to yourself to check out a contradance. But come prepared: the music is irresistible, and friendly and welcoming people are going to sidle up unashamedly and ask if you’d care to dance. Do take them up on the offer.