Reels, hornpipes and jigs. Waltzs and marches. Allemande left. Circle to your right. Balance and swing.
A dizzying spin around the rooms of the contra dance community reveals teens to senior citizens, some wearing skirts or kilts to capture the exhilaration of whirling from one partner to the next.
Here, on the gleaming dance floors and in the soft lighting, people keep eye contact with one another and smile — some familiar with each other from dances past; some new and eager to become part of the pure joy and spirit of the calling and the called.
A participatory dance
What is contra dancing, and what makes it so popular?
Sherri Nevins, organizer for the Lake City Contra, said contra dances were preserved in small towns in New England, and that square dancing was preserved in the Appalachians. The word “contra” derives from the word “country” or the term “contrary from one’s partner,” meaning “across from one’s partner.”
She stated that it is the draw of live music and the friendliness of the people that has kept this English and French dance tradition alive.
“It’s so social. You dance with a lot of people,” she said. “The etiquette is to change partners after every dance. You learn the pattern. If you forget, everyone is friendly. It’s not ballet; it’s not formal. You just smile and go on to the next place.”
Tom Wimmer, co-organizer of the Emerald City Contra Dance, stressed that contra is participatory, unlike many folk-dance ensembles that are more performance-oriented, where only a set few dance and many watch. He said that there are no formal classes, and that one just learns by “jumping in with two feet.”
Wimmer said the most difficult tasks of contra dancing is finding the courage to ask a stranger to dance and to keep the fast-flowing energy going after many tiring dances.
For Nevins, contra is a means of bringing new bands and callers to the dancers every week. The dances include line dances, circle mixers and squares, with two waltzes per session.
“It’s great exercise — a great mental, physical, and social activity,” she said.
She recommended casual dress and smooth soles on shoes for the dancing. Bare feet are not recommended for contra dancing.
An all-inclusive community
Nevins said there is a very vibrant and evolving music scene happening for contra dancing, especially on YouTube, and that choreography for contra has exploded within the last 20 years.
Scotty Leach, 20, pianist for the contra dance band “The Respectacles,” said that Asheville, N. C., is the destination for avid contra dancers, where the tradition has been extended to dancing five nights week, and the influence of electronic or “house” and techno is being added to the mix.
“If you travel around the country, you have friends everywhere.” Leach stated.
Jay Finklestein, 69, is a retired clinical psychologist and youth coach who is also an avid dancer, caller and rhythm guitarist for six contra dance bands. Four of the bands are based in Olympia, two in Seattle. Why so many bands?
“There’s seven days a week!” he quipped.
Finklestein spoke about how the energy “just rolls across the dance floor” and how connected he feels when dancing.
“The community of dancers is special,” he said. “I will play, dance and call until I am physically unable!”
For high school senior Kaitlan, contra dancing was something her parents “dragged her out to do” four years ago. “Now I am dragging them!” she said.
She said she likes to add swing moves to the contra dancing.
For Marianne Letts, 41, contra dancing is a way to keep tradition alive, to do “something that our grandparents did.” The clarinet player and a caller said she came to Seattle recently because of the contra dance and music scene.
Letts said she became a caller in 2005 while living in Texas because there were
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