New article about contra dancing in the Smokey Mountain News:
Contra spirits: English cousin to square dancing attracts hard-core fans
By Zach Laminack
Shake your booty
Cathy and Ron Arps host contra dancing the second Friday of every month (except July and August) in the Old Webster School on N.C. 116 in Webster. No experience is necessary and all ages are welcome. A $5 donation is suggested. For more information, call the Arps at 828.586.5478, or call Kathy Calabrese at 828.497.4709.
Contra dancing is held at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown most Tuesdays from 7 to 8 p.m. The school also offers a Learn to Contra Dance Weekend April 8-10, 2005. Call 1.800.FOLKSCH or visit www.folkschool.org for more details.
Just before Christmas, Cathy Arps was adding ingredients to several mixing bowls, whipping up a batch of goodies, but she couldn’t concentrate on the recipe — she had contra dancing on her mind.
“It’s to the point now that when we go on vacation we look up the local dance schedule,” she said with a laugh. “In fact, we’ve even led contra dance tours in New Zealand. We’ll do anything to contra.”
Arps and her husband, Ron, are organizers of a monthly contra dance held at the Old Webster School in Jackson County. A hodge-podge collection of contra die-hards, the Old Webster Dance group boasts live music and basic instruction for those new to the dance.
“The dance community in Webster is not large, but it is very loyal. There are always some veteran contra dancers there, but usually new people too. It’s not a big dance, it would be great if it was bigger, but it’s well established nonetheless,” Cathy said.
The dance itself bears similarities to square dancing — a comparison the Arps will often contest, as it often shares billing with more traditional English dances.
“It’s basically a group of people organized into two lines, men on one side, women on the other,” Ron said. “The person across from you is your partner. The first two couples form a group of four. This is called taking hands four. Then the second two couples below them form up, and so on. These groups of four then dance figures together.”
The four people in the group are called partners and neighbors, and a caller organizes the figures, a contra dancer’s word for the called moves. Before the dance begins, the caller tells the band to start playing, then gives the instructions for the dance in time with the music. For example, the caller might say “circle left,” then on the sixth beat of an eight-beat phrase, the caller might say “swing your partner,” allowing those extra two beats as time to anticipate the move.
“The dance that the groups of four do together usually has about eight figures or so because it matches 32 bars of music,” Ron said. “And the neat thing about it is that the dance is written so that the last thing the groups of four do is move up or down the hall. The couple facing down the hall moves down and the couple facing up the hall moves up. The first couple then would meet the number four couple in the original configuration, and then they would dance the next repetition and so on until everybody has danced with everybody else.”
This sharing of dance partners, is one of the two special ingredients that make the contra dance different from its square cousin. The other is the music.
“Contra dancing almost always has to have a live band. They could play any kind of music, really,” Ron said.
However, Cathy prefers to stick to the basics, drawing from fiddle tunes, old-time Appalachian music influenced by traditional Scotch and Irish jigs and reels. This adherence to tradition doesn’t necessarily hold true with all contra bands.
“Nowadays bands are becoming more eclectic in their selection,” said Bob Dalsemer, contra dance aficionado and director of the music and dance programs at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. “You might hear Latin American rhythms, themes from TV shows, occasionally even classical music. It really runs the gamut. It can get pretty wild.”
The Folk School is another source where contra junkies can get their fix, holding a free introduction to contra most Tuesday nights and some week-long dance instruction classes.
But be warned, long-time dancers like the Arps — who have been hitting the contra dance floor for nearly 20 years — caution that an introduction to contra may prove all consuming.
“For some people it’s sort of like a religion,” Ron said. “There’s something about it that’s very connective. I teach the beginners that there’s a connection, physical of course, but after a while I think there’s a spiritual connection between people, a real oneness to it; even though everybody is doing variations of the moves all the time, there’s still a sort of gestalt that holds everybody together. You have to experience it to really feel what it is.”