Contra Dance

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When I first encountered contra dance in Norman at the First Baptist Church family life center on Friday, November 7, 2014, I was not sure of what exact partnered folk dance style to choose. I learned this dance during my World Music class but did not think I would actually partake in this dance. Little did I know I would actually have to go somewhere and dance these different dances. Nonetheless, right from the start, dancing in couples by two or in a group of four much appealed to me. I further learned that contra dance is a mix of French and English country-dance styles dating back to the early 17th century. Internationally, many people refer to contra dance as the New England folk dance rather popular in the United Kingdom and the United States.

While partners perform the dance in pairs, contra dance is a great way to communicate, interact and make friends with other dancers. After attending the contra dance, I saw that most of the people here come to have a good time and meet new people. In the process of dance, various couples interact with one another as the performance goes on.

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The leader of contra dance is a caller responsible for facilitating a walkthrough prior to the beginning of the actual dance. A caller explains various steps known as ‘figures’. I once counted 12 individual repeated figures forwarded by a caller while our couple progressed throughout the dance. In my contra dance experience, a caller provided a mixture of Scottish, Irish, French-Canadian, and old-timey folk tunes. At that, fiddle was the main instrument accompanied by mandolin and guitar. A single dance may involve several songs assuming various changes and modifications.

The particular feature that makes contra dance so popular and inviting is that everyone regardless of previous experience may attend and join contra dance events. I was quite surprised at how many individuals were there; it ranged from college kids who were there for a class assignment to older adults.

These sessions are family-friendly and exclude the consumption of alcoholic drinks. There was even a cute older couple there who have been contra dancing for over 10 years. They were super cute and able to help the college kids who did not have a clue as to what they were doing.

Everyone can pass through initial starter-level instructions before joining in the actual dance. You could really tell who was more experienced in the dances and who was less experienced, which was more of the college kids.

Average contra dance evenings last about three hours, including an intermission, a variety of individual contra dances, several waltzes, polkas, Swedish hambos, and schottisches. As a rule, contra dance performances involve live bands playing Scottish, Canadian, Irish and American reels and jigs. This contra dance also had a live band that played the music for the dances. There were four members playing a small flute, a guitar, a trombone, and an accordion.

Usually, the tunes are no more than a century old and rather traditional. In addition, contra dance performances apply modern compositions holding the forms of traditional pieces. The event lasted about 3 hours, which was a very long time to dance so I can understand why people were starting to leave. The night started with a wide variety of individuals but as the night went on, the dances changed more, and more people started to leave.

The traditional contra dance evening begins with a caller teaching each individual dance prior to the music is on. Through the introductory walkthrough, a caller teaches participants the dance by showing them steps and formations. All the instructions come in an oral form, while dancers that are more proficient may share their experience and skills with the rest of the group. The caller was also there to help teach us the moves of the dances we were going to be doing. She also was the one who was responsible for communicating the different types of dances we would be doing. The caller seemed very flustered and annoyed some of the time. I did not have the greatest opinion of her, which made the experience a little harder to enjoy.

There was an obvious rule that continued to happen before each dance, which was the dancers were supposed to ask someone to dance and were supposed to switch partners after each dance. This became annoying to me because I was constantly in contact with multiple people. I am one who does not like to touch someone I do not know. This definitely tested my boundaries and made me come out of my comfort zone a little. The walkthrough resembled the actual moves contra dancers will further performed with the music. Sometimes, a caller varies the order of moves while the dance proceeds to make his/her instructions clearer. Following the walkthrough, it is time for the music to begin and the dancers follow the arranged sequence of moves during 10 to 15 minutes depending on the volume of the contra lines.

One of the peculiarities contrasting contra dance from other dancing styles is that this dance does not necessitate a strict dress code or wearing of special outfits. Dancers put on but comfortable loose-fitting stuff that makes their movements free. This atmosphere was very casual; most everyone was in jeans, leggings, and long T-shirts. Some of the older women wore dresses but they too were very casual.

Another particular feature I have noticed so far is that the culture of contra dancing is much about socialization and cooperation while individual dancers interact with not only their partners but also with other members of the set. This way contra dancing is a pure teamwork and group activity. At that, dancers that are more professional are always keen to facilitate beginners in learning the steps. Finally, the atmosphere of contra dance evening is always friendly and non-discriminative.

While participating in these dances it just reassured me that I am a horrible dancer. At one point, a couple asked if my partner and I would sit a dance out because we were so bad. I did not mind because it gave me the chance to sit and relax for a while. My personal experience with this style of dance made me feeling like I needed to take more dance lessons. Luckily, we only had to go to one of these events and I know that I will not have to partake in this dance style again. What I do like though is that I know how to somewhat contra dance so if anyone ever asks me to do it I can say that I can. This experience was able to give me more confidence within this style of dance.

At the end of the night, I felt honored that I was able to take part in such a popular dance for some of these experienced dancers. It was neat to see the one’s who do this for fun/a living having such a good time. They were very helpful being there and helping the ones who had no idea what they were doing, which was I. After being a part of this dance, it has shown me that it isn’t an easy one to learn, it takes time and practice. This is a part of a culture and a respected culture at that. Contra dance is about people, music, the community, and changing dances. Each individual who takes part in these dances are willing to learn and change as the dances revolve.

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