Top Ten Reasons to Contra Dance

  1. It’s good aerobic exercise.
  2. The live music lifts your spirits.
  3. People look you directly in the eye and smile.
  4. You get to wear twirly skirts (yes, men too, if they choose).
  5. You don’t have to come with a partner.
  6. Newcomers are always welcome.
  7. The two parts of each dance align perfectly with the two parts of each tune.
  8. You get to spin around until you’re dizzy, like when you were a kid.
  9. You might meet your future spouse (I did).
  10. Even if you arrive feeling tired and run down at the end of a long week, you feel better after the first dance.

What do you think? What do you enjoy most about contra dancing?

Dancing in the Village of Elsah

Farley's Music Hall, Elsah, Illinois (photo courtesy of Historic Elsah Foundation)

Saturday night we went to the most charming dance I have attended in a long, long time. The dance was held at Farley’s Music Hall in the village of Elsah, Illinois, to celebrate the recent graduation of four members of the Young family, including our friend Valerie, who just earned her degree in math and women’s studies from the University of Missouri. By the time we arrived, it was just getting dark, and electric candles shone from the windows of several historic buildings in the little village. As we drove down the street, we could hear music coming from the hall.

We entered the hall through a small foyer. To the left of the foyer was a small woodstove, framed photos of the graduates on the wall, and a table holding large coolers of iced tea and lemonade. To the right was another table with cake, chocolate-covered strawberries, and wraps that we would eat later during the break. Through the wide doorway, we could see a gleaming wooden floor, with two lines of dancers of all ages on either side of the center support posts, a few spectators sitting on chairs around the hall, the caller Eric Schreiber standing at a microphone at the far end of the hall, and members of The Bony Goat Band (on fiddle, banjo, guitar) sitting in chairs at the far end of the small hall, playing without amplification. We recognized several dancers we know from St. Louis, who seemed pleased to see us. Valerie’s mother also seemed pleased and surprised that we had made the two-and a-half-hour drive.The hall felt so warm and friendly, just the way I imagined such a place would be when this country was new, and villagers would routinely gather at old-time dances in grange halls on Saturday nights.

I am always pleased to discover communities that are dedicated to preserving the character of a place the way that Elsah has, even in the face of great tragedies such as the 1993 flood, which put the village of Elsah to a test as they made the difficult decision to rebuild. The Farley Dance Hall was originally built in 1885 and served for many years as “a center of village activity, including visits from wandering Indian medicine shows, meetings of the literary clubs, church socials, school plays, and all sorts of dances.” In the early twentieth century, the Knights of Pythias purchased the building and added on a second floor.

After the flood of 1993, the Historic Elsah Foundation purchased the building, and with grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, stabilized the building and brought it back to life. In the process, they revealed the original interior paint, with charming stenciled designs in blue, maroon, and white, under the layers of newer yellow paint. They decided to leave the original milk-based paint on the upper walls and re-painted the wainscotting and trim to match. If you’re ever out for a drive through southern Illinois along the mighty Mississippi, I highly recommend a visit to the village of Elsah.

Not Your Grandma’s Square Dance

Lately we have really been enjoying dancing old-time squares with a bunch of wonderful young people at their monthly dances in Columbia.  So far, we have attended three of these dances in three different locations, depending on what space is available each time.  The next one is tentatively scheduled for April 30 (location TBA).

A young woman named Laura has been holding these dances about once a month. Early on she invited friends to come play music and dance at her house, but the dances quickly grew too large for the space.  The dance in January (the first one we attended) was held in an old warehouse downtown that used to be part of the Wabash railway station and that now holds numerous art galleries in the “catacombs” downstairs but also has a large open space perfect for dancing on the first floor. The February dance was held at an art gallery, and the March dance was held in a yoga studio. Depending on how many people show up and what the space is like, the dances each have a slightly different flavor, but they always feature live music, high energy dancing, snacks to share, and lots of smiling people.

We didn’t quite know what to expect the first time  but were delighted when we arrived to find a room filled with people in their twenties or early thirties playing music and dancing a big circle dance like they dance in Appalachia, with a series of two-couple figures (birdie in the cage, duck for the oyster, right-hand across, four-leaf clover). The young caller, Jesse, was  tall and thin and definitely looked the part of an old-time square dance caller, wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, a vest, cowboy hat, and boots. The women were adorable in their boots and long western-style flounced skirts and tights. All the dancers were quite lively, skipping around the room, making percussive sounds with their feet, and the wooden floor had a nice bounce to it.

We were also happy to see several people we knew and flattered to have been invited, as we were clearly the oldest people there. Jesse called several dances and then the band played a schottische and a waltz. After that, Jim and Laura and Jesse took turns calling dances, mostly squares and an occasional big circle dance. We never had fewer than two squares on the floor and sometimes as many as four. The band kept changing in size and configuration throughout the evening. At one time, there were two fiddles, a guitar, and a mandolin. Later, there were three guitars, one fiddle, an accordian, a mando-yuk, a banjo, a washboard, and a guy playing spoons.

In between squares, we danced various couple dances. Toward the end of the evening, Jesse taught everyone how to dance the Cotton Eye Joe. Then about 10:30, several of the band members began singing songs; one of the dancers laughed and said, “The dance must be over; the guitar players are singing.”

photograph of square dancers

Dare to be Square

I’m looking forward to the next square dance at the Hallsville community center on Saturday night. John White, one of my favorite old-time fiddlers, has held these dances the second Saturday of every month for years. The schedule always follows the same format:  old-time open jam at 4:00, carry-in dinner at 6:00, and dance at 7:00.  Everyone is welcome to this family event; there is no smoking and no alcohol. Some people come mostly to play music, including several children that John has been teaching to play fiddle. Others come mostly to dance. Some neither dance nor play music but enjoy socializing. You can expect to find people of all ages at the dance, from babies to great grandparents and everyone in between.

John’s wife, a retired school teacher, always decorates the hall with seasonal items. Last month Betty brought blue tablecloths for all the tables, some with snowflake designs. The table by the door had a two-foot lighted snowman and a painted basket for donations that said “let it snow.” There were two other stuffed snowmen in wool hats and scarves on the food table and bowls of peppermints on each of the tables lining one side of the hall, where people sat to eat their potluck dinner. This time for the carry-in dinner, several people brought soups (potato soup, chicken cacciatore, chicken noodle soup, chili) and salads. There was also a delicious cherry pie and an applie pie. Betty remarked that “you just never know what people will bring,” saying “that’s what make it so fun.” This month I am sure Betty will have the place decked out with pink and red and white Valentines.

We arrived after most people had sat down to eat and some were going through the line for second helpings. A couple of the musicians were still sitting close together in folding chairs at the end of the hall farthest from the kitchen, facing each other, playing tunes while everyone else ate. The hall was packed, even though some of the regulars weren’t there, including several of the home-school families who usually come. There were some newcomers and some people we hadn’t seen for a while, including our friend Musial, whose wife had died suddenly of an aneurism shortly after Christmas. He told me he had decided to come because he knew it would feel good to be with friends, even though he didn’t feel like playing his keyboard.

It seemed at first that there weren’t as many children as usual, and it took a little while after dinner to get the Virginia Reel started, but we still ended up with two lines. During dinner, one of the little girls came up to Jim and asked if they could clog, so before lining people up for the Virginia Reel, he got his clogging students up to practice the routine they learned last year. After the Virginia Reel, Jim asked people to find a partner and form a circle, and he taught them some Appalachian square dance figures (i.e., right hands across, birdie in the cage, duck for the oyster), which was great fun. Then we formed a couple of squares, with Jim calling one and Laura calling the other. At one point in the evening we had three squares going at the same time (two in the main hall and one back by the kitchen); Willie called the third one.

Lately quite a few people in their twenties and thirties have gotten interested in old-time music and square dancing, and they have been telling their friends about it. Last month nearly thirty young people showed up, some of whom had never square danced before. They remind me of the dancers we met in Portland at Dare to Be Square. It’s very interesting to see all these kids showing up with their tattoos and piercings at Hallsville for old-time square dancing—yet another place in our lives where the far left meets the far right and finds they enjoy each other’s company. (Of course, we don’t ever talk about politics or religion at these dances, but it seems to me that if we could all find more such chances to share some common interests, the country would be a whole lot better off.)

By 9:30 there were still lots of people dancing, so Jim did another big Appalachian square and taught some new figures (i.e., basket swing, lady round the gent, four-leaf clover). The young people loved the basket swing, and when four of them met up together, they would really start the basket whirling. After the Appalachian square, Jim joined the circle and led everyone in a spiral as we “wound the ball.” Howard Marshall was lead fiddler most of the evening, and Richard Shewmaker (a young fiddler who has lately been winning quite a few contests) also played a long while. John didn’t play as much as usual, but he called at least one square. At one point, all the “regular” callers (Dave, Jim, and Laura) ended up in the same square together and some of the new dancers formed a second square and were standing around wondering what to do next. John noticed they needed a caller, so he got up and led them through “Right Hand High.”

After the dance ended and we had put away the tables and chairs and most people had left, Jim and John swept and mopped the hall, while Betty carried her decorations out to the car.

Memories of Christmas Country Dance School

Tonight we are bracing ourselves for another winter storm, which, according to the National Weather Service, could bring 1/4 inch of ice and 12 to 18 inches of snow. But I am thinking back to last December, when we attended Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. It’s strange looking back on events, even from a short while ago, how things shift focus over time. When I think back on Christmas School now, what’s left from a week filled with activity from 7:00 each morning until nearly midnight each night are the broad brush strokes as we criss-crossed the campus between the tavern and alumni center and gymnasium and music hall, trudging in snow early in the week, hurrying  in wind and rain a few days later; some days all bundled up in layers against the cold, other days with bare legs and skirts swirling, carrying our shoe bags and crafts back and forth.

photo of small decorative basket

Small decorative basket, with honeysuckle ribs and contorted filbert handle.

We took four classes every day, beginning at 9:00 a.m. I took basket weaving first thing and then Appalachian square dance, while Jim took English country dance and intermediate clogging. We had our choice of about eight different classes every session, including rapper swords, storytelling, shape-note singing, Irish ballads,  and all kinds of dancing. After the last morning class, everyone gathered for morningsong, which included time for announcements. The announcement on Tuesday that brought cheers was, “It is Tuesday morning, and we are not at work.” After morningsong, we headed down the hill and across the street to the cafeteria, then back up the hill to Seabury for afternoon classes. I often skipped the first afternoon class, so I could catch a quick nap, and then joined Jim for Irish set dancing mid-afternoon. After that, we might attend a concert or family dance before dinner, then back up the hill to Seabury for the evening dance from 7:30 to 10:30, after which we all gathered in the parlor for songs and stories.

photo of small decorative basketI can no longer remember the specifics of each day, but I am left with many images as from a dream—my fingers weaving wet pieces of reed through honeysuckle ribs, while the clogging class danced to the fiddle of Al White in the racketball court next door; the feeling of connection that comes from dancing the same dances that people from that region have danced for hundreds of years; the anticipation of a new day as we greeted each other at morning song; the smiling faces I would meet along the contra lines or while walking back and forth across campus; the joyful exhuberance of dancing each evening with three hundred people from all over the world; the warm glow from the candles burning each night at parlor; the sense of peace and happiness that comes from sitting in a room filled with people who are singing together and telling stories night after night, while snow falls outside.

Contra dancing – a swirl of awesomeness

We have been enjoying good crowds at our regular contra dances lately, with quite a few newcomers, including some younger people, which is always nice. I’m not sure how people hear about the dances, although word of mouth is the most likely way. Some say that friends tried for years to convince them to come to a contra dance, but they were always too busy. Then one day they heard an announcement on the radio or read an article in the paper on a night they didn’t have anything else planned, so they finally decided to give it a try. One of our regular dancers has lately been bringing friends from her church. Occasionally, we get college students who grew up in other places where they had contra dancing. Sometimes we get parents in town visiting their college-age students. Sometimes people find us on the Web and stop to dance with us on their way somewhere else.

The dance enthusiasts among us have a hard time understanding how anyone could not enjoy dancing, but the general public is wary at best. They don’t know much, if anything, about contra dancing, although they probably know something about square dancing, and they may express some interest in traditional dancing, even if they don’t think it is for them. Many people seem nervous about dancing in general; they will claim to have “two left feet” or say they “don’t know how to dance” or make some comment that suggests that they believe we will expect them to come in matching Western-style square-dance outfits. Some may have seen clogging exhibitions at heritage festivals and worry that they will have to know some sort of fancy dance steps. Or they may say they can’t come because they don’t have a partner or claim that they personally are interested but their spouse is not. Some will comment that they “used to enjoy square dancing” back in seventh-grade gym class but haven’t tried it since. Or they might ask if contra dancing, which is done in lines, is anything like country line dancing.

If they can be talked into coming at all, they may find that the dancing is more vigorous than they expected or that they get dizzy or that they are uncomfortable being in such close contact with strangers who tend to look them straight in the eye while swinging. I am sure the young people who happen to come to our dances all have the same reaction I had when I took square-dance lessons in high school: What is it with all these old people? Of course, when we’re dancing, we don’t feel old at all; we feel like we did in our twenties when we went to our first contra dance way back during the “folk revival,” when the halls were filled with young people like ourselves, caught up in a swirl of awesomeness as the tune and the dance and the community of dancers all came together perfectly, with a balance and swing.

High Tea & Whiskey

We just returned from an English/American dance weekend in St. Louis, happy but tired after 13+ hours of dancing. The weekend was sponsored by Childgrove Country Dancers, and it certainly lived up to the promise of  “Contra the way English dancers like it, with spit and polish and interesting music, and English the way Contra dancers like it—full of energy and joyous spontaneity.” I have been a contra dancer for almost thirty years and a square dancer for longer than that, but I must say that this was the first time I actually enjoyed English Country Dance. I have been to ECD workshops and dances before, but I have not had fun at those—partly because I didn’t know what I was doing, so I felt silly and awkward, and partly because the group didn’t know what they were doing, so the events plodded along, with more teaching than dancing, and little joy or spontaneity. I also had trouble getting into the “high tea” spirit of English country, being more of a “whiskey” kind of person myself by nature. But this past weekend, there were enough people who actually enjoy English Country Dance and are strong enough dancers to guide beginners like me through the figures with a fair amount of grace. For the first time, figures such as “turn single” made a little more sense, and I could begin to imagine how they might flow into the next figure in a meaningful way. In addition, the caller, Joanna Reiner, efficiently taught each dance, called just enough to get us started, and then stopped calling so we could enjoy the gorgeous music. On Saturday night, when many of the dancers arrived in period costume for the “ball,” I felt as though I had stepped into an eighteenth-century novel, and I found myself wondering whether we wouldn’t be better people if we paid more attention to our appearance and to ballroom manners in all our daily interactions.

The dance weekend was held at the wonderful Monday Club in Webster Groves. The Club began informally as a reading circle founded by five women who got together on Mondays, when their housekeepers had the day off. Over the years other women joined, and in 1887, the Monday Club was formally organized. Ten years later it became a charter member of the Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs. The clubhouse, on the corner of Maple and Cedar Avenues, was dedicated in 1911. A two-story wing was added to the original building in 1929, with a kitchen, dining room, and board room, which made it possible for the members to hold luncheons, exhibits, and teas. At one time, the Monday Club served as a library, and club members assisted the paid librarian two days a week; these days, according to its brochure, the club provides a variety of community outreach programs, educational programs, and senior citizen activities, and it hosts concerts, dinner theatre, fashion shows, public art exhibits, and weekly educational lectures.

We are very fortunate to be able to participate in traditional dances in this elegant historical building. The dances are held in the original auditorium, where there is a small stage, hardwood floor, and built-in bookshelves with glass doors, from the earlier days when the building served as a library. The walls are painted a delicate peach, with white-painted woodwork. Windows line the side walls and look out over stately houses and yards in the well-established neighborhood. Elegant statues and vases are placed throughout the building, and artwork hangs on the walls in the dining room, where the registration table was set up for the dance weekend and where we had our after-dance parties. The women’s restroom has a floral hand-painted sign on the door that says “powder room.” The men’s restroom was apparently added later and is located in the basement. For the weekend, the organizers had strung fairy lights from the rafters in the auditorium and hung British flags and early American flags around the hall.

The weekend started out with a contra dance on Friday night, called by my husband Jim Thaxter, with an after-party that went until 1:00 a.m. We took the group up on their offer of “home hospitality,” and stayed with a wonderful woman named Robin and her family, who graciously opened their home to us for the weekend. Music was provided at all the dances and workshops throughout the weekend by Martha Edwards and Pamela Carson Stoll playing fiddle, with Kendall Rogers on keyboard and percussion. After the Friday contra dance and the after-party and a short night’s sleep, our host fed us breakfast on Saturday morning, and then we headed back to the Monday Club for a morning workshop led by the English dance caller, Joanna Reimer and another workshop in the afternoon. Joanna’s teaching was superb, and I especially liked the way she handled the perennial problem of dancers wanting to socialize while the caller is teaching a new dance. She began by reminding us that she was not the only one responsible for how well the dance went, that each dancer also played an important role, as did the musicians, of course. Then she taught a dance and walked us through the moves a couple of times. After that, before the music began, she instructed the dancers to “remind each other how the dance goes.” I had never seen a caller do that before, but it was a wonderful way to focus the dancers’ attention before the two-beat introduction that signifies that the dance is beginning. We had a four-hour break during the early evening, to give the dancers plenty of time to nap, have dinner, and dress for the ball. By 8:00, the dancers had arrived back at the Monday Club, many of them dressed in Regency attire or other periods of their choosing. In consideration of the small size of the hall, they thankfully did not wear hoop skirts or carry swords. Midway through the evening, at the break, a team of Morris dancers came jingling in and executed a lively choreographed figure in the center of the hall.

Sunday afternoon we had the pleasure of dancing outside near the fountains at the Grand Basin, at the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, on a clear blue fall day, while the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. Various callers took turns leading the dances, and Kendall played his accordion along with CDs by Stringdancer, until he became concerned about the amount of dust blowing into the keys. While we danced contras and a couple squares and waltzes, people in paddle boats cruised around the basin. When it was time to leave, we dangled our feet in the cool water before we headed out. Then Sunday evening, we returned to the Monday Club, where we were joined by the regular contra dance crowd for a lively dance, ending the weekend on a high note indeed.