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Contra Dancing: What, Where and Why You Should Do It

December 7, 2008

Aries Indenbaum ’09

As mentioned here, I'll do anything for a contra dance. But what is a contra dance?

Two sets of dancing feet on the floor of a gym

Well, depending on who you ask, it's a line, social, square dance, or barn dance, built out of English folk dance traditions. A caller reads out instructions for the dance, walks everyone through it once, and calls out moves throughout the dance. Everyone partners up, but also dances with every other couple on the line. I think it's all a metaphor for infidelity within small towns: you'll stay with your partner, but you'd really like to take on your neighbor.

A gym full of partners contra dancing.

The contra theme was "Formal," so I wore my little black dress and went out to dance with fine-frocked ladies and buttoned-up gents. I've been getting into leading, as well as following, which is helping me with my overall frame. The contra scene here is very cool with non-standard gender pairings: women leading women, men as follows... it's all good. It also leads to better dancing all around, when you understand why your partner makes the movements that he/she does.

Contra couples embracing hands

It's a very easy dance to learn. The essential move is the "swing," where each partner faces the other, rests their arms on the other's back and spins around. It's awkward for the first few times -- you feel as if you're skipping while attached to another person -- but with practice, it comes easily enough. The other moves are deliciously simple: the allemande, the do-si-do, circles, stars... all of which the caller's say in time with the music, so the entire room of dancers moves in unison with their separate partners.

And of course, there's live music. The contra band has a rebellious streak, changing its name for each gig. Tonight, they were "Stretchy Rhino." Or "Chewy Rhino." Or "Tasty Rhino." Besides a fiddler, there's sometimes dulcimer, banjo and percussion.

A contra dance couple mid-spin

A gym full of couples contra dancing

It's also a great way to make friends. Rather than club dancing, contra has space to speak with your partner, rather than just whirling around. I've gotten to meet some amazing people: not only other Obies, but folks from around Ohio. As I've been doing it since I was a wee first-year, I've gotten to see people change. One girl who started going when she was 12 has now hit puberty and talks to me about middle school -- another partner has just fathered a child. It's a different slice of life.

One of my favorite partners is Glen, who I've been dancing with for about 3 years. Besides being a supremely kind and generous landlord to college students, Glen works as an electrical engineer. His workdays start at 5:00 AM and end at 6:00 PM. Strangely, he's a relaxed, easy-going guy. Over the summer, we got coffee and chatted about progressive radical baptists, permaculture, music and peace movements. As much as I love college students, it's nice to be able to connect with someone who's in their 50's.

The dances typically end with a waltz, but this one had a special ending show, from the rapper sword Exco, dancing with huge bendable swords in gorgeous patterns!

A dance group wearing all black mid dance, each holding swords

*Images courtesy of Dale Preston, Ma'ayan Plaut and the Oberlin College Contra Dance Club!

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