Thursday, October 27, 2005

Call of the dance
Contra lets people kick up their collective heels

THOMAS E. WITTE for The Enquirer

Photo caption: Colette Palmer is spun around at a contra club in Wyoming. Each dancer has to pick a new partner for each song.

What: Contradancing
Where: Wyoming Fine Arts Center, 322 Wyoming Ave.
When: 7:30-10 p.m. Mondays
Admission: $4
Information: (513) 681-4768


Allemande: Two dancers join either right or left hands in a thumbs-up grip and walk around each other.
Circle: Holding hands in a ring, all four walk to the right.
Gypsy: The pair look each other in the eyes and walk around one another in the designated direction, without touching.
Ladies chain: With couples facing, ladies pass each other, take right hands and give the left to the opposite man, who turns the lady forward as she walks backward until both face the other couple again.
Promenade: With the lady on the right, the couple walks where the caller directs.
Star: Four dancers in a minor set all join either right or left hands in the center of the set and walk around the set.

Photo caption: Fiddlister Jaige Trudel of the Palermo, Maine, group “Crow Foot” performs during Monday nights contradancing in Wyoming. The upbeat music adds to the high-energy dancing.

If the phrase "communal folk dance" gives you pause, relax: it's just contra. The popular dance format that was re-discovered in the 1960s by free-thinking hippies, and hundreds of years after its creation, it still draws enthusiastic weekly crowds at the Wyoming Fine Arts Center with the promise of multiple dance partners and high-energy fun.

John McCain got hooked on contra more than 20 years ago. The former treasurer of the Cincinnati Contra Dancers he discovered contradancing in 1985 and never looked back.

"My wife and I really enjoy it together and it can be a workout," McCain says of the half dozen 10-minute dance sequences per session. "People are surprised, and whether you dance hard or walk easy, you'll be winded either way."

The club's three-hour Monday night dances average 60-plus attendees a week, who kick up their heels to a variety of live bands playing Celtic and old time string band music. Whether you're a veteran or a novice, single or part of a duo, there's room on the floor for you. Experienced dancers are happy to help out newbies.

As the six-piece Good N' Plenty band played for a packed floor of more than 80 dancers, hoofers who'd taken their first steps earlier that evening during the traditional half-hour tutorial that begins each session were doing combinations like seasoned veterans by the second set.

While McCain says the average age on Monday nights is between 40 and 50, dancers in their 60s and 70s joined in, as well as high schoolers and college kids.

For the uninitiated, McCain says, "It's similar to square dancing." Only easier. Experienced contradancers will tell you that if you can walk, you can contra.

The popular New England style of contra (which translates into "counter-dance") evolved from an English country dance and a French style that was popular in the 18th century.

The typical modern contra begins with a call of "Hands Four," an invitation to find a partner, join a line of people and clasp hands with an adjoining couple. Groups of four form down a line and dancers await instruction from the night's caller.

After the dancers walk through their paces during a few practice calls, the dance begins. For the next 10 minutes, the room morphs into a single giant organism as dancers meet, separate, weave among each other, swing, reunite and flow from hand to hand. The dance has 16 basic calls (swing your partner, make a star, chain the women) that are used to create combination moves.

At the end, everyone courteously thanks their partner, finds a new one and the whole thing starts all over.

"It's as much a social event as a dancing one," says McCain, an industrial electrician at the Ford Motor Company. "And since the tradition is you only dance with the same person once a night, you get to dance with a lot of different partners."

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This page last updated on October 19, 2006.