News-Press, Fort Myers, FL, October 3, 2003

Contra dance the night away

CATHY CHESTNUT/Special to the
Published by on October 3, 2003

Photo caption - - Lynda Kendrick spins with a temporary partner during an opening circle dance for Alva's first contra dance Saturday. Photo by: STEPHEN HAYFORD/

In an age when society connected by all manner of impersonal electronic gadgetry, it seems ironic that an American folk dance that was popular in 1800 is turning up as a new trend. From Atlanta to Seattle to Alaska to Alva, contra dances are springing up across the land.

"Contra dancing is not new. It has been with us for generations," says Gail Keel, a local musician who has organized a seven-month contra dance series beginning Saturday at the Hall of Fifty States in downtown Fort Myers. "It is so much fun bringing people in from all walks of life and getting back to the basics in life."

The roots of contra dancing (sometimes spelled contradances) go back to the music of the nation's early English, French, Scottish and Irish immigrants who blended their reels and jigs and hornpipes with America's favorite fiddle-fueled entertainment: square dancing. But contra dance is not considered country; it's a traditional dance that has very little to do with square dancing.

Basically, Keel explains, contra is typically danced in two opposing lines of dancers, changing partners rhythmically during the dance but always returning to one's original partner. Each dance is unique and a caller explains the steps both before and throughout the particular dance.

Keel, whose Ha' Penny Band will play the live at each event, says contra dances have become the rage, even in metropolitan areas. A recent contra dance variably called barn dance, old-time contra dance, old-time country dance and the like in Alva drew about 50 or 60.

"The way I look at contra dancing is classic, early American ingenuity, how to bring together people from all over the surrounding area, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, literate and illiterate, etc., for an orderly good time," says Guy Van Meulebrouck, of east Fort Myers, who has been contra dancing for 8 years. Contra dancers become a close-knit community. Contra dancing is no fun in tiny groups. "Once a group is established, it will draw 40 to 80 people per dance. It is the kind of thing that, if you like it, you want to do it regularly and it truly represents community to many people in the same way now as way back when."

Keel hopes the new gatherings in Fort Myers will draw regional interest.

"I can't wait for Fort Myers to be a well-known spot for contra," she says. "We will probably have the very best spot in the state for our dance because the Hall of Fifty States is perfect for it. It has wooden floors, is very old, transports you back in time, and you can look across to the river and yacht basin. It's perfect."


For those who may not be in the literal swing of contra, here is a primer.

Do I need a partner?

No, not at all, which makes it nice for singles of all ages and orientations. Your partner in the dance is the person across from you in the other line. In fact, participants are encouraged to dance with different partners throughout the evening.

What should I wear?

Be prepared for rather vigorous exercise by wearing soft-soled shoes or tennis shoes and cool, comfortable clothing. Women tend to wear lightweight, loose-fitting dresses or skirts; men wear lightweight slacks, jeans or shorts. Some tireless dancers bring a couple of changes of shirts. Not recommended: high heels, hard leather or hob-nailed boots, or other types of shoes that could cause damage to the dance floor.

What kind of music is it?

Live and lively. Often, the fiddle is the lead instrument. The Ha' Penny Band is comprised of Gail Keel on the English and Anglo concertina, contra rhythm piano, penny whistle and fiddle; guitarist Brian Brown; Jeff Moorhouse on the bouzouki and fiddle; and main fiddler Pat Olkowski. Everyone comes from the hills.

What if I don't want to dance?

That's fine. In another room at the Hall of Fifty States, there will be an on-going, improvisational acoustic jam. People are welcome to bring their non-amplified instruments fiddle, mandolin, autoharp, bass, penny whistle, tambourines, harmonica and the like to jam with strangers and friends.

What are the details about the new contra dance events?

They will take place the first Saturday of each month through April at the Hall of Fifty States, 2254 Edwards Drive in Fort Myers, in partnership with the Fort Myers Recreation Department. The dates: Oct. 4, Nov. 1, Dec. 6, Jan. 3, Feb. 7, March 6 and April 3. Cost: $7 admission. Time: 6:30 p.m. beginners' lessons with group dancing 7 to 10 p.m.

How many can attend the dance?

Theoretically, an unlimited number of dancers can participate because the length of the two parallel lines is limited only by the length of the hall. In smaller, or more popular, locations there can be three pairs of lines, also known as sets, running simultaneously. "The dance format itself was modified to fit a typical barn, which had a long narrow open area in the middle and stalls along the sides," says Van Meulebrouck. "Bands and refreshments could take up the side stalls. This accommodated two lines of people in close proximity to each other."

Explain the dance?

Each dance consists of a sequence of moves (called figures) that ends with couples having progressed one position up or down the contra line. As the sequence is repeated, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the contra line. When the participants have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling and let the dancers continue their movements to the music.

The dance incorporates moves such as swings, promenades, allemandes, dos--dos and the Gypsy, and most gatherings feature dances of other kinds, including traditional squares, waltz, polka and swing.

Is this difficult?

According to experts, no, because the caller explains the dance before and during the song. Beginners and veterans mix with ease. Some characterize it as "walking to the music" because there is little footwork; it's more like a smooth walking step. Children as young as 7 can join in with the rest of the family, parents and grandparents alike.

Do you have any tips?

Make eye contact with the person dancing opposite of you to generate connection and to help reduce dizziness. Women are encouraged to ask a man to dance. Children who are too young or immature can watch from the sidelines but should be kept out of harm's way. Small badges that read "swing me easy" can be worn if a participant wants to go gently. If you have any concerns about the event, talk to the dance organizers.

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