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Discovering some new steps with contra dancing
word@TimesRecord.Com
05/15/2006
By Maranda Duval, WoRD Staff

Are you ready to try something different? Something that doesn't involve sitting in front of a screen for two hours but costs about the same? It requires a willingness to learn and the ability to laugh at your own mistakes. Most importantly, it provides hours of fun with fascinating people that you won't soon forget. It's contra dancing.

Learning on the Web: www.deffa.org/

* This Web site offers information about various local contra dances, including dates, times and locations.

www.waketheneighbors.com/ sample.html

* Get a feel for the music of contra dancing by sampling 14 songs from the New England band "Wake the Neighbors!"

www.sbcds.org/contradance/whatis

* Perhaps the best definition of what contra dancing is and isn't.

While I was interviewing Jonathan Watterson at a contra dance in Falmouth, he told me his main reason for contra dancing: "It's amazingly exhilarating and I can jump around like a monkey." Dina Sutin, a contra dancer from New Hampshire, told me that her friends and family got her started, and she's been going ever since. No matter what the reason is, contra dancing is a wonderful opportunity to meet people and have fun.

The basic setup of a contra dance is this: A caller, the person who calls out the steps in sequence, stands at the head of the hall. Traditionally, the dancing couples will form lines that go down the hall and join hands in groups of four (there are exceptions to this rule). The steps incorporate elements of square dancing and swing, although some dancers argue that contra dancing deserves a category all its own. Steps include a simple walking step and stomping to the rhythm (which is more correctly referred to as "balancing"). The steps are done in sequence and are repeated with new couples as you move through the lines.

My very first time contra dancing, I was a little intimidated because I didn't know all of the steps, but that feeling didn't last through the first song. You can get a head start on the steps by attending the hour-long introductory lesson just before the contra dance. That way, you'll know what it means when the caller says, "balance and swing your neighbor. Now make a left hand star." Even if you don't attend the intro, the steps to each dance are thoroughly explained before the music even begins.

Regular area contra dances

BOWDOINHAM:

* Third Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. to midnight, Town Hall, featuring Scrod Pudding, 8 p.m. lessons. Costs $8 or equivalent in barter. Contact Bill Olson at 212-4711 or Greg Anderson at 666-3090.

FALMOUTH:

* First Saturday, Falmouth Congregational Church Hall, 267 Falmouth Road, next to the Town Office. Music usually provided by Nat Hewitt and Larry Unger with guest callers. Beginners' session at 7 p.m., regular dance 8 p.m. to midnight. Costs $9, $7 and $5. Contact Steven Le Blanc at 443-1497.

* Fourth Saturday, Falmouth Congregational Church Hall. Local musicians with guest callers. Beginners' session at 7 p.m., regular dance 8 p.m. to midnight. Contact May Hall at 846-3677.

LEWISTON:

* Second Friday, September to May, featuring Wake the Neighbors with various callers at Chase Hall Lounge, Bates College, 56 Campus Ave.; 8 to 11:30 p.m. Contact 232-8656 or www.waketheneighbors.com/.

NORTH YARMOUTH:

* Second Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. to midnight, Wescustogo Grange Hall, various guest bands and callers, $8 or less; September to June, 6-7:30 p.m. family dance, $3/$12 family max; 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. potluck supper, bring a dish to share or $5 to eat. Contact jeffraymond@prontomail.com, 712-2837 (232-9014 during events) or www.bluecatmedia.com/contradance.

NORTH WHITEFIELD:

* Fourth Fridays, 8 to11:30 p.m., Saint Denis Parish Hall, Route 126; guest band and caller. Contact Jim Spicer 495-2331.

It is not necessary to come with a partner; asking strangers to dance is completely acceptable. Many teenagers come with friends, but ask people outside of their group to dance. Men ask women; women ask men. After arriving, you realize that finding a partner is not too big of a deal. In Falmouth, for example, by 9 o'clock there are usually more than 100 dancers to choose from.

The atmosphere in the dance hall is incredible. Even for newcomers like me, the crowd is welcoming and helpful. David Quick, a contra dancer since last September, told me, "Everyone's so happy and accepting of each other," and it's true. There is no pressure to find a partner for every dance or to nail a step on your first try. The more experienced dancers will give you a gentle nudge (or pull, as the case may be) in the right direction. One of the best ways to learn how to dance is to find a partner who has been dancing for a long time.

A bonus of contra dance is that it's wonderful exercise. The steps are simple, fascinating to watch and deceptively tiring. I've found that I have to sit out every other dance to catch my breath and drink some water (make sure to bring plenty of water). There is some spinning involved, and the most common remedy for motion sickness is to look your partner in the eyes.

While there is no dress code for contra dancing, it is essential to dress comfortably and light. A dancing hall holding more than 200 people tends to get a little warm. Most of the women wear skirts, which are more fun for twirling. When it comes to shoes, I've seen people wear bowling shoes, ballroom shoes, no shoes, and everything in between.

It's hard to effectively sum up an experience like contra dancing for those who haven't tried it before. When I recently asked some dancers to complete the sentence, "Contra dancing is", some of them furrowed their eyebrows and told me, "that's hard to do." A friend of mine who contra dances regularly simply said, "Well, I love it so much."

A skeptical college student, who is also a friend of mine, arrived at the end of a contra dance about a month ago, and swore that he wouldn't participate. But he tried it, and by the end of the night, he was addicted. Later he told me that he wanted to start his own contra club back at his college campus in New York. If you decide to try contra dancing, you may leave the dance hall with a new hobby.

Maranda Duval is a junior at Brunswick High School.

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This page last updated on October 11, 2006.