Fridays belong to do-si-doers
Devotees make folk line dance their big event
Amy Chillag - For the Journal-Constitution
Thursday, July 25, 2002

Cost: $7
When: 7:30 p.m. lessons; 8 p.m. dance every Friday (a smaller group dances on alternate Tuesdays)
Where: Morningside Baptist Church gymnasium, 1700 Piedmont Ave.

Every Friday night, dozens of Atlantans take to their heels. From former hippies in long patchwork skirts to twenty- and thirtysomethings looking for an alternative to smoky nightclubs, they find themselves inside a church gymnasium.

"It's simple dancing. It's not about competition. It's not about showing off. It's not about having the right style but having the right spirit," says 53-year-old Susan Davis, a Lake Claire resident who's a librarian at a Decatur middle school.

Since 1975, a subculture of contra dancers has been making this traditional folk line dance its main social, exercise and spiritual outlet in Atlanta. It hasn't always been at a church. It's been at any space that makes room for the dancers. These days, that means space for about 150 dancers.

"It's a great mixer. We always end up meeting at least 12-15 people per dance. At the end of the night you end up meeting 100. Old and young, bad and great dancers," says 29-year old Etienne Gilbert of Woodstock.

When you first walk in, you're hit with a lively fiddle, strong upright bass and the finger-style picking of a banjo player playing what's known as jigs or reels. Over the music, a "caller" announces the moves so that dancers can follow along. The moves are taught every Friday at a lesson a half hour before the dance.

Brightly lit Morningside Baptist's gym harkens back to high school dance days. The room is packed with smiling women twirling in "broomstick skirts." Some are wearing Birkenstocks, others jazz dance shoes. The moves are similar to those in square-dancing, but in that dance form you change partners with only three others in the square. In contra, once you've gone down the line, you've do-si-doed and swung with everyone of the opposite sex.

"There's freedom in contra dancing. I can just turn my brain off and just enjoy the music. I let go in the dance. At times, it's a very spiritual experience for me. I'm feeling a kind of dance ecstasy, I'm feeling the music through me, it's beautiful," says 34-year-old Seth Tepfer, a computer Web page designer from Covington who's contra danced for nine years in Atlanta.

The term contra comes from the French "contredanse." Some believe the term was coined because couples are opposite each other to begin the dance. Others believe it's a corruption of the English term "country dance" --- a 17th-century dance.

Either way, contra made its way to the United States through the English colonists. It saw a revival in the 1920s when Henry Ford felt America needed a less "corrupting" dance form during the Roaring '20s. It was picked up again in the late '60s and early '70s --- early in New England.

"It attracted huge numbers. Hundreds of people, younger, at the height of the back-to-the-land movement, hippies, long-haired young people looking for something clean, wholesome, different to do," says David Millstone of the New Hampshire-based Country Dance and Song Society.

Despite contra's wholesome roots, there is flirting.

"I read somewhere it's the only dance you get thrust into a different person's arms every 30 seconds or so --- willingly," says 35-year-old Pam Eidson.

Dancers are forced to look directly into the eyes of each partner for focus. If you look around the room while twirling, you risk getting extremely dizzy.

"When I first started I didn't know how to take it [the stare\]," says Gilbert. "It's kind of a socially acceptable flirt, even though it's not going somewhere."

But there are several married couples who met at the dances.

Tepfer and Eidson got married three months ago. Tepfer is a dance enthusiast and a caller who proposed at the dance.

Sarah Dauby, who lives near Marietta, likes how diverse the crowd is.

"There's Jewish people here, there's Hindus. That's one of the things I like about it. It's such a heterogeneous bunch."

And she likes the quirkiness too. Her flamboyant signature orange dress --- tutu-like on the bottom --- and her salt and pepper hair pulled into pigtails make this 59-year-old elementary school teacher a character, too.

"You can just be yourself here, do what you want. Some people have developed real personas. One guy always wears a yellow flower. One lady always has metallic tassels on her shoes. One lady has light-up earrings. It's sort of their trademark," says Dauby.

And then there are men in skirts.

Fifty-nine-year-old John Redman of Hapeville, who recently became engaged to a woman he met at contra, just started wearing a skirt to the dance a month and a half ago.

"I'm just a very flamboyant person, so it sort of goes with me, but it's also cooler," says Redman. "All the better guys [more skilled dancers\] wear skirts."

In the end, many dancers say they come for the connection with others --- something people don't often get a chance to have going to work and coming home at the end of the day.

"It's just a really deep bond to me, with the movement, with the history, with the tradition, with the people I'm dancing with, with the music," says Davis.

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