The First Rule: Have Fun
Contra dancers keep twirling tradition alive
By Glen Sparks
Special to the Post-Dispatch

Childgrove Country Dancers change partners in the centuries-old way. The clock strikes 7 on a rainy Sunday night. Dozens of dancers who are inside the turn-of-the-century Monday Club in Webster Groves get ready to do-si-do.

Soon, they are spinning, twirling and making their way up and down the dance line. The caller, Judy James, stands on a stage next to the band. She instructs the dancers throughout the song.

"Slide left" and "balance and swing," she tells them.

If a dancer misses a step, no one frowns. The first rule of the Childgrove Country Dancers is that it's more important to have fun than to do it right.

The songs are lively. The beat is fast. The dancers keep moving.

Greg Rohde, a dancer from St. Louis, jokes that if he is ever in a coma, someone should announce "Hands four," the traditional call that begins every contra dance. If that doesn't put a smile on his face and get his toes tapping, nothing else is going to work, he says.

Mac McKeever compares contra dancing to old-style community barn dancing. Dancers change partners about every 30 seconds as they move along the line. Because the caller can offer a series of prompts, dancers do not need to remember the next set of steps.

Contra dancing is similar to square dancing. Contra uses some of the same moves - swing your partner, make a star, and so on. However, in square dancing, four couples make up a square, or group. Contra dance lines can accommodate dozens.

The origins of contra dancing go back hundreds of years to the heyday of English country dancing. One theory holds that colonists in pre-Revolutionary days did not want to credit the British for much of anything. They converted the name "country dance" to the French term "contredans." Later, the word evolved to "contra dance." Contra dancing is popular in many parts of the country, in particular New England and in Appalachia.

The Childgrove Country Dancers were founded in the early 1970s. The group meets four times a month at the Monday Club, 37 South Maple Avenue in Webster Groves. Dancing starts at 7 p.m. on the first, third and fourth Sundays of each month. On one Saturday a month, usually the second, Childgrove meets at 8 p.m. Workshops start about 20 minutes before the dance.

"But they don't help all that much," says McKeever, a Chesterfield resident who is president of the Childgrove Country Dancers board. "My best advice is to just get right in there and dance as soon as it starts. You shouldn't just watch, though. People who watch think that it's complicated. It isn't."

Admission is $5 on Sundays and $6 on Saturdays. Sessions last about three hours. All ages are welcome. Childgrove has dancers who are in their pre-teens and dancers who are in their 70s.

In a typical evening, the band plays 10 or so contra dances and mixes in a couple of waltzes.

About one-third of the 60 to 100 dancers who show up on a given night are new to contra dancing. Another third are occasional dancers, and the rest are regulars.

"It's a real social community," McKeever says. "It's a way to connect with people. You come here and it's easy to smile."

Rohde says that one reason contra dancing is popular is because it is so simple. If you can walk, he says, you can contra dance.

Rohde remembers taking dance lessons and the instructor nit-picking about every misstep he made.

"The contra dance floor, on the other hand, was a powerful oasis," Rohde says. "I was thrilled to encounter a place where the whole community dancing together is more important than any one person looking good."

Judy Papian, a long-time dancer from University City, says, "It's fun, it's invigorating. it's energetic. What else can you ask for?"

To learn more about the dance schedule, go to Childgrove's Web site, at

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Produced by Charlie Seelig
This page last updated on October 14, 2006.