Fancy Dancing in Mystic
By Leslie Rovetti
Published on 1/14/2005
Many of the dancers who come to Mystic for the monthly contra dance buy their tickets from the three A's -- Anna, Annie and Ashley. The three pretty young ladies said they love to contra dance, and they love to sit by the entrance collecting ticket money. The trio has been coming to contra dance for "a long time," said Annie Edwards, 9. "Since I was born, I guess," added her cousin Anna Hermann, 10. They come because it's "very fun. We just love to dance," said their friend Ashley Hall, 10. Contra dancing is a descendent of English country dancing, and is similar to square dancing except it's done in a line, not a square. This particular incarnation began at the Stonington Community Center in 1979, and later moved to Mystic where it is now held monthly. It is run entirely by a committee of people dedicated to keeping contra dancing alive and kicking in Mystic. "It's all done by volunteers," said Katrina Bercaw, a member of the committee. Bercaw first contra danced in 1985, when her boyfriend, now her husband, brought her there for their second date. "I think a few months later we joined the committee. We had such a great time," she said. A great time was the order of the evening last week, as dancers from the three A's to the gray-haired set gathered to kick up their heels at the January dance, held at the Odd Fellows hall on Cottrell Street. "It traditionally is different ages. It's a community dance," Bercaw said. Contra dancing is typically done to live music, and in Mystic a different band is brought in every month. For January, the band was a fiddle-harmonica-guitar-spoons quartet called The Franco-Americans. According to harmonica player and contra dancer Dexter Nieforth, contra dancing is done to "old-time Southern music, which is jigs or reels. We play mostly reels." "Some of this is French Canadian," he said. "We mix it up." Outside the committee, the person most responsible for the dancers' good times is the caller. This month's caller was Steve Holland, a former Stonington resident who began dancing when he was 7 years old. Holland began calling dances 15 years ago, and travels from his New Haven-area home to call contra dances all over the Northeast. "A caller is a person who teaches the dances and prompts the dancers," Holland said. "I'm responsible for the evening." While he is calling the dances, Holland must keep a close eye on the dancers to determine if the complexity of the dances matches the experience level of the crowd. "I have to choose dances based on the level of the hall," he said. Although he is a contra dancer himself, Holland said he cannot dance and call in the same evening. "It should be either-or," he said. Holland began the evening by asking if there were any beginners in the crowd. Novice dancers are always welcome at the Mystic contra dance. When one young man raised a hesitant hand, Holland put him at ease. "For your benefit, we're going to go through everything," Holland told him. "The deal is, in contra dancing, you don't do anything by yourself." That includes learning. For the second dance, Holland encouraged everyone to find a new partner. This partner switching is par for the course in contra dancing. "It's a mixer, and it's a chance to get to know people on an informal basis," Bercaw said. Some dances are designed specifically to mix up the couples. The attire among the contra dancers varied from traditional dance clothing to everyday wear. "You can wear whatever you want, but it's fun to wear a full skirt," Bercaw said as she twirled around to demonstrate the skirt advantage. "Cool, comfortable clothing" is the rule, she said. For footwear, there were bare and stocking feet along with sneakers, dress shoes, and even a pair of traditional Scottish gillie brogues. The only rules for the dancers were to follow the caller and have a good time. Nancy Worthen is a regular at the dance, and one of the over 40 people in attendance last week. She said she had stopped dancing about 30 years back, and then picked it up again three years ago. She also picked up a contra dancing boyfriend, and the two "try to go to a dance every weekend," she said. Before her boyfriend could whisk her back onto the dance floor, Worthen explained the appeal of contra dancing. "It's friendly. You dance with everybody," she said. [ital]Dances take place on the second Saturday of every month from September through May, 8-11 p.m. For more information, visit www.contras.org or contrasene.tripod.com.
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