Steps to cure winter's doldrums

Get up, get out, get your feet moving and replace that cabin fever with dance fever. Sarah Sawyer, Special To The Star Tribune

Last update: February 24, 2006 2:15 PM

Photo caption: Judith Keppers and Dave Dixon took a turn on the dance floor at a contra dance, held every first Saturday of the month at Oddfellows Hall in St. Paul. Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

When winter winds blow, it's easy to stay home with a cup of tea and a "West Wing" marathon. But veterans of Minnesota winters know the only sure defense against cabin fever is to get out, get your body moving and meet some new people.

Jim Brooks, a live band and an intergenerational posse of 80 contra dancers have done just that for more than 13 years. The first Saturday of each month they heat up the Oddfellows Hall in St. Paul with folk dancing and socializing.

Contra dancing, based on English country dances, might remind you of square dancing. Dancers attend solo or with friends and need not have skills more advanced than the ability to walk. A caller, in this case Brooks, leads partners through the dances by announcing structured moves. Partners stand in long lines and pairs of dancers work their way up and down their lines as Brooks rhythmically guides people through the dance. Don't worry: You get a practice round before the music starts.

Each month there's a lesson for beginners, explaining basic terms, moves and formations. By the midevening break chances are good that you'll have some new dance steps, and some new friends, to warm up even the coldest winter night.

Ambience: The atmosphere is playful, warm, friendly and wholesome. The closest things to a meat market about this night out are Ken and Judith Kepper, who drive in from Turtle Lake, Wis., and often bring fresh eggs from their farm.

Luminaries: You're sure to meet Ed Koehne and Elaine Murray, a couple whose passion for Irish and contra dancing gets them out on the floor, somewhere in town, several times a week. Rumor has it they've not missed a first-Saturday dance in 13 years.

Attire: Swingy broom skirts and T-shirts on women. Some of the younger men wear do-it-yourself (read: clumsily hemmed, or stapled together) flowing skirts in masculine patterns such as camouflage or paisley. Far from drag, it's done playfully, to share in the fun of seeing a skirt billow and spin over their jeans. Most men opt for T-shirts and jeans. Comfortable shoes are a must for both genders.

Mood music: The playlist is generally drawn from Irish jigs and reels or Appalachian-style music and is always played by a live band.

Best overheard quote: "Cover is seven dollars, six dollars for senior citizens," then with a wink, "and YOU get to decide whether or not you're a senior citizen."

Caller to group: "OK, find a partner," the strong subtext of which is, "Find another partner," as dancers are encouraged to mingle.

Hint: "Don't be afraid to ask people to dance," Brooks advises. "It's not a matter of the woman waiting for the man to ask her to dance; just walk up and politely say, 'Would you like to dance?' "

What to do if someone asks you to dance: Some suggestions for the tongue-tied:

"I'd love to, thank you."

"I'm new to this, but would love to!" This lets a more experienced dancer know there might be a little teaching involved.

"Thank you, but I'm sitting this one out." Say this if you're tired and need a break or simply don't want to dance. It's bad form to say this to someone and then dance the next dance with another partner. It's totally fine to add, "but I'd like to dance after I have a rest. Can I find you later?" if you'd like a rain check.

"Oh, thank you, but I promised [insert name here] this dance, but would love to dance later, can I come find you for a later dance?"

Libations: Family-friendly (bring your own) fluids only. The dance is booze- and smoke-free.

Sustenance: Chocolate chip cookies baked by Brooks. "Of course I bake them myself," he said. "I've put my heart into this dance!"

Sarah Sawyer is a Twin Cities freelance writer. She can be reached at

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This page last updated on October 14, 2006.