Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
Contra dancing offers fun, exercise… and cultural continuity.
If you do not come too close,
if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing
around the bonfire…
Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn.
—T. S. Eliot, East Coker
is as old as humankind. It probably predates its partner: music. Scholars tend to classify dancing—performing a deliberately organized set of movements—into two broad categories: those that are intended solely for personal expression (performance dancing), and those designed to promote interaction with other people (participation dancing).
Oh, sometimes the two overlap, as anybody knows who has ever watched Dancing With The Stars. (They call that “ballroom dancing,” but come on: How many times have you ever seen anything resembling those sequin-bedecked calisthenics at the club dinner dance or the annual soiree of the Loyal Order of Owlhoots?) But mostly, there’s no mistaking whether a dance is designed to be watched or indulged in by the rank and file.
Most of us automatically think of participatory dancing as done by couples, which can vary from cheek-to-cheek romanticism to rescue-me desperation, depending on the partner and the circumstances. And of course, there have been couples dances designed to amuse either the couples themselves or those watching them. (Within the past century alone, the nation has survived such terpsichorean excesses as the Turkey Trot, the Jitterbug, the Watusi, the Frug, and the Monster Mash; not to mention, more recently, the Hammer Dance, the Stanky Leg, the Crab Walk, and the Running Man.)
But whereas couples dancing is a relatively modern phenomenon, there’s another dance form that’s much older: the group dance. And that’s the kind that concerns us here: the kind that Eliot sees the ghostly farmpersons doing. The kind that brings us together, makes us interact with each other, and promotes spontaneous good cheer. The kind you might see at the LEAF Festival in spring and fall. The kind that gives us at least a fighting chance of avoiding stepped-on toes and random halitosis. Mind you, in its many centuries of bringing people together, dancing has spawned a few glitches. Writers’ Almanac tells us that “in 1374 in Aachen, Germany… an outbreak of dancing plague or dancing mania, also known as St. Vitus’ Dance, first began. From Aachen it spread across central Europe and as far away as England and Madagascar. Dancing mania affected groups of people—as many as thousands at a time—and caused them to dance uncontrollably for days, weeks, and even months until they collapsed from exhaustion. Some danced themselves to death, suffering heart attacks or broken hips and ribs. At the time, people believed the plague was the result of a curse from St. Vitus. Scientists now tend to believe it was due to ergot poisoning or mass hysteria.”
In spite of such incidents—or maybe because of them—“set” dances only increased in popularity.
If the Folk School and the spinoff organizations it spawned had not been in place, Southern dance culture might have been kidnapped entirely by boot-scootin’ line dancing.
There are, of course, many kinds of group dances. Nowadays, when people think of communal dancing, especially in Appalachia, they default-think square dancing, a form in which self-contained sets of (usually) four couples, arranged to form a square, execute a series of steps among themselves, without interacting with other “squares.” Or they think clogging, which is square dancing on steroids, with Irish and Cherokee overtones. But in fact, one of the oldest and purest types of communal dance, and one that has experienced a rebirth in these parts, is the venerable contra dance.
For those not familiar with it, the term “contra dancing” is confusing. It is not a mispronunciation of, or interchangeable with, “country dancing.” Ergo, it doesn’t by extension have anything to do with Scottish country dancing, a favorite hobby here in a part of the United States that’s liberally laced with Scots descendants. (To bewilder you further, “country” in “Scottish country dancing” is misleading. There’s nothing rural about Scottish country dancing; on the contrary, it’s the formal ballroom dancing of Scotland ,and it traces its lineage directly to the courtly dances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.) No, “contra” is Latin for “opposite,” and the main feature of contra dancing is that it is danced by two long lines of couples facing (contra) each other. The figures involve progressively changing partners so that, by the end of the dance, everybody has danced with everybody else.
“The whole idea is togetherness,” says Annie Fain Barralon. “Community togetherness, where people who already know each other can socialize, and where strangers can become friends and get assimilated into the community.”
Barralon knows whereof she speaks. She is Music and Dance Coordinator at one of the country’s most unusual institutions: the John C. Campbell Folk School. As such, she is responsible for what is perhaps the most visible department of a remarkable institution whose curriculum embraces all aspects of folk heritage and culture, from basketry to blacksmithing to oral history.
Hands Across the Water
The Folk School, with its noncompetitive curriculum and its family-like association of students and teachers, was the brainchild of a pair of adventuresome outlanders. In 1908, a Wisconsin-born, New England-educated social reformer named John Campbell and his wife, Olive Dame Campbell, packed up a horse-drawn wagon and set off for deepest, darkest Appalachia, which in those days was rumored to be living in the dark ages and in sore need of reforming. As they traveled and interacted with locals from Georgia to West Virginia, an idea occurred to the couple: What they had originally envisioned as a missionary undertaking could and should be a two-way street. The natives could benefit from being exposed to education, technology, and agricultural advancement; the outside world could be enriched not only by the artisanship they saw being practiced in the mountains, but by exposure to the folk culture that permeated the whole Appalachian way of life.
Olive Campbell’s passion was music, and she found to her delight that the Southern mountains were a treasure trove of ballads, songs, and instrumental tunes that these mountaineers’ ancestors had brought with them from England, Scotland, and Ireland generations before, and which they incorporated matter-of-factly into the rhythm of their daily lives. That rhythm, of course, included dancing, the mountain social vehicle of choice. And lo and behold, the dancing, likewise, involved figures based on those learned across the water centuries before.
So while her husband counseled farmers, Olive Campbell listened to their families’ songs and watched them dance. And eventually she took the decisive step of reaching out to the man who, at the time, was considered the leading folklorist of the English-speaking world, Cecil J. Sharp. The London-born, Cambridge-educated Sharp, who is often referred to as the rescuer of British folk music, was in America during the early years of World War I, prospecting for nuggets of music to prove his theory that British folk tradition had made a successful transatlantic leap to the New World. By 1915 he had just about given up, which is understandable since his research had not taken him much deeper into the forest of American folklore than Chicago. Thanks to Campbell’s input, Sharp, together with his collaborator, Maude Karpeles, was able to record hundreds of Appalachian ballads, folk songs, and dance tunes.
Following John Campbell’s death, Olive and her co-folklorist, Marguerite Butler, set off for Scandinavia, where “folk schools”—noncompetitive centers of learning that focused on ethnic arts, crafts, and lore—had flourished for many generations. It occurred to them that the model of the rural Danish folkehøjskole (pronounced “Fahl-keh-hoy-skew-leh”), in particular, might lend itself to adaptation back home. Thus, John C. Campbell Folk School was opened in 1925, and the study and performing of Southern mountain communal dancing has been an integral part of the school’s curriculum ever since.
Which is important, because in the South, contra dancing, which had been as popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries as it had ever been in the North, began to decline in popularity. The Civil War put a serious dent in Southern communal dancing because it left the South with very little to dance about, as well as a serious dearth of dancing partners. Even so, an image comes to mind: Remember the dance scene in Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett, in her widow’s weeds, is staring longingly at the dancers and surreptitiously tapping her foot? And Rhett notices and propels her onto the dance floor? And the lines form up, and Rhett and the not-very-bereaved Scarlett grin at each other, while Atlanta society gets the vapors? And the caller announces the Virginia reel? Well, a Virginia reel, authorities say, is technically, a contra dance, although Southern dance purists might call that a stretch.
Anyway, over decades, Southern folk dancing inclined more towards square dancing and clogging; just as, prompted by the outfits of “country” entertainers and bands, the participants themselves curiously came to bedeck themselves in crossover quasi-Western outfits of ten-gallon hats, jeans, and cowboy boots. If the Folk School and the spinoff organizations it spawned had not been in place, Southern dance culture might have been kidnapped entirely by boot-scootin’ line dancing—which has nothing in common with the “lines” of contra dancing except the word.
Contra dancing has gained toeholds throughout the United States, the ground in North Carolina proving particularly fertile for raising the contra crop.
About the same time that the Folk School was developing its music and dance program, an interesting parallel was shaping up in, of all places, Michigan. One of its patrons was that prototypical industrialist, Henry Ford, who, it seems, was something of a folk dance and music groupie; he contributed extensively to organizations devoted to both (partly, it’s said, as a passive-aggressive response to the increasing popularity of jazz, which he detested). As a folk dance aficionado, Ford had made numerous friends within that community. One was Massachusetts dance coordinator Benjamin Lovett, and Ford persuaded him to come to Michigan and start a dance conservancy there. The story goes that Lovett at first had to decline Ford’s invitation, because he was under contract to teach folk dancing at a local inn; no problem, said Ford, who promptly bought the inn. Together, Ford and Lovett actually began a dance program, including contra lessons, in Ford’s hometown of Dearborn. And Ford, all by himself, published a book titled Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-Five Years, Old-Fashioned Dancing Is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford in 1926. (Ford did not indicate how “Old-Fashioned Dancing” had managed to nod off to sleep in 1901.)
Anyway, New England and the upper Midwest were mainly responsible for the survival of contra dancing in America throughout the mid-twentieth century. There, various weekend events such as dance camps and weekend dance programs provided outlets for traditionalists who couldn’t keep their feet still, and dance events were coat-tailed onto the increasing number of folk festivals that began to ride the tide of the so-called folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. There was a notable exception to this Northern monopoly on contra dancing: Richard Chase, the Alabama-born folklorist who catalogued and published The Jack Tales and The Grandfather Tales, did much of his work, which included collecting dances, in the Beech Mountain area of North Carolina. Chase, however, split for the West Coast—he is credited with introducing contra dancing to California—and did not return to Beech Mountain until the late 1970s, when he tried to reignite the interest he had generated years before. He met with indifferent success, job-seeking and mass communication having taken their cultural toll in those hills, so he retired to Hendersonville.
Don’t Swat the Gnat in the Cage
A (very) partial glossary of contra dancing terms
If you decide to venture into the fun-but-arcane world of contra dancing, you may be a tad confused at first by some of the terminology used by callers in directing the dance. Nearly every contra dance gathering these days features a beginners’ instruction period before the main dance. But since even the best instructors can only cover so much ground in half an hour, we thought we’d help you get a head start by offering the following list of contra dancing terms and their definitions.
Balance (as in “Balance your partner”): This is a dance move in which you (1) step off with your right foot and swing your left leg to the right, then (2) step left, and swing the right foot to the left. If this proves too challenging you can just (1) step forward on your right foot and (2) step back on your left. (“Balance” is also what you need a degree of to complete either version.)
Box the gnat: In this step the man takes the woman’s right hand, and then the couple raises their joined hands to make an arch. The woman walks underneath the arch, while the man walks clockwise around her to exchange places. How this movement came to be called “box the gnat” is lost to history, as well as to everybody else.
Petronella balance: Four dancers, previously in line (or maybe out of the room completely) do a “balance” (see above), then spin once around over their right shoulders (clockwise) so as to end up one quarter to the right in the set of four, in the place previously occupied by the person who was on your right, but who, with luck, will also have moved on. The move is from a dance called “Petronella.”
So there you have it: several well-chosen contra dance terms that, when studied, should put you ahead of the game on the dance floor. Of course, to make sure you stay ahead of the game and avoid both physical injury and social disgrace, you can simply remain in the bar area with one leg propped on a chair and throw these terms around while grimacing occasionally and saying how much you’d love to be out there.
Twist & Shout
So it’s fair to say that contra dancing in this neck of the woods was largely saved, and restored to the people whose ancestors used to dance it, by Yankee incomers (plus Chase, of course) who, looking around for a contra venue, intersected with the arc of the Folk School, or struck out on their own to recruit their own startup groups if need be. Some Southern dance purists still tend to view contra dancing askance: “It’s kind of like an invasive species that’s popular but can choke out the native varieties,” Warren Wilson College’s Phil Jamison, a popular dance caller, said in a newspaper interview. Although contra dancing has gained toeholds throughout the United States, the ground in North Carolina proving particularly fertile for raising the contra crop. The August calendar at Contradancelinks.com lists a total of 42 contra events for August across North Carolina, from Brasstown to Wilmington and including Charlotte and Winston-Salem. Moreover, each month’s calendar is at least that full.
Boone, for example, is a college town nestled deep in the mountains, and it’s a stone’s throw from “Uncle Dick” Chase’s old stomping ground at Beech Mountain. On all those counts, you’d expect it to be a logical place to encounter contra dancing, and you’d be right. The Boone Country Dancers sponsor a contra dance at various locations once a month. (No, that’s not a typo: They are country dancers. It is a contra dance. Refer to what I said earlier about “country” and “contra” and do try to keep up.) Over in Charlotte, contra dancing happens regularly in a decommissioned school house in the city’s Chantilly neighborhood, as well as a sort of folk fusion version called “techno contra” at a Unitarian Universalist church. In Carrboro the thriving Triangle Country Dancers sponsor a year-round program of folk dancing, much of which is contra. The renowned Fiddle & Bow Society of Winston-Salem has its own contra society which dances weekly.
According to Annie Fain Barralon, the biggest, and perhaps oldest, folk dance organization in the Southeast is the Old Farmers’ Ball (or the OFB, as it’s commonly known), which operates out of Swannanoa right here in Western North Carolina. “It’s an umbrella, a resource,” she says. The OFB was first a place—well, two places, actually: a depression-era dance hall on Swannanoa Road, and a later reincarnation, called by the same name, whose roof collapsed during the Blizzard of 1993—but the term now refers to both a schedule of dances and to the organization that sponsors them. The OFB holds regular Thursday dances at Bryson Gymnasium on the campus of Warren Wilson College. Memberships in the OFB are available; you don’t have to be a member to attend a dance, but members get a discount on admission prices.
In Asheville proper, the leading contra venue is Grey Eagle Music Hall. Grey Eagle, named for the venerable fiddle tune that used to signal the opening of the Asheville Dance and Folk festival, traces its descent from the original Grey Eagle that opened in Black Mountain in the late 1970s. That club specialized in showcasing local folk music talent; its limited space would have precluded trying to perform dance figures. Not so at the present Clingman Avenue location, which boasts a food and drink area and a capacious performance/dance space. Grey Eagle hosts a weekly contra dance on Monday evenings. There’s a $7.00 admission tab and regular dancing begins at 8PM, but lately a beginners’ class—which newbies are urged to attend—starts at 7:30PM.
Clingman Avenue skirts the French Broad where Asheville becomes West Asheville, called by townies the “hipster vortex” for its trendy pubs and gentrified real estate. Parking for Grey Eagle can be problematic when the club’s smallish lot is full, as on a recent, rainy Monday. By 7PM or so, cars already line both sides of Clingman and a steady trickle of customers is flowing in to pony up admission for the beginners’ class. Hipster vortex or not, the demographic is widely mixed: university students in cutoffs and t-shirts, granola types in long, flowered skirts or jeans and flannel shirts, mom and pop tourists newly outfitted at Mast General Store, and even one or two older couples who look like they’re actually from around here and have probably been doing this kind of dancing since before it got rediscovered.
“People come out at the end of the dance with their jaws aching from smiling. They’ve been having a great time with people they’ve never met before in their lives.”
“The thing I love about contra dancing,” says Beth Molaro, the unofficial den mother of the Grey Eagle Monday Night dancers, “is that I don’t know of anywhere else you can go into a room full of people and spend the next three hours smiling at each other.
“Can you go to a ball game and do that?” she asks rhetorically. “People come out at the end of the dance with their jaws aching from smiling. They’ve been having a great time with people they’ve never met before in their lives. And that’s pretty cool.”
Seated at a table in the restaurant area (“My feet are too sore to dance tonight.”), Molaro relates her own folk dance and music odyssey.
“I’m from Long Island originally,” she says. “Married a West Virginia boy, and this music was his way of life. Living in West Virginia, I fell in love with both the music and the dance. I’ve been calling dances for 34 years, all over the United States and abroad. My daughter is 15 now; the year she was born, I called 130 dances with her, a newborn, strapped to my tummy in a carrier. She must have gotten sympathetic vibes; she’s a marvelous dancer.”
She looks around us as, in the other room, the Crooked Pine Band strikes up “Arkansas Traveler,” and caller Dave Winston begins working with the beginners: “Circle left… circle right… take four steps in… now four steps back…”
“Our group originally started dancing at a little club downtown called Be Here Now, about 20 years ago,” Molaro continues, “but we migrated over here 17 years ago, when Grey Eagle moved over from Black Mountain, and we’ve been here ever since. It’s an ideal place.”
From the stage, Winston is now instructing his charges in how to swing their partners. “Here’s all you have to do,” he says. “Pivot with your right foot. Just tap your heel; you don’t even have to move your foot, just pivot. Now come around with the other foot. See how easy? Now let’s try it for real.”
Crooked Pine moves into the lilting notes and marked tempo of “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” The dancers take their places, and answer the calls. When time comes to swing partners, you can see the concentration in their faces: “Pivot… just tap that heel… five, six, seven, eight… all right!”
Concentration becomes epiphany. It worked. They did it. They are now contra dancing. For real.
And grinning from ear to ear.
Contra dancing is abundant throughout North Carolina. An excellent month-by-month reference guide can be found at Contradancelinks.com. Here’s the skinny on the venues mentioned in this article:
John C. Campbell Folk School
One Folk School Road, Brasstown, NC 28902
Free introduction to Contra, Square, and Circle Dances to recorded or live music “almost” every Tuesday night from 7-8PM at Keith House on the Folk School campus. Beginners, couples, and singles, all welcome.
The school also holds contra dances twice a month from 8-11PM in the Keith House Community Room. Beginners, singles, and couples welcome.
Admission: Adults $7; Ages 12-18 $4;
Under 12 $3.
“Beginners should come promptly at 8PM, since we start with easier dances and more teaching,” the school advises.
> 800-365-5724 or 828-837-2775
The Old Farmers Ball (OFB)
Warren Wilson College, Bryson Gym
701 Warren Wilson Road, Swannanoa, NC 28778
Contra dancing every Thursday from 8-11PM,
with a lesson (“strongly recommended for beginners”) at 7:30PM.
Admission: OFB members $5; non-members $6; Warren Wilson students $1.
The Grey Eagle
185 Clingman Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
Contra Dancing every Monday night from 8-11PM, with a beginners’ lesson at 7:30PM.
2101 Shenandoah Ave, Charlotte, NC 28205
The Charlotte Country Dancers sponsor dances at Chantilly Hall every Monday of the year except Memorial Day. There is a beginners’ lesson at 7:30PM, followed by the dance itself from 8-10PM.
Admission: $7; students $5
Boone Country Dancers
The Boone Country Dancers sponsor a contra dance once a month, usually on the second Saturday. “Everyone is welcome regardless of dance experience. We have dancers ranging in age from 7 to 70. You don’t need to bring a partner to dance. We welcome new dancers and always have a new dancers’ workshop before every dance.”
Admission: $7; high school students $5; under 12 free.
Fiddle and Bow Society
4201 Thorn Ridge Rd., Winston-Salem, NC 27106
The Fiddle & Bow Country Dancers (part of the venerable Fiddle & Bow Society) sponsor contra dancing every Tuesday night in either Clemmons or Winston-Salem from 8PM until 10:30PM, and on the third Saturday of each month in Greensboro from 8-11PM, with a free beginners’ lesson at 7:30PM. “You don’t need to bring a partner with you to enjoy Contra dancing, but do please bring soft-soled shoes.”
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