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| My First (Contra) Dance
by James Duffy
I do not consider myself to be in possession of much
natural ability when it comes to dancing, and most of
it nowadays has been shelved.
Oh, when I was younger, I danced in clubs to that – I
don’t know what else to call it -- modern style? -- and
have as recently as last year made earnest attempts to
“get down” with The Electric Slide. But dancing for
dancing’s sake has never been a regular thing for me.
My body is tone deaf, my movements inhibited by
two left feet. Don’t get me wrong, if I could dance, I
believe I would.
And so it was, with my meager skill, yet palpable
longing and curiosity, I traveled with my family to
Peterborough, NH one recent Saturday night to
partake in contra dancing. And I am happy to say I
will be back.
The music -- a lively fiddle and piano -- played
traditional folk and more recent variations of those
tunes that are hundreds of years old. The music was
exceptional as were the dancers. Even though I had
never been to a contra dance before, and it was
apparent many in attendance had, I actually felt
people were happy to see me.
As Bob McQuillan, the noted piano player who
performed that night said of his first experience with
contra dancing in 1946, “It was a very happy scene, so
I just kept going. It makes people have fun, that’s the
only way to describe it.” McQuillan has written over
1000 songs, and in 2002 was a recipient of the
National Folk Arts award.
Contra dancing is a series of easy to learn walking-
steps explained by a caller, who then prompts you
through the dance itself. You start in a line facing
your partner, and then proceed along, using
movements like “do-si-dos,” “allemande” and
“spins” to meet and dance with other people along
Don’t let the walking pace fool you, it is real aerobic
exercise. My wife and I were guided by the more
experienced dancers, and for me that made all the
difference in the world. The success of each dance
depends on everyone completing each step and turn,
which means experienced dancers are invested in
helping the newcomers along. Another emphasis is
on eye-contact, which can prevent the dizziness
caused by spinning, as well as promote good social
Contra dancing can be traced back to English Country
dancing, and it took root in New England during pre-
revolutionary times. It has absorbed and thrived on
French, French-Canadian, and traditional Yankee
influences as well.
Steve Zakon-Anderson, the caller for the dance we
attended, has been calling for twenty five years. He
said he has seen a resurgence of the popularity in
contra dancing that started in the late 1960’s and has
continued to this day. “A lot of people were moving
to this region and were interested in living self-
sufficiently… back to the land, self sacrifice… so
why not make your own music?” He said many
people he danced with in the 1980’s are coming with
their children now as well.
He noted another trend, dating back to the 1950’s
when square dancing, a cousin to contra, started to
become more complex and specialized.
“People could not just show up and dance without
taking lessons. Those who came would often end up
standing around. The dances did not feel
welcoming.” He said callers back then had a
different role too. “If you listen to recordings of
dances done in the 1950’s the caller’s voice was
always in the forefront and the music was in the
background. Now, because there are such good
musicians playing contras and are adopting new
rhythms and music, the caller is more of a facilitator.”
A caller decides on the dance and consults with the
musicians, who choose the music.
Zakon-Anderson said there are a number of things a
caller should do to be successful: It helps to be able
to get people to learn comfortably and to pick the
right dances for the level of skill of the dancers. “It
also helps to have a caller whose voice finds a nice
place in the music and be welcoming because that is
what contra dancing is all about, human contact.”
That was certainly in evidence that evening. There
was a smile with every person I met while dancing.
Zakon-Anderson walked around and helped us
along. “But the best part of the evening,” he said, “is
when a caller does not say a word and just watches
the dancing and listens to the music, and there is a
real give and take between the musicians and
If you would like to learn more about contra dancing
and where to find a dance in your area visit
About the author:
James Duffy of Keene, NH, is freelance writer and
poet. He is working on his first book of poetry.
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