Step lively — give contra dancing a whirl
The easy-to-learn folk dance is a bouncy, sweaty, friendly mix of movements.
By Jenny Hontz, Special to The Times
The sounds of live fiddle and banjo music instantly transported me back in time as I strolled into South Pasadena War Memorial Hall on a Friday night. I was there to experience my first contra dance, an American folk dance derived from English country dancing that has been popular since Colonial times.
As a dance begins, long lines of women wearing flowing skirts stand shoulder to shoulder across from parallel lines of men in jeans, khakis and tie-dyed shirts. Ranging in age from 8 to 83, the dancers move in time with the band at the direction of a caller: “Swing your partner round and round, ladies do-si-do.”
The dance makes for vigorous exercise and initially looks complicated, but the basic moves — allemandes, sashays, ladies’ chains — will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried square dancing. Contra dancing is also easier than it appears because dancers repeat the same sequences of moves many times while progressing from partner to partner up and down the line.
Unlike square dancing, this means you don’t need to bring your own partner, and just about anyone can jump in right away without taking lessons. That’s exactly what I did. Within a few minutes of my arrival, a gentleman asked me to dance. I told him I was a novice and had no idea what I was doing, but he assured me I shouldn’t worry.
Sure enough, the caller walked us through the steps of each dance before the music began. During this mini-lesson, we swung with our partners, keeping one foot steady on the hardwood floor and moving the other around in a circle. When the band Swamp Mamas began playing, we sped it up, stomping, clapping and swinging to old-time music, weaving an intricate pattern across the room.
Contra dancing involves quite a bit of twirling your partner and circling in groups of four, holding one another’s hands, wrists or arms. I got dizzy almost immediately, which made it tough to remember where I was in the dance. “Look in my eyes,” my partner told me when I started feeling woozy. That didn’t really help, but I was having such a blast it didn’t matter.
Even though I got lost a few times, the contra dance community is extremely forgiving. The unwritten rule is that you switch partners every dance, so you meet a lot of great people, and veterans can help the newcomers along. By the third or fourth dance, I stopped worrying about the moves and just got into the spirit of it.
“When you get going, it’s almost like flying,” says Jim Spero, a caller and dance composer who co-edited the book “Southern California Twirls.” “It’s just so fun and energetic. People get a very good vibe out of it.”
The songs often tell a story or have tongue-in-cheek names such as the “male chauvinist’s jig,” which, incidentally, calls for women to take the lead at one point in the dance. I couldn’t stop smiling during one Virginia reel-like dance in which we sashayed across the floor and ducked under the arms of another couple.
Most people dance the whole night through, from 8:30 to 11:30, without sitting out a single song. Half-hour lessons are offered before the dances, which are held on alternating weekend evenings in Brentwood, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Sierra Madre, La Verne and Santa Barbara. The entire night of live music, dancing and a break of lemonade and cookies, sponsored by the California Dance Cooperative, costs $8. If you’re willing to let go and get into the good, clean fun of it, the experience is infectious.
A sign at the entrance to the dance says it all: “Warning: Contra Dance Is Addicting.” Once people start, they often move on to attend 12-hour, all-night “dawn dances” or weeklong dance camps. Contra dancing took off in California in the 1970s, and some of the hippie peace activists from that period are still at it today. My friend Janine, who introduced me to contra dancing, started as a child and has been dancing for 30 years.
Because contra dancing requires a steady focus on the present to keep up, it becomes all-absorbing, and people lose themselves. In fact, I didn’t realize how great a workout I was getting until I slowed down for the break and had to mop the sweat from my forehead.
Dancing burns about 200 calories an hour, and most people wear washable, loose-fitting clothing or bring an extra shirt to change into. “It’s a great way to get yourself in shape,” Spero says. “On New Year’s, you dance for six hours straight. That will take off the pounds.”
Barbara Stewart, 56, of Tujunga, lost 14 pounds when she started contra dancing a decade ago. “I had never done any exercise before,” she says. Suddenly “I was dancing once or twice a weekend because it’s so much fun.”
Spero actually trained for the L.A. marathon by attending a 12-hour dawn dance two weeks before the race. “It really helped build my stamina,” he says. “The most I ran before the marathon was nine miles, and I was able to run 26.”
You certainly don’t need to be a competitive athlete to dance, though. The walking pace of the steps makes it welcoming to people of all fitness levels. “I’ve obviously got osteoporosis,” says Ruth Bates, 83, of Alhambra, who wore a dress of green, white and red ruffles to the dance. “I’m supposed to be active, and I figure why not do it with something I enjoy?”
People tend to have such a great time that they go out together afterward or make movie dates with their dance friends. Stewart found the community to be as healthy for her psyche as the exercise was for her physique. Before she started contra dancing, “I rarely laughed,” she said. “Then I’d come here and be in hysterics.”
Romances are not uncommon either because the dance is “exceedingly flirtatious,” Spero said. One move, the “gypsy,” calls for dancers to gaze into the eyes of their partners, circling around each other without ever touching. Much like the dance, the romance scene appears to be one of wholesome, old-fashioned courtship, though, so the environment feels safe for those who just want to move.
“It’s a community that supports the general art of flirtation,” says Marcia Neiswander, 54, of Alhambra, who met her husband contra dancing. “They’re open to the idea that a dance is just a dance, flirtation is flirtation. If you’re single or married, it doesn’t matter. There’s an openness about this community.”
One piece of advice: Wear flat shoes. Most people go with Birkenstocks, sneakers or jazz shoes. I made the mistake of dancing in high heels, and my toes and ankles ached afterward.
But not even sore feet could sour the good times I had contra dancing. So grab a partner, jump right in and do-si-do till you drop.