By Chris Jones
The Oklahoman

Monday, August 21, 2006

NORMAN Candie Graham, who hadn't danced in 20 years, came to watch contra dancing on a recent Saturday evening. At least that was her intention as she sat against a wall and observed an Austin, Texas, caller explain the basics.

"Let's practice," Keith Tuxhorn told the newcomers. "This is a proper contra dance setup: Men on one side, women on the other. This is what's called the contra dance line; you've got that figured out. If you just do the walking swing, that's good enough. One, two, three, four. Balance. Now, go into a swing. OK, so I've thrown three or four things at you."

Celtic music played by Calliope House, an ensemble of four women, filled the dance hall as experienced contra dancers joined curious first-time visitors in an energetic form of American folk dance.

Graham's passive observance ended when the music began and a gentleman asked her to dance. She rarely sat down the rest of the evening.

Carolyn Shafer had never heard of contra dancing, but she came along at the invitation of friend. She spent the evening dancing and getting acquainted with Dessie Judkins and other newcomers.

Judkins, who said she was recovering from a broken foot, is 80 years old and willing to try a new form of dance. She said she has participated in ballroom dancing all of her life.

"I can see if you get good at this contra dancing it will be a ball," Judkins said, after she tried a few dances and then decided to rest. "And you sure don't have to spend any money," she said referring to the expense of ballroom costumes.

Contra dancers usually choose to dress comfortably in casual clothes and soft-soled shoes. The focus is fun, not fashion.

Mark Cashion, 57, a retired engineer, said he began contra dancing in 1992, and never stopped. He is vice president of the Scissortail Traditional Dance Society, a nonprofit contra group in central Oklahoma.

"Contra dancing is not difficult, and a good percentage of people take to it right away," Cashion said. "The dance figures are geometric and basically are walking steps. It can be strenuous in the tempo. We have live music, and I usually set up the sound system. It's a very social event."

Cara Ditto, 56, read about a contra dance in Oklahoma City and decided to go, even though she said her daughter thinks she is uncoordinated. On July 22, Ditto attended a second dance in Norman. She laughed and said her daughter told her she must be hooked on contra.

That could be true.

"It's the dance that never ends," Ditto said. "It's nonthreatening, very relaxed and great exercise. I was amazed at the different ages and backgrounds of the people who come to the dances. You rotate partners, and during the dance, the men dance with all of the women. It's not like a country line dance, and it's not a performance just dancing and having fun."

Tom Miller, 55, has contra danced for 12 years. He said he and his wife, Emily Rosenberg, travel throughout the country and the world participating in contra dances. "An hour and a half of contra dancing was a renaissance for me, a musical and artistic renaissance," Miller said of the first contra dance. "I play the guitar, and my wife is a caller. That's a key facet of contra. The music is so alive, and it's that old-time Irish music."

Wayne Cantwell, 45, is a Del City fiddler who plays for contra dances. He said he is known as the flying fiddler because he plays so fast.

"It's family friendly, old-fashioned Celtic dancing, and I tell people it's something they just have to try. There are beginners who fall all over each other. The music is great, even for people who don't dance."

But that's nearly impossible to do for long, as Candie Graham discovered. Despite the odd name, contra dancing is too much fun to sit out.

Scissortail Traditional Dance Society

Contra dancing attracts participants with its easy steps and lively tempo

Contra dance refers to several folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines. The name may be derived from the name of a French dance popular in the 18th century.

Contra dances are scheduled the second Saturday of each month at First Unitarian Church, 600 NW 13. Contra dances are held on the fourth Saturday in Norman at Modern Dance Arts, 1423 24th Ave. SW.

Admission is $6 for members of Scissortail Traditional Dance Society, $8 for non-members.

Dances begin at 8 p.m. Newcomers are asked to come at 7:30 p.m. for a brief review of basic moves. Most of the dancers change partners, and there is no requirement to bring a partner.

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This page last updated on December 2, 2006.