Dancing, contra to popular opinion

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By Teddye Snell, Press Staff Writer

Friday, September 16, 2005 1:13 PM CDT

Every generation seems to have a dance craze, like the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug and the Twist. Now, a new "old" dance trend may be sweeping Tahlequah: the contra dance.

Approximately 50 people gathered Thursday night at the American Legion Hall on Allen Road to "get dizzy."

Contra dancing is a form of American folk dance that was all the rage in 1800. Similar to square dancing, dancers form a set of parallel lines that run the length of the hall. Each dance consists of a sequence of moves that ends with couples having progressed one position up or down the set. As the sequence is repeated, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the set.

To join a set, all you need is a partner.

Barbra Landry and her husband, Mike, were hosts for the evening.

"This is our third contra dance," said Barbra. "We moved to Fayetteville, Ark., from Colorado, so my husband could get his doctorate. In Colorado, I was involved in Irish step dancing. We got involved with a folk dancing group while in Fayetteville, then contra dancing."

Mike is a marketing professor at Northeastern State University; Barbra is a registered nurse at W.W. Hastings Indian Medical Center.

English country dancing gained popularity in the 17th century. According to James Hutson in an article published in the fall 1994 issue of "Contra Corners," the name could have been derived this way:

"The French, who thought that they invented country dancing (as well as anything else culturally significant), and who were miffed at the notion that the English should receive credit for anything, converted the name 'country dance' to French 'countredans' (which conveniently translates as 'opposites dance'), then turned around and claimed that the English term was a corruption of the French!"

Later, the French term evolved in the young U.S. into "contra dance."

The band for the evening, Good Comp'ny, a local Celtic band, took the small stage and began to tune their instruments.

"I discovered the band, Good Comp'ny, at the library," said Barbra. "They play the perfect music for this type of dancing."

During a contra dance, a caller guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of steps. The caller teaches each dance before it is actually performed to the music. This gives participants an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed.

The caller leads the dances while they are being done to the music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the beat. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular series of steps, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone.

"Wes [Brown], our caller from Tulsa, has coerced me into calling a little this evening," said Barbra. "We'll see how it goes."

College students comprised the majority of the early-bird crowd at the dance. According to Barbra, students have formed a group at NSU called the Social Dance Society, and have attended all of their contra dance events.

"I'm glad it's becoming more of a dance community," said Barbra. "We attend their dances at the college, they come to ours; it's a lot of fun."

Kristene MacMillan, NSU student and a retiring officer of SDS, was anxious to get started.

"It's a little chilly in here, but it'll warm up," said MacMillan. "Once we start spinning, I'll forget I'm cold. We call it 'getting dizzy.'"

Zack Dewoody, also an NSU student, is the current vice president of the society. Until two years ago, he'd never danced before.

"I don't take dance classes or anything like that," said Dewoody. "We have a lesson after our weekly meeting, but beyond that, I've learned by doing. It's great."

According to Barbra, people of all ages and lifestyles - including children - are welcome. Contra dances are a place where people from many walks of life come together to socialize.

In the modern world, women ask men to dance. At a contra dance, this is certainly true and has been for some time. It might be just as common as men asking women, or even more so. Women will sometimes dance with women, and men will sometimes dance with men, although men usually only dance with each other when a gender imbalance exists.

Contra dancers make eye contact whenever possible. This adds to the connectedness of the dance, and helps reduce dizziness, especially during the swing.

Hence MacMillan's phrase, "Let's get dizzy."

Get involved

The Social Dance Society at Northeastern State University, meets at 5:30 p.m., Thursdays, at Flo's in Wilson Hall on the NSU campus. A dance lesson usually follows each meeting. Students and community members are invited to attend. For more information about contra dancing, visit

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This page last updated on October 19, 2006.