Grange is home for contra dancing
Tradition attracts dozens of followers

Thursday, March 17, 2005
News Staff Reporter

At around 7:40 p.m. a stream of cars pulls off busy Ann Arbor Saline Road into the parking lot of the Pittsfield Grange Hall. Tires crunch the gravel - you're in the country now, past the glare of Oak Valley Shopping Center and Meijer. The attraction this night is the First Saturday Contra Dance, sponsored by the Ann Arbor Council for Traditional Music & Dance.

Small fans placed in the brightly lit windows of the hall, which looks like a one-room schoolhouse, tell you that contra-dance lovers, who gather here year round, work up a sweat.

Contra dancers get a great aerobic workout almost without realizing it, because the dancing is so much fun, said Gillian Faust, who drives in from Southfield to dance regularly at the grange. On the evening we visited, she brought a cake to celebrate her birthday here with the friends she's met since she began coming last fall.

"This is eight bucks, no alcohol, no smoking, and you meet the coolest people," she said, getting ready to step out into the room where dancers, facing each other in two long lines, were swinging their partners and stepping out to fast-paced fiddle tunes from the small band on the grange hall stage.

Live music - including jigs, reels, waltzes and polkas - is a hallmark of contra dancing, which is traditional American country dancing. Since the days of barn dances in colonial New England, contra dancing has been adapted to be very easy to master and easy for individuals to pick up a partner, regardless of gender, and join in. It has fewer moves and is more freewheeling than square dancing.

Contra dance groups around the country flourish in college towns and larger cities. A caller briefly runs through the moves with the group before each dance, then prompts the dancers with "swing" and "do-si-do" and other calls as the dance proceeds.

Faust and others say that most newcomers to contra dance pick up the moves well enough after two or three evenings to feel downright confident. It helps a lot to dance with experienced partners.

Regulars at contra dances stress that you don't have to come with a partner. The dance patterns require that you dance with other people mostly, even if you do. It was clear this evening that no one frowns on novices: Experienced dancers made a point to help faltering beginners.

There's no shortage of fans who come regularly. The Pittsfield Grange seems the perfect venue: Grange halls are traditionally meeting places of the Grange, a national fraternal farming organization once common in rural communities. The Pittsfield Union Grange, as it's officially known, is still active. Yet the hall gets so packed on some Saturday nights, with 75 to 80 people, that the group is looking for a larger space.

People in their 30s, 40s and 50s seemed to predominate at the last First Saturday dance, with a sprinkling of older, very skilled dancers and teen-agers confident enough to ignore the very likely peer reaction that doing a do-si-do is not cool. Some students get phys-ed credit for coming.

Carol Jacobs has danced at AACTMAD events for 20 years, and recently trained to be a caller. For hesitating would-be contra dancers, she is promoting a new spring contra dance series, dubbed "Tried and New," on fourth Saturday nights in March, April and May. These sessions offer a special chance for contra dance beginners to learn dances and feel at home, she says. New callers and musicians will be trying out their skills too. The sessions will begin March 26.

Reporter Anne Rueter can be reached at (734) 994-6759 or


First Saturday Contra Dance

Pittsfield Grange

3337 Ann Arbor-Saline Road

Sponsored by Ann Arbor Council for Traditional Music & Dance,

(734) 769-1052; or

Who's hanging: A mix of academics, computer programmers, tradespeople, retirees and high schoolers drawn to traditional American contra dance for fun and exercise.

Essentials: First Saturday Contra Dances run from 8 p.m.-11 p.m. the first Saturday of each month.

Fee $9, $8 for AACTMAD members; $5 students. Check the Web site for additional dance events.

Of special note: Geared to beginners, a new series of "Tried and New" Saturday night contra dances will take place at Pittsfield Grange March 26, April 23 and May 28, with instruction beginning at 7:30 p.m. Fee $9, $5 for newcomers and students. (734) 327-0502.

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This page last updated on October 31, 2006.