When home, it’s possible (though more difficult) to see the world around you from a traveler’s perspective. One’s native culture can seem nigh invisible, but it’s still there, waiting to be viewed through a defamiliarized eye.
This fall season I am putting on my traveler’s goggles to reconnect with a tradition close to my own cultural consciousness: contra dance.
Care to contra?
What Is Contra Dance?
For those unfamiliar with the New England tradition, contra dance is a partnered dance style performed to Irish, Scottish, or French-Canadian folk tunes.
Think square dancing, but with more right angles.
Contra partners doing figures as part of a greater set in Worcester, MA. Video by Kayti Burt.
Dances are done in two lines of partners called “sets.” A caller leads the dance, walking participants through it once before the music begins. Partners move down the lines, interacting with other couples in a series of steps called “figures.”
Contra dances generally last about three hours, with at least one intermission. They tend to be alcohol-free and are family-friendly.
Wear comfortable shoes.
Do People Really Contra?
I’m not claiming that New Englanders contra dance their way to work or anything — though that would be awesome — but some of my earliest community memories do involve contra dance.
My small town in rural New Hampshire would meet once a month at the town hall to get our contra dance on. The fiddler for the event was my sister’s violin teacher, and all ages and levels would come out for the shindig.
Contra lines in Worcester, MA. Image by Kayti Burt.
Large social events have never been my cup of tea — even as a child who had never heard the word “introvert” — but contra dance was an exception to this rule. I remember these dances as warmly lit social events filled with music and laughter.
The dancing gave structure and purpose to the socializing. It wasn’t about making pointless small talk near the chips and dip.
Rather, contra dance is about accepting a collective challenge, being part of something bigger than yourself, and letting go to the music and the motion.
What Does Contemporary Contra Look Like?
Contra dance isn’t an activity of the past. Churches, town halls, and other large spaces across New England and America host weekly, monthly, or seasonal dances. You can find a schedule of contra dances across the country and world here. Other countries where contra is popular include the United Kingdom and Australia. If you’re looking for something with a little more edge, try techno contra dance!
DIY sign welcoming dancers to Worcester’s monthly contra event. Image by Kayti Burt.
I recently sidled down to my local dance in Worcester, Massachusetts. Overall, it was a positive experience, but returning to this practice as an adult gave me new insight into some problems possible at the more traditional dance events.
Traditional contra dance dictates that men ask women to dance, creating a troubling power dynamic — especially given that, if you aren’t asked to dance, you sit out. Furthermore, couples are often divided into “lady” and “gent” categories, with the latter “leading” the former.
This patriarchal structure isn’t true of all contra dance events. Some events are “gender-free” or “gender-neutral.” The Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston hosts the Boston Gender Free Contra Dance, one of many such events put on by the inclusive Lavender Country and Folk Dancers.
Even at the more traditional events, there is usually room to grab your same-gendered friend and head onto the contra dance floor. Tradition be damned!
Caller Chip Hedler walks dancers through a dance in Franconia, NH. Image by Kayti Burt.
So, what are you waiting for? Pull on your dancing shoes, and follow the sound of the fiddle…