Interview by J.L. Stevens
An architect by trade and generally reserved by nature, Patrick Stevens didnıt know a thing about contra dancing when he moved to the Seacoast many moons ago from Flint, Mich. But now the Portsmouth resident is somewhat of an expert on the topic.
In a meeting that turned into a mini dance lesson, Stevens dispensed the following information: You should be able to walk in and contra dance your first night because people help you out. Contra dancing doesnıt have any real steps, "itıs just walking around." And itıs typical after each 12-15 minute dance for everyone to mix up and swap partners.
Stevens used to organize the now-defunct contra dances in Kittery, Maine, and now presides as chairman of the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend, which is held every January in Durham and involves about 250 people. And - coolest of all - every September, Stevens takes 70 people to the Star Island Conference Center on the Isles of Shoals for a traditional music and dance weekend called Star Hampshire. This year, the event runs from Sept. 10 to Sept. 12. Although most participants will be experienced dancers, beginners have also showed their stuff. "If you didnıt even dance, it would be worth it to go out there for two nights to the Isles of Shoals. Itıs just fabulous," Stevens says.
But you should probably be ready for some serious eye contact and exercise.
J.L. STEVENS: Did you move to the Seacoast for its accessibility to contra dancing?
PATRICK STEVENS: No, Iıd never heard of it.
J.L.: Wow. How did you first hear of it around here?
PATRICK: I saw it in the newspaper when I was living out in Lee in the late 80s.
J.L.: How long have you been contra dancing?
PATRICK: Iıd consider it 1989. I went to a few a couple years before that but didnıt start avidly contra dancing until 89.
J.L.: And what is avid? Do you go five days a week?
PATRICK: Well, when I was single I went through a period where I would dance probably four times a month, I even danced seven days straight one time traveling around New England.
J.L.: Wow. And you kept your day job?
PATRICK: Yes, the dances are in the evenings.
J.L.: What is your day job?
PATRICK: Iım an architect with Oak Point Associates.
J.L.: Contra, means "against," doesnıt it? Does that mean you dance against each other, or where does that term come from? What: Contradance with the Lamprey River Band, Peter Yarensky and Sarah Mason teaching and calling. All dances taught, beginners welcome, no need to bring a partner. Guest musicians and callers invited.
When: First Thursdays of each month, Aug. 5, Sept. 2 and Oct. 7, etc., 8 p.m. to 10:40 p.m.
Where: Second floor dance hall of Dover City Hall
Cost: $7, studetns $5
Contact: Information and directions 664-2513, firstname.lastname@example.org
For contra dancing information visit www.thedancegypsy.com and the New England Folk Festival Association Web site at www.neffa.org. For information about Star Hampshire, e-mail email@example.com.
PATRICK: No one knows for sure. The general feeling is it either means against, meaning when you start the dance the women line up in a line against the men; thereıs also a very closely related word in French called contradanse, instead of two words contra dance, which is what we do now. And that would be some older style dancing from the 1700s, or something like that. What this dance style evolved from came over from Celtic areas of Europe - from the British Isles, Northwestern France and Northern Spain - and then continued to evolve for a couple hundred years here.
J.L.: Now I also read online that contra dance is "a form of dance that thrusts a different person of the opposite sex into your arms every 30 seconds or so." (www.portlanddancing.com) Is that a definition that is also true?
PATRICK: Yeah, I mean itıs a pretty active contra dance if theyıre being "thrust," but it does happen in the faster more exciting urban style contra dancing.
J.L.: If you donıt like one of the other people at a contra dance, is it possible to arrange that you never have to dance with them?
PATRICK: You set up in a series of lines so if you never get in the same line with them ... but if youıre in the same line, youıll come to them, probably.
Do contra dancers get along with square dancers, or is there a rivalry?
PATRICK: They get along.
J.L.: They do?
J.L.: Is contra dancing at all like country line dancing?
J.L.: Do you have contra DJs?
J.L.: Is it always a live band?
PATRICK: Itıs always a live band, and thereıs a caller or a prompter who walks you through the choreography.
J.L.: So theyıre always teaching you?
PATRICK: They teach you the sequence of the dance. They call it for a few times through until the group has it. And then itıs a good idea for them to disappear so you can just dance and enjoy the music.
J.L.: Disappear, like they actually leave the room?
PATRICK: No, they donıt leave the room because things can break down and they have to come back and knit it back together. Their voice disappears ... you need it to get the dance going, but itıs in the way of dancing to the music which is everything.
J.L.: Can you go to contra dancing sans partner?
PATRICK: Yes. No problem.
J.L.: Can women ask men to contra dance?
PATRICK: Yes, thatıs very common. Sometimes men ask men and women ask women when thereıs a gender imbalance.
J.L.: Oh, OK. And are there also sometimes children participating?
PATRICK: Yes. Thatıs the neat thing, you get 5-year-olds and we had a 90-year-old contra dancer who passed away a few years ago.
J.L.: Do you encourage eye contact during dances, or is that awkward?
PATRICK: Itıs optional but helpful. Itıs one of the few social things you can do where itıs quite common to have strong eye contact as well as strong physical connection with people you donıt know.
J.L.: And why do you have to have the eye contact?
PATRICK: You donıt have to and some people donıt make a lot of strong eye contact, but it does help you from getting dizzy and consequently sick.
J.L.: Have you ever seen anyone get sick? Does that happen?
PATRICK: I havenıt seen anybody get literally sick on the dance floor, but I bet it has happened, and I have seen people fall over. But worst of all is if you get dizzy at a contra dance, youıre not likely to come back, because itıs not a good experience.
J.L.: Thatıs true.
PATRICK: Oftentimes when you can tell someone is getting dizzy - especially if theyıre a newcomer and you donıt think theyıre comfortable with the eye contact - you tell them to look at your shoulder or pick some other thing to look at thatıs not the background flying by, but it isnıt as intimate as staring into somebodyıs eyes.
J.L.: Do you have to be outgoing to contra dance?
J.L.: And what kind of clothes do contra dancers wear?
PATRICK: You wear lightweight comfortable clothing and comfortable shoes, and the bottom of the shoes should be clean.
J.L.: Now, why is that?
PATRICK: The lightweight comfortable clothing is because you get very hot - itıs like doing aerobics or jogging.
J.L.: Does it burn that many calories?
PATRICK: Oh yeah. You wear clean soft-soled shoes because weıre very hard on wood floors. One contra dance can wreck a wooden floor.
J.L.: So if you wanted to sand your floors you could have everyone where rough shoes?
PATRICK: We could go in the floor-sanding business. No doubt about it. But the fact is weıve been thrown out of many halls all over New England for tearing up the floors.
J.L.: Thatıs scandalous. But you have a hall now that you can go to regularly around here.
J.L.: Where do you go to contra dance, or where can people go around here?
PATRICK: I go to Dover City Hall, on the first Thursdays; thereıs a Kingston, N.H. dance on the third Fridays and fourth Saturdays. But at the moment, theyıre doing construction to Kingston Town Hall.
J.L.: Is that because of you guys and your shoes?
PATRICK: No. Theyıre putting a sprinkler system in so we donıt burn the place down.
J.L.: Oh, thatıs good.
PATRICK: Those dances are bouncing around until they reopen the Kingston hall.
J.L.: Does contra dancing cost a lot?
PATRICK: It costs between $5 and $8 a night.
J.L.: And do you do-si-do and allemande left your partner?
PATRICK: Yes you do.
J.L.: Did you actually meet your wife through contra dancing?
PATRICK: Yes I did.
J.L.: Is that common?
Portsmouth, NH Herald on 7/16/2004
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