Dance attracts diverse crowd
By MELISSA HART, Staff Writer
While the name “contra dance” could conjure up images of armed militants dancing a jig, you won’t find anything too revolutionary at a Contra Borealis dance, held twice monthly at the Pioneer Park dance hall.
The “contra” is derived from “opposite,” as in the man stands opposite his partner. It’s a way to distinguish it from “proper” dances, where the men stand in one line facing the women in another line, said longtime Contra Borealis president Sue Cole.
The music and dancing styles encompass a range of genres, with mainly Irish, English and French-Canadian influences, she said. Think old English-style in the courtyard scene of “Braveheart.”
Stepping into a contra dance is like setting foot in the past. Not that participants dress up in period clothes to dance. The feeling comes from the warm welcome, reminiscent of when people still participated in civic and social functions.
“Anyone is welcome to show up and the group embraces beginners,” said Cole.
While the dances are scheduled to start at 8 p.m., the regulars usually trickle in, said member Barbara Braley, with attendance reaching as many as 100 dancers. Beginners should take note that being an early bird can be advantageous, as the first few numbers start with the basics and get progressively more complicated.
The group, which used to be known as University Contra, has been holding dances at the hall on the first Friday and third Saturday from September through May since the start of the millennium, Braley said.
At the April 15 contra dance
, about 30 people gathered early and after a few minutes of greeting and chitchat, the band Celtic Confusion had tuned up and was ready to start.
Gary Newman has been playing music since the early ’90s.
“One thing I enjoy about playing is making people happy. When you play for performance, you get people moving,” he said.
Caller Amy Steiner put on her hands-free headset and brought the dancers into starting places.
The 15-year-old, who described herself as a “contra kid,” grew up going to dances and has been calling entire dances for about a year.
A lot of younger people were in attendance, some of whom were Northstar Ballet dancers and former students of Braley, a retired teacher.
“Kids like it because it’s family-oriented and there’s no drinking or smoking,” Cole said. “I tell people it’s for anyone 8 to 80. Our oldest dancer is over 80. He’s had two hip replacements and is still dancing.”
The rigorous dancing releases endorphins into the brain, Cole said. “That’s why you’re smiling when you dance.”
The movements involve plenty of partner swinging and square dancing-type moves such as “dos-a-do” and “allemande.” It’s important to keep an eye fixed on your partner’s face or shoulder, or else you might feel dizzy from all the swinging, Braley said.
Singles are welcome and need not feel self-conscious, as the dances switch rapidly through all the partners. As the women-to-men ratio can get grossly out of balance, neckties are provided for women who don’t mind pairing up.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said contra first-timer Jessica Jernstrom after a long night of dancing with friend Rebecca Johnson. The two took turns switching gender roles, which could get confusing, they said, but overall it was a fun time.
“My feet hurt, but it was worth it,” Jernstrom said.