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Contra dancing: not just for squares

No experience, no partner, no problem.


SUNDELL AND FRIEND: Contra dancing comes to Arkansas.
  • SUNDELL AND FRIEND: Contra dancing comes to Arkansas.

When I first heard the term contra dancing I thought it was something illicit — a guerrilla movement whose members meet for a tango in dank basements and back alleys, or maybe something akin to the anti-dance brigade in “Footloose.” But no, as contra-dance enthusiast Jack Sundell, 30, told me, “It's a traditional Appalachian style of dancing — which is totally different from line dancing,” another common misconception. “This also involves old-time music and a live band,” adds Sundell.

And, I might add, down-home, wholesome fun, as I learned firsthand last Friday night at Park Hill Presbyterian Church's rec hall, where the Arkansas Country Dance Society (ACDS) meets regularly.

When I picked up my friend, who's always game for an adventure, she voiced one concern about contra dancing. She'd read somewhere that it was important to maintain eye contact with your partner at all times. She's not the shy type, but this made her nervous. I decided not to mention the handholding.

We entered the brightly lit dance hall and scanned the room, spotting a gypsy, a sailor, a cat, and a Dalmatian. Did I mention it was Halloween night? The openness of the room, with its high cathedral ceiling and glossy hardwood floor, recalled the dance halls of yore (or at least how I imagined them to be). About 35 people, for the most part 50 and older, gathered, some milling around a buffet table littered with the detritus of Halloween night — candy, orange cookies, Cheetos.

Jason, an adorable, emo-looking 14-year-old, came all the way from Russellville with his mom and sister. Sporting stovepipe jeans, decorated Converse high-tops and dyed black hair, he said that he's been trying without success to encourage his friends to come. A bearded, grandfatherly figure in Birkenstocks and a skeleton shirt and a pretty dark-eyed woman wearing an Indian tunic and running shoes chatted while waiting for things to get started. I complimented a latecomer on her paramedic's costume, only to learn that she'd actually just headed straight over from work.

As an upright bassist, a fiddle player and two guitarists warmed up on a low-lying stage at the end of the hall, a bespectacled kindly, vampire asked my friend to dance, and I partnered with a clown. We formed two lines along the hall, men on one side, women on the other, while a caller deliberately directed us through the first round. It involved pairing off into fours and making a star formation (not to be confused with the “Star Gaze” dance of the 1980s). As the 6-foot-5 guy in the rainbow clown Afro lifted me almost off the floor in a full swing, I briefly felt girlish and light before being tossed again into the mix.

A bit of history before we move on down the line. Contra dancing is an American folk dance; its popularity peaked in the colonies in the 1800s. Each dance consists of a sequence that ends with couples moving one position up or down two parallel lines (together called a set). As a sequence repeats, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the set (hence all the handholding). Many of the basic moves are similar to those in square dancing — swings, promenades, do-si-dos, allemandes. But a square dance set includes only four couples, while a contra dance set is limited only by the length of the hall.

As with tapas, swing dancing, Cosmopolitans and cupcakes, trends sometimes take longer to take reach the Natural State than other places.  Bushy-bearded and with round, wire-framed eyeglasses and, for Halloween, an eye patch, hoop earring, headscarf, argyle socks and skirt, Sundell tells me that in North Carolina, especially around the Asheville area, contra dancing is popular among both the old and young; there, it is experiencing the kind of generational crossover and renaissance that knitting has in recent years.

“We're really trying to encourage younger people to come out. I'd like to see younger people and couples involved in it. In North Carolina there will be 100 people there, 60 percent of them young. It's a fun event that only costs $4 or $5 and doesn't involve alcohol.”

Typically, there are more women than men, hence the “gender changers,” buckets of ribbons and ties. A diminutive woman in a pumpkin T-shirt with a tie draped loosely over her neck surprised me with her strength and resolve when she grabbed me in her firm embrace during a spin. I realized later that this was Carolyn Shearman, president of the ACDS. She first got involved in contra dancing in Chicago, but what she loves about the scene here is the wealth of talented musicians and that “the tradition seems so vital and active.”


“I think I liked dancing with the Dalmatian best,” says my companion on the ride home. “Because he was soft and furry?” I ask. “Well that, and he didn't really seem to know what was going on either.” And therein lies the beauty of the contra — it's one of the few times in life you don't have to know what's going on, you just have to listen and follow, and most importantly, surrender yourself to the flow.


The ACDS holds Friday Night Dances on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Fridays at 7:30 p.m. The 15th annual November Dance Weekend will be held Nov. 7-9 at the Petit Jean Rec Hall on Petit Jean Mountain. A schedule for the weekend and more information about the ACDS and contra dancing is available at www.arkansascountrydance.org.


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