A few easy steps to contra dancing

Every Wednesday night at 8, Lovely Lane Church is filled to bursting with the sound of stomping, clapping, laughing, banjo-plucking and guitar-strumming. A peek into the church's recreation hall reveals a brigade of dock shoes, jazz shoes, sneakers and even bowling shoes dancing their way across a blond hardwood floor to the commands of a caller urging their wearers to form patterns like a "right hand star" in time with the live band on stage.

The scene is dizzying; the fiddler is going a mile a minute, the women's colorful skirts flare as they whirl around the room, and the men's feet don't seem to stop. But no one observes from the sidelines for long at Lovely Lane. Everyone is inevitably pulled into the fray, where most discover very quickly that they're having fun.


Welcome to contra dancing, a form that Baltimore Folk Music Society (BFMS) President Dan Katz calls "dance so easy, even men can do it." In contra, a style of North American folk dance, two sets of parallel lines are formed down the length of a dance hall and partners progress down the line, eventually dancing with every other couple by the time a song is over. At BFMS, the caller first teaches the crowd the dance before the music is struck up, making it easy to learn as you go. Similar to square dancing but more free-form, contra dancing doesn't require that you show up with a partner, making for a very social atmosphere.

"One of the things I've found about folk music and dance societies is that they're the nicest, friendliest group of people as a collective group," says dancer Martin Siemen of Laurel.


Indeed, at a wholesome social gathering like BFMS's contra dance, where you meet someone new every 20 seconds, it is impossible not to make new pals.

This dance emerged in 1800, when, the BFMS Web site says, "it was all the rage." There are debates as to the etymology of "contra." Some maintain it is a variant of the French word "contrer," which means "against" -- possibly derived from the two lines facing each other. Katz prefers the theory that the word is a variation of the word "country" after the dancing that was done in grand English country homes. "After the Revolutionary War, England wasn't particularly popular, but the French had been our allies," reasons Katz. "So Americans blended the English style with French country dancing and made it our own."

Two types of music are played at contra dances: "old-timey," which is usually played by a violin, fiddle, banjo and guitar, or Northern/French Canadian, which is composed of a fiddle, wind instruments, guitars, a piano, a bass and sometimes a hammer dulcimer. Most dances were written in the past 15 years, but some of what Katz calls "old chestnuts" date from 100 to 300 years ago and have been passed through the generations.

"There are 15-20 basic moves and hundreds of thousands of dances that can be written from them," says Perry Shafran, president of the Annapolis Traditional Dance Society. Yet until only 40 or 50 years ago, a community would know only a couple of dances. Then there was a revival in New England during the mid-20th century. People started writing the dances down, and contra dancing spread rapidly.

The BFMS contra dance at Lovely Lane was established during this revival almost 30 years ago by Bob Dalsemer, who traveled to fire halls in Pennsylvania and Virginia and brought the dances to Baltimore. Though Dalsemer has moved to the John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, his project has thrived and hosts a burgeoning roster of dancers.

According to Katz, there are two stages in the contra dance learning curve. At stage one, the objective is to stay out of everyone's way and to enjoy the dance, which can usually be managed after only one evening. Stage two, Katz says, is "the rest of your life," during which the dancer is free to elaborate on the basics, adding twirls, claps and flourishes at leisure. In other words, contra dance is not difficult to learn.

"With swing dancing, you need 15 nights of practice before you're interesting to dance with," says Katz. With contra, however, all you need is that first venture onto the dance floor.

Though the weekly BFMS contra dance is a fairly easygoing environment, there are some guidelines. Wear loose, cool clothing; cotton is best. Women tend to wear skirts and men wear shorts; jeans are not recommended. Don't wear smooth-soled shoes, and, finally, don't drink alcohol beforehand because, as Katz wisely notes, "It's hard to twirl around after you've been drinking."


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