Contra Costa Times/Berkeley Voice

Posted on Fri, Nov. 19, 2004

A swing everyone can get into

By Suzanne LaFetra

BERKELEY - "Step to the left and do-si-do ..."

A twirling parade of two dozen couples spins, claps and yips while a caller coaches the dancers through the steps. "Swing your partner round and round, 'til the hole in yer head makes a whistling sound ..."

Who knew that you can allemande left, promenade, bounce and swing to your heart's content with a motley group of professors, computer geeks, activists and entrepreneurs? This is more fun than you can imagine, folks. The fiddles are scratching, you're spinning from one partner to another, the caller is honking out some great poetry, and you haven't moved like this since the fourth grade when you learned the Virginia Reel.

Several times each week, the Bay Area Country Dance Society hosts an evening full of contra dancing; a bouncy, sweaty, friendly mix of movements.

What is contra dancing? It's kind of like square dancing, kind of like a jig, kind of like that Virginia Reel from fourth grade.

Some say that "contra" comes from "country," while others claim it signifies dancing contra, or opposite, a partner. It seems to have English roots but originated in New England during the revolutionary period. One Web site quips, "Contra dance is a form of dance that thrusts a different person of the opposite sex into your arms every 30 seconds or so." But as any aficionado of contra dance will tell you, the best way to see what it's about is to get up and do it.

And when you do, you'll be surrounded by musicians banging on the bodhran (an Irish drum), electric banjos, guitars, maybe even a trombone. You'll hear songs like "Jenny Pluck Pears," "Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinnie," "My Lady Winwood's Maggot" and "The Peacock Rag."

But best of all, you'll be surrounded by a bunch of folks high on having a blast. "I love the music, the joy of connection with people," says Erik Hoffman, a regular on the Bay Area contra dance scene.

Hoffman has been involved with contra dancing for more than 20 years and can be found fiddling and calling out, "With a big foot up and a little foot down, you make that big foot jar the ground. ... Swing your partner ..." a couple of times each week throughout the Bay Area.

"I got addicted in 1980," he says, with a laugh. "Some people get hooked and keep coming back."

But even newbies can enjoy themselves without embarrassment; contra dancing is not only for the fleet of foot.

Says Hoffman," If you're willing to be lost for a while, you'll be able to pick it up. The spirit of these dances is that you can jump right into it and do it."

And pretty soon you're hooting and do-si-do-ing and trotting around the dance floor, linking arms with one man, promenading with another, forming a star with four partners, twirling with a woman. And by the end of the tune, you're breathless, dizzy and ecstatic.

You don't need a costume, a partner, experience or anything but a desire to whoop and twirl. This kind of dancing welcomes everyone. On one of the Wednesday night events, about 50 people are dipping around the dance floor, including a woman who looks like a vibrant octogenarian, teenagers, a woman with a white cane, a man wearing a button that says "Face me, I read lips."

"It's a nice, friendly group I can come to every Wednesday night," says Imanuel Larens, a high-tech entrepreneur. What does he like best? "It's not one thing," he says. "I do the intellectual stuff and I need a break." And then he bows to the next partner and bounds away.

If you'd like to get in on some of this kick-up-your-heels fun, check out the Bay Area Community Dance Society calendar to find a dance near you; there are several each week throughout Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, El Cerrito and beyond.

And, for an elegant evening of contra dancing, head to the 18th annual No Snow Ball the first Saturday in December. Santa himself will be calling, and toe-tapping tunes will be provided by the Five Scrooges (aka the Hillbillies from Mars.)

"It's a very uplifting thing to do, just to remember that we can associate with one another," says Hoffman. He loves the spirited, playful movements, enjoying the simple pleasures of each other's company.

"Connection." That's the word another regular, Jessica Grist, uses to describe why she comes back each week. And she has a remedy for the dizziness. "You have to look at each other," she says with a big grin.

The Bay Area Country Dance Society is on to something. Even St. Augustine knew how great this feels. "O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you."

Suzanne LaFetra learned to do-si-do when Erik Hoffman insisted that she "get up and dance" during their interview. She's hooked, and you can reach her on the dance floor, or at

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