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If you feel like dancing

Friday, Apr 14, 2006 - 06:15 AM

Caitlin Sullivan

Online Reporter

JONESBOROUGH In a dizzying swirl of colors and music, flowing skirts and tapping feet, women, men and children come together throughout the region to contra dance. Though the local contra dance community has existed for decades, a renewed interest in the dance has surfaced since the foundation of the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society and the Damascus Contra Dancers.

The Historic Jonesborough Dance Society, the newest of the groups, was founded in December 2005 and over 80 members have joined.

"When I saw its affect on people I knew I had to do it and bring it to Jonesborough,"said co-founder David Wiley. "The balance of our dancers is made up of beginners who heard about our dance and we curious enough to come and give it a try. There's no community dance here, and I'm compelled to leave some legacy for the community."

Wiley began dancing just two years ago but ever since he was hooked. He was intrigued by the sense of fellowship, appreciation for music and dance, and the opportunity to make friends.

Joel Keebler has been contra dancing regularly for five years but he also waltz's, swings, and is teaching himself tap dancing. "I was first drawn to the music of contra dancing,"he said. "I would come and try to watch the musicians but then someone just grabs you off the bench and you have to start dancing."

Rooted in English and Scottish country dance, contra dance is similar to square dancing but with a different set-up. Partners are in two long lines facing opposite or contra to each other. A caller on stage gives dance instructions and a live band plays eight-count bluegrass music with an Irish/Celtic twang.

Partners move from couple to couple dancing for short sequences down the long lines. The dance can be calm but more likely it's fast and exhausting as a result it's customary for the men to change their shirts halfway through the evening.

Janese Trivette, of Bristol, TN was first drawn to contra dancing in the late 1980s because it cultivates camaraderie.

"I dance because its fun exercise and I love the music and fellowship,"she said. "To me, it's friends dancing in groups enjoying music."

But it wasn't so easy for Trivette in the beginning.

"When I first started I was so scared of making mistakes,"she said. "Once you learn the language of the dance then you don't have to think, and it becomes relaxing. It's not mental memory for me anymore, but muscle memory."

There is always a half-hour of basic instruction and practice for newcomers prior to each dance. Throughout the dance, the caller gives directions for the next step, which often prevents mistakes and helps those who have not yet memorized the steps.

Sometimes when the caller feels the dancers have mastered the steps, the caller will stop and let the couples dance and listen to the music on their own.

Unlike more formal dances such as the waltz, contra dance allows room for improvisation. Keebler sometimes adds some swing moves to the dance and he said that it's not uncommon for people to flatfoot while contra dancing. "Contra dance is kind of like jazz music: there's structure but within that structure there's room for improvisation,"he said. "As people get more comfortable with the dance they improvise."

People of all ages come to contra dance, which makes it a unique fusion of different generations.

Trivette has brought her children to contra dances since they were toddlers. She's watched her two sons and daughter grow and mature through contra dancing.

"When my kids were really little they didn't like it, but I kept dancing,"she said. "When they were adolescents they realized that there were other kids their age and they liked this form of contact. My kids now dance without me."

Trivette strongly recommends contra dancing to families. "My greatest joy is when I dance with my now-adult children,"she said. "We share the pleasure of music and dance together."

Keebler thinks the social aspect of dancing with strangers can be uncomfortable now-a-days. "People are afraid to interface with people they don't know,"he said. "We don't have the social skills our grandparents had. We're all so used to sitting home watching TV and not meeting people."

Contra dancing is special for Wiley because of the connections it creates on the dance floor.

"Everyone doing the same steps to the same music together is community building,"he said. "I feel we can find common ground through music and dance."

"At a dance, you interact with people you would never interact with,"he said. "When you dance with someone, you each share a 15-minute slice of life with someone you may never meet again."

On April 15 the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society will host a waltz workshop from 4-6pm taught by Asheville's Scott Baxla, a potluck dinner from 6-7:30 and the regular contra dance from 7:30-11:00.

For more information and a calendar of upcoming contra dances in the area, visit

The Damascus Contra Dancers will host their next dance at Trail Days in Damascus on May 20 at the Rock School.

Damascus Upcoming Contra Dances held at the Old Rock School auditorium in Damascus @7:30 p.m. for $6. There is beginning instruction available for beginners.

April 22 with Toss the Possum Band (a family band from Blacksburg)
Trail Days May 20 with Dot Dot Dash
June 24 with Morning Coffee
August 26 with Fire in the Kitchen
September 23 with Mock Turtle Soup

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This page last updated on November 3, 2006.