Discover contra dancing
June 22, 2006
On the first Saturday of the month, you may see a train of cars headed up Richmond Road to the Norge Community Hall. It's an unassuming building, built in 1907 by the Norwegians who settled the area in association with the railroad.
The hall is literally that, a long rectangular room with a stage at one end, bathrooms at another and a kitchen off to the side. The most important feature of the hall, for my purposes, is the wooden floor. That's because it's used for contra dancing on the first Saturday of the month.
Contra dancing is hard to explain - it would be better if you just went and experienced it for yourself. It's vaguely similar to square dancing in that you have a partner and there is some do-si-do-ing involved. I've heard it compared to English country dancing as well and there's a bit of similarity to the formality of colonial dancing in the line formations and the greeting of your partner. Contra is associated with both of these dance forms. But it is not at all related to country line dancing!
Knowledge of this phenomenon is passed through word of mouth, and the attendance has grown. My friends Will and Christy introduced me to it, and the demonstration during First Night seems to have brought a few more people out. We try to get our brave friends to come and try it, especially guys, who seem more resistant to any kind of recreational dancing.
College students, some Colonial Williamsburg dancers and people who love folk music seem to make up most of the crowd. Dancers from Virginia Beach to Richmond drive in for the Norge dance. There are other weekly dances in Tidewater, but the Norge one is the longest running. The music is provided by FOAM, the Friends of Appalachian Music, resounding with fiddles and bass and accordion accompaniment. They sponsor the event, and take $5 donations at the door. Several excellent musicians are part of the group, including Barry Trott of the Runaway String Band, Karen and Rick Berquist and Steve Clement. There are fiddlers and guitarists, along with players of the piano, banjo and hammered dulcimer.
Now, upon entering the contra dancing scene, you may be a bit bewildered by what everyone is doing. You can watch for a few songs or just jump right in. Find a partner and line up - the caller will do the rest. There are normally two sets of lines composed of people standing across from each other. You and your partner, who is standing across from you, go through the steps slowly before the music starts, giving you a chance to learn how this dance goes. And then the music starts and you are off! People are pretty forgiving if you miss a turn or confuse your left for your right. This is an especially good exercise for people who don't do a lot of physical coordination during their work week - it'll keep you sharp.
So you work your way down the line, staying with your partner, but having different neighbors each time. After five or six times through, you really get the hang of it and it's a lot of fun. Then, just as you are getting confident, the song is over and it's time to learn a new dance.
It's great fun and great exercise. I recommend wearing shoes that you can be agile in and that sound good on a wooden floor, also a skirt for swirling around. Occasionally, even the guys wear kilts. Dress to stay cool, even in cold weather. All those people dancing can really work up a sweat.
The evening always finishes with the Virginia Reel, which any self-respecting Virginian should recognize, and a nice slow waltz.
One of the things I like best about contra dancing is that there is a real community spirit there, fostered by people who've been coming for years. The old pros are there to help you with some tips, like how to swing and be swung, and how to not get dizzy while that's happening.
Karen Berquist, one of the FOAM members, said, "This is a key to the entire folk thing: People are eager to pass it on - the music as well as the dances."
The contra dancing at Norge Hall has been going on for more than 20 years. Who you dance with changes constantly, depending not only on who you came with, but who you ask, who asks you and who is in your set for a dance. I highly recommend this as an activity for a Saturday night where you feel like getting out and being social. It's a bit less crowded when William and Mary is out of session.
This is one of those activities where you'll be surprised at the variety of people involved, and also how many other folk dance events are around. It's one of those niches that you can really get into, if you want. Otherwise, there's no more commitment than an evening. Try something new and I think you'll be glad you did. The only rules: bring your spirit of adventure, and no spikes or spurs on the wooden floor!
Natalie Miller-Moore is a Williamsburg resident. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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