By Lorelei Poch
The band played folk music in the back of the dance room as beginners learned the first steps and swings of contra dancing. The caller invites the first-timers to the floor 15 minutes early to feel out how the dances go. My sister and I timidly followed the music down the halls and were immediately welcomed to join the email list and hop into the beginner’s tutorial.
As we took our first tentative steps, trying to keep up with the fiddle and guitar band’s energy, young and old dancers joined the room, placing their belongings against the walls and their jackets on hangers. Most couldn’t help but tap their feet while watching we beginners.
Once the clock struck 8 p.m. the regulars crowd the floor and ask others to dance; it is an accepting community where males can dance with males, females with females, and older goers with younger goers. “It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” said Marj Power, who has been contra dancing since 2000. Power believes one of the most genuine aspects of contra dancing is the sense of community and breadth of diversity. Partners typically switch between songs which encourages people to dance with strangers. “You have to dance with whoever comes at you or the dance breaks, you have to dance with the whole community,” Power said.
Lila Inyengar Lehman, a junior at Burlington High School, has been dancing since she was very young when her parents took her to contra dance events. “I’ve gotten more excited in the past couple of years. It’s really great exercise, I meet lots of interesting people and have lots of interesting conversations, ” said Inyengar Lehman.
She has also experienced personal growth as she dances independently from her family. “I’ve become more confident through dancing with strangers and making new friends — it’s great for self esteem,” she said. Lehman said she enjoys interacting with not only older generations, including her mother’s, but also her own as more high school and college students joined the community.
Power has danced with kids as young as three and adults pushing 90, people of diverse backgrounds, and people with disabilities of all kinds, including some in wheelchairs. Another calling to contra dancing is the gender neutrality of the groups. “It used to be gents and ladies, but now they’re making it more gender neutral,” explained Power. The “ladies” part was traditionally considered the followers, and the “gents” the leaders. Now some callers use terms such as ravens and larks or separate groups by the presence or lack of an armband.
Caller and musician Don Stratton started calling when his band was playing for a high school graduation six years ago and needed a caller. He also plays the fiddle, guitar and banjo. “What’s keeps me coming back is moving with music with your friends, or strangers, but having a moment of just sharing the music. It’s the kind of music you can’t just sit still for,” said Stratton. “You don’t need a partner, people will change partners every dance so you can just show up and be ready to have a good time.”
I tried contra dancing two recent Fridays and brought my twin sister, Amelia Poch, to the latter event. Although I planned to take photos and audio I ended up having some of the most genuine fun I have had since coming to college. Although I did not know dance moves and would never consider myself a dancer, I picked it up quickly. Soon I was dancing in synchrony with the regulars, laughing and holding eye contact while in passing and adding twists and stomps where I could.
As someone who has struggled with recovering from post-concussion syndrome and countless concussions throughout my college career this was a healthy and liberating alternative to partying on a Friday night. I worked up a sweat, made new friends spoke with strangers and couldn’t help but tap my feet.
If you give contra dancing a try you will experience the wide acceptance and friendliness extended to all attendees of the events. If you’re looking for a new healthy and exciting Friday night activity visit queencitycontras.org or http://www.contradancelinks.com/schedule_VT.html for more information regarding local contra dance events.