Contra dancing across the generational divide
Wayne Crouch dances with Ann Fisher.
PRIME photo by George Skovera
Amherst area gathering reflects a regional communityJanuary 2012
By Mike Briotta
On a cold evening, while most people are congregating at local malls for last-minute Christmas shopping, dozens of folks instead make their way up the steps of the Masonic Lodge in downtown Amherst. This is a different type of gathering. It's a contra dance, and in Amherst it's a midweek opportunity to step out for an evening of face-to-face communal joy.
Contra dancing stands in contrast to the digital age. In many ways, it's the opposite of Facebook "friending" on your iPhone. In an era when social networking is something conducted through a computer screen, spending time with real people rather than their avatars is fast becoming a radical concept. However, few people outside of Hampshire or Franklin County fully understand its allure.
"This is a revived series," says organizer Will Loving of the Wednesday night dance events. "There seemed to be a space for a weeknight dance. I wanted to make it accessible to people who don't have transportation, so it's on the bus line. Our crowd is very intergenerational. We have dancers from ages 16 to over 80, and every generation in-between." The midweek dance in downtown Amherst has been in existence for about one year.
Loving continues, "The music ranges from traditional contra to 'techno contra' with black lights and lasers; Lady Gaga to whatever. Traditionally, the music is very much a fiddle-based framework." Playing on this night, the band Arigana Highway is composed of fiddle, upright bass (alternated with banjo), acoustic guitar and hand percussion.
Similarities exist between contra dancing and square dancing, but the two have evolved with different styles. It's best to check all your preconceived notions of square dancing at the door, if you want to get a true sense of the contra dancing experience.
The meeting room in downtown Amherst is plain, sporting a simple stage for the band. You'd never know at the beginning of the night that this room will soon fill with its own vibrance, it's own breath: an ebb and flow of people who seem to genuinely care for one another. The scene is at once familial, communal, warm and inviting.
The music is essentially a form of folk music, but the range of influences within that genre can vary widely, including traditional Irish motifs, Zydeco themes and Latin rhythms. Contra dance is the union of English country dance with French-Canadian influences, blended with other influences. A slower waltz is danced before the mid-point break of Amherst event, and returns again at the end of the night.
Don Herold, 83, is a grandfather from Northampton. He was a post-World War II occupier of Japan with the 8th Army under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur. When he returned to the states, he started taking classes at the City College of New York in 1948. It was there that he discovered this style of dance, although at the time he danced a version of it called the Virginia Reel.
"I had gotten back from Japan and was taking classes, when I joined an undergraduate folk dance club," Herold recalls. "Every week we would try out a different type of folk dancing. We did the Virginia Reel, the original American folk dance." That style of dance, a close relative of contra dance, soon took hold of Herold, and he's enjoyed it ever since.
Herold said the FBI would soon profile him for his involvement in peaceful protests. "I signed a peace petition," he says. "These were the Hoover years, around 1948 or '49. We were considered Commie Pinkos." He jokes, looking down at his arm, "I'm not pink, but I'm still a leftist."
Scanning the room, he quips, "I'm probably the oldest one here. They keep dying off." His t-shirt reads, "Carpe Diem, again." On his chest is a note that says, "Gently Please" and underneath is the explanation: "Bad Heart." Herold is recovering from recent heart surgery and discovered the Amherst dance about one month ago. Asked if contra dancing is part of his doctor-prescribed therapy regimen, he replies, "No. But if I lie down, they will bury me."
Herold typically dances half the night, for about an hour-and-a-half of the three-hour event. He starts to tap his feet as the band warms up. "We've got the groove," he casually observes, before gently taking the hand of a nearby partner.
As the crowd spills in throughout the night, the wooden floor seems to sway, pulsing with its own rhythm. The floor becomes its own percussive instrument, played at once by every dancer, together. Through stomping, clapping and shouting, dancers help to make the music. Some are in their socks, others barefoot, while most wear soft-soled shoes.
The room reverberates with footfalls. An ecstatic look lights each dancer's face. Occasional handclaps and short vocalizations, whoops and hollers from the dancers, punctuate the air. The shirt of one dancer expresses the mantra: "Eat. Sleep. Dance."
Ellen Hopman, 59, of Belchertown, has been contra dancing since 1980. She got her start with this style of dance in Pennsylvania, and has since enjoyed similar dance nights all over the country including dances in Maryland and California.
"It's a subculture that you don't hear much about," she says. Hopman adds of the local community, "If people get sick, or their house burns down, we help raise money for them. This is a great way to get out of the whole alienation of society. You also really exercisesomeone tracked it on a pedometer and it showed six miles for the whole night, from beginning to end."
According to Loving, the name stems from both "country" dancing many years ago as well as the facing of couplesthe root of "contra" means "against." Hopman said that each line of dancers is a "reel" and the circles of four people within those lines hearken back to a French Quadrille. "This style of dance has been done in New England for about 400 years," Hopman explains, "Since before we were a nation."
"A hundred years ago, agricultural communities would have 'down time' when they would all gather together and dance," Loving says. "Now, it's shifted from a community dance to a dance community. The dance environment is the starting point for this community. People meet each other through contra dance." He adds, "There are people here tonight who have never done contra dance before, but give them three to four times and they will relax and be fine."
Dancers who are new to this style, though familiar with square dancing, may find some recognizable words among the callers' directions, such as the dosi-do, passing on the right or left, and swinging your partner. In contra dance, the moves "Allemande left" and "Allemande right" instruct couples to hold hands and turn around each other.
"Sometimes men dance with men, women dance with women," says Loving. "They don't want to stand around. It's no different than what they did 150 years ago." He continues, "Sometimes men will wear skirts, or kilts, or shorts because they are cooler than pants. There's no dress code, and contra dance is a safe place." The occasional wearing of skirts by male dancers, as well as personal flourishes allowed in the dance moves are local aspects of contra dancing in the Pioneer Valley that are not always found elsewhere in the national trend. There's an openness here embodied in the statement "All are welcome" printed on the group's flyers.
Says Loving, "You will find an amazing variety of contra dancers. There are carpenters and farmers here tonight. There's also a forensic psychologist and a particle physicist here tonight." He added of the constant flux of the dance floor, "You can pretty much say you have danced with everyone in the hall at the end of the night, even if only for eight seconds."
Ralph Sturgen, 64, dances with his wife Liz, age 54. He wears a red bandana, and explains during a break in the action that this is a wellspring of shared enjoyment for the Easthampton couple. When they first began dancing in Amherst, Ralph says that Liz was unsure he would want to stick with the dance throughout the night. "She thought she would drag me away in ten minutes," he remembers. "She ended up dragging me away in two hours. That was almost eight years ago."
On the subject of the physical workout provided by contra dancing, Sturgen comments, "I had to find something that was enough fun, I forgot it was exercise. This provides great aerobic activity, two to three times a week."
The dance moves, according to Loving, are simple once you get the hang of them. "If you can walk and count to eight, you can contra dance. And counting to eight is optional," he laughs.
Loving points out a man in his 70's, Al Perry, who helps younger dancers get their groove on. "He's what we call a 'dance angel.' He intentionally seeks out people who look confused and new, to introduce them to contra dance." Looking around the room, there's a former minister next to a theater manager. Nils Fredland dances barefoot; he's a professional contra dance caller in his 30's.
Says Loving, "This is a chance to interact with people of every age. It's just amazing. I've danced with seven-year-olds and 70-year-olds in the same evening. Contra always has been and continues to be very intergenerational, sometimes explicitly so as in 'BIDA,' the Boston Intergenerational Dance Association. In fact, I think contra is the most intergenerational activity I know of."
This evening, dance caller Hannah Otten age 17, directs the movements on the floor. Otten is among the youngest callers, having made learning to direct contra dances her senior year project for high school. Tonight's band also features percussionist Matt Kenney, a 13-year-old whose father plays bass and banjo for the group.
At least 20 distinct contra dances are listed in the Greenfield area, with many more taking place in Amherst and Northampton. Most in attendance at the downtown Amherst dance fondly refer to Greenfield as a regional and even national hub for contra dance enthusiasts.
Loving says about the area's unique claim to fame, "You will not find a higher concentration of experienced dancers and dances anywhere but in Massachusetts."
Loving adds of the weekly get-together in Amherst, "There are of course many reasons why people contra dance. including live music, joyful physical activity, safe and substance-free environment, exercise, as well as unthreatening physical touch." In other words, he says, "You will experience more safe physical contact in three hours here than you're likely to get the rest of the week."
The whirling, spinning dancers follow a continuous loop of patterns. As the caller signals just one more time around for the band, they kick into a crescendo. On the floor is a harmonious tangle of limbs, loosely structured. Done right, contra dancing is euphoric. Loving calls the reflection on the faces of dancers a "look of reliable joy."
Toward the end of the night, we retrace our steps back into the foyer of the old Masonic building in Amherst. Antique photos line the lobby. These sepia-toned images are the faces of the town's long-deceased fathers. They remind us that, once we exit, there will be just pictures left behind: No more stomping, no more whooping out loud. So make the most of your moments on the dance floor while you can. PRIME
For more information about the Amherst dance, their Web site is www.amherstcontra.org
. For information about contra dancing in the region, please see www.contradancelinks.com