'You can be yourself'
Contra dancing is a traditional form of dancing, like a square dance, except is danced in long lines of couples, explained Sue Burns of Canaan, N.Y., a committee member and publicity person for Lenox Contradance, which sponsors a dance the third Saturday of each month. In a contra dance, the dancers form a set of two parallel lines that run the length of the hall. Each dance consists of a sequence of moves that ends with couples having progressed one position up or down the set. As the sequence is repeated, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the set.
Before the main dance, the caller for the evening, Sarah VanNorstrand of Cazenovia, N.Y., held a beginners' dance lesson for the eight newcomers, teaching and demonstrating the basic dance moves they would need, including the swing (swinging your partner), allemande (left or right), do-si-do and the ladies' chain. She also demonstrated the principle of "sharing weight," a gentle, but firm, grip that helps with dancing and guiding your partner. "No noodle arms!" she advised the newbies with a laugh.
"I like to think of the caller as the chief facilitator of an evening of dance and music," she said. "We are in charge of getting things rolling, welcoming new dancers, finding out how to work with the band and gauging the level of the crowd and picking dances to suite."
She added that before an evening of dance, she puts together a program that provides a variety of difficulty, tempo, mood, choreography and familiarity for the dancers, "but because you never know exactly who will show up, I have to be ready to change my program on the spot to fit the needs of the moment and the crowd. The caller is also in charge of helping the band and the dancers connect, so I have to time my prompts, so that the dancers execute the move at precisely the right point in the music."
VanNorstrand, who has been a caller for around 10 years, said she started playing fiddle music as a teenager, and started dancing around the same time. "My teacher told me that if I wanted to play this kind of music, I should do the dancing as well, since the two are literally made for each other. After dancing for a few years, I started calling with the support and encouragement of my local dance community and some of the older callers in our area."
Contra dances always have live music, Burns said, adding Lenox Contradance is lucky to be in an area that has many local bands. The band for the June dance was Fleeting Moments. On tap for the July dance is Coincidance and in August, Spare Parts. According to the Country Song and Dance Society, in order to contra dance you need music with a steady beat. Almost any type of music will work, but the most common are traditional fiddle tunes from New England, Ireland, Quebec, Scotland, England or Appalachia. Reels and jigs are the most popular types of tunes.
Those planning to attend a contra dance should dress in something they are comfortable and cool in, Burns said. "It's pretty aerobic and it doesn't take long to get hot." (The Lenox hall is not air conditioned, although there were large fans running in several locations.) Footwear should be clean soft-soled shoes, to preserve the dance floor, that are easy to dance in.
Burns said it's not necessary to bring a partner to a contra dance. "It's a tradition to change partners at every dance," she said. "It's easier to learn if a beginner dances with experienced dancer and then moves on to another partner." And, indeed, experienced dancers could be seen guiding those less-experienced dancers into their proper positions and talking them through the moves.
"It's a chance to interact with a lot of people," said Jim Savitt of Albany, N.Y., who along with Russell Burns (Sue's husband), was warming up for the dance by walking backward around the dance floor in a circle. Russell said he had taken square dancing as a grammar school student and had done contra dancing in New Hampshire for 20 years and more recently in this area. "It's a chance to spend an evening smiling and being smiled at, and it's great exercise," he said.
Savitt admitted he had gotten into contra dancing some 20 years ago because his wife made him do it. However, he said, "It's a chance to be in love with many different women through the night. It's very social."
And speaking of love, Justin Pisila of Chatham, N.Y., and Andrea Holroyd from Duanesburg, N.Y., met at a contra dance in Albany, N.Y., about six years ago. Although both had attended dances with their parents when they were quite young, Pisila began contra dancing again because he "was looking for someone." Holroyd said she resumed contra dancing because she wanted to meet people. They met at that dance and the rest is history.
"The [dance] community is very open and welcoming to newcomers," Pisila said. "Even if you attempt the hardest dances, people will help you." He noted that dancers ranged in age from around 5 years old to being well over 80, "some of them are the most energetic people [on the dance floor]. It keeps you young."
"There are good endorphins," Holroyd said. "It's a good natural high."
Ken, who declined to give his last name, said he had been contra dancing for years and was introduced when a friend brought him to the Flurry Festival, a weekend of traditional dances, workshops, concerts and performances held each February in Saratoga Spring, N.Y. "I discovered a whole community of people. I'm single and it encourages people to meet. There's a circuit of dances in the area [Albany, Chatham, Lenox, Greenfield and Sheffield to name a few] and you get to meet hundreds of people. Where can you get an evening of music and dancing for $12? It's fun, lots of fun."
Vidar Pirrone, 16, of East Chatham, N.Y., was attending his fifth contra dance, having first tried it after seeing a friend's 4-H presentation on it. "It's a nice environment. I used to go roller skating, but this is more peaceful and has a nicer class of people. It keeps the soul young."
Smith college student Gael Bemis, 18, dressed in short jogging shorts and a T-shirt with bandana around her head, and dancing barefoot, said she had become hooked on contra dancing after she had gotten her mother involved. "It's like an environment I belong in. It's very accepting and there's no judgment. You can be yourself."
"I love seeing people enjoying live music and each other. Social events like this are pretty unique these days, where inter-generational groups of people gather on a Saturday night to socialize and kick up their heels!" VanNorstrand concluded. "Contra dancing is different from other kinds of folk dancing in that synchronicity is the goal. It creates a kind of unity and sense of togetherness that I find really special, while still celebrating each person's individuality."
IF YOU GO ...
What: Lenox Contradance
When: Third Saturday of each month. Beginners' lesson at 7:45 p.m.; dancing 8 to 11 p.m.
Where: Lenox Community Center, 65 Walker St., Lenox
Cost: $12 regular admission; $6 students. No reservations, come anytime during dance. No partner necessary. All ages welcome.
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org, 413-528-4007
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