Family dance makes a comeback
By Ashley McClinton, Contributing Writer

During a midwinter night, in a long, low, wood-paneled room with a roaring fire in the fireplace, about 30 people of all ages were whirling and stomping. A young woman with a microphone said, "Take eight steps forward, four steps back, stomp three times, swing your neighbor to the left, swing your partner to the right!"

The dancers, whose ages spanned about 65 years, followed the instructions with varying degrees of exactness. There was so much laughter that it almost drowned out the band.

"There's been a lot of dances in this room," said Chris Weaver, director of the 4H camp in Swannanoa, which is host to the monthly family dance. "Dances have been going on here, in various forms, since 1929. We're so happy to be doing this again."

Weaver attends every family dance with his two sons, Aidan, 6, and Noah, 1 12. Noah sometimes swings from Weaver's "front-pack" while he dances.

"This is our heritage," Diane Silver, the evening's caller, said. "This is our tradition, American folk dancing. It has its roots in the music and culture of this region. It's what people did in living rooms, or on front porches, before we had TV, and satellite, and cable and Internet and all those things. People would just dance and enjoy each other's company."

On that particular night, the dancing kids, ages one through teen, were having more fun than if they'd all been set loose at Disneyland. Many could keep up with the instructions of the caller, while some, overcome with excitement, did some free-form whirling and running and shouting. Adults danced with people they knew, and with people they didn't know. Two-year-olds danced. Teenagers danced. Everybody in the room had a good time, even me, and I don't dance. Usually.

The Family Dance at the 4H in Swannanoa has been happening monthly since last September. The dance features circles, mixers, contras, squares and other set dances, and it's aimed at beginners and families with kids. The age range at family dances, according to Weaver, goes from two weeks to 83 years old. In other words, there are no limits on either end. The dance generally happens on the fourth Saturday of the month, with a potluck supper at 6 p.m., followed by dancing from 7 to 9:30.

On the evening we joined the family dance, the room was filled with spontaneous goodwill, a feeling not often present in large groups of strangers. Every single person was smiling ear to ear, which was also a little bit unusual. But then, something about grabbing someone you don't know and swinging them around kind of makes you feel good about your fellowperson.

Silver explained the phenomenon like this. "It's a community dance. It's coming together as a community. That's a really great thing to be able to do. It just makes people happy."

"It's also incredibly wonderful to move with the music," she continued. "You're participating, you're a part of the performance. When you watch a concert it's just not the same. I'd be willing to wager, a lot of people have a secret desire: they really want to be a part of the band that's on stage. It just looks like so much fun to perform. This is a great way to be able to do that, for everyone. And it's so much fun for kids."

The dancing is easy (take it from a non-dancer). Skill, prior knowledge, fancy footwork or practice are all unnecessary in order to do the family dance. Contra dance, the form of dance that most of the family dances take, is essentially walking in time to music. The "dancing" part arises from the pattern, and not from any athleticism or even any particular sense of rhythm. This makes it accessible to the very young and even the very old.

"Everybody can be successful right away," Silver said. "You can be assured that you're not going to be bad at it, and you're not going to look stupid. If you turn the wrong way, somebody will straighten you out. A community dance is about helping each other. There's no judgement."

My five-year-old, who had to be dragged from the dance to go home, didn't even wait until we got to the car to ask when we'd be going back. So we're going back, and maybe we'll see you there.

The next family dance will be on Saturday, May 22. Visit the family dance Web site at www.oldfarmersball.com/familydance.htm for more detailed information including driving directions.

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This page last updated on November 18, 2006.