My First (Contra) Dance
by James Duffy

I do not consider myself to be in possession of much natural ability when it
comes to dancing, and most of it nowadays has been shelved.  

Oh, when I was younger, I danced in clubs to that – I don’t know what else to
call it --
modern style? -- and have as recently as last year made earnest attempts
to “get down” with The Electric Slide.  But dancing for dancing’s sake has
never been a regular thing for me.  My body is tone deaf, my movements
inhibited by two left feet. Don’t get me wrong, if I could dance, I believe I

And so it was, with my meager skill, yet palpable longing and curiosity, I
traveled with my family to Peterborough, NH one recent Saturday night to
partake in
contra dancing.  And I am happy to say I will be back.  

The music -- a lively fiddle and piano -- played traditional folk and more
recent variations of those tunes that are hundreds of years old. The music was
exceptional as were the dancers. Even though I had never been to a contra
dance before, and it was apparent many in attendance had, I actually felt
people were happy to see me.  

As Bob McQuillan, the noted piano player who performed that night said of
his first experience with contra dancing in 1946, “It was a very happy scene, so
I just kept going.  It makes people have fun, that’s the only way to describe
it.”  McQuillan has written over 1000 songs, and in 2002 was a recipient of the
National Folk Arts award.  

Contra dancing is a series of easy to learn walking-steps explained by a caller,
who then prompts you through the dance itself.  You start in a line facing
your partner, and then proceed along, using movements like “do-si-dos,”
“allemande” and “spins” to meet and dance with other people along the way.

Contra Dancing: Real Aerobic Exercise

Don’t let the walking pace fool you, it is real aerobic exercise.  My wife and I
were guided by the more experienced dancers, and for me that made all the
difference in the world.  The success of each dance depends on everyone
completing each step and turn, which means experienced dancers are
invested in helping the newcomers along.  Another emphasis is on eye-
contact, which can prevent the dizziness caused by spinning, as well as
promote good social graces.

Contra dancing can be traced back to English Country dancing, and it took
root in New England during pre-revolutionary times.  It has absorbed and
thrived on French, French-Canadian, and traditional Yankee influences as well.
Contra Dancing: A 1960s Comeback to New England

Steve Zakon-Anderson, the caller for the dance we attended, has been calling
for twenty five years.  He said he has seen a resurgence of the popularity in
contra dancing that started in the late 1960’s and has continued to this day.  “A
lot of people were moving to this region and were interested in living self-
sufficiently… back to the land, self sacrifice… so why not make your own
music?”  He said many people he danced with in the 1980’s are coming with
their children now as well.

He noted another trend, dating back to the 1950’s when square dancing, a
cousin to contra, started to become more complex and specialized.  

“People could not just show up and dance without taking lessons. Those who
came would often end up standing around.  The dances did not feel
welcoming.”  He said callers back then had a different role too.  “If you listen
to recordings of dances done in the 1950’s the caller’s voice was always in the
forefront and the music was in the background.  Now, because there are such
good musicians playing contras and are adopting new rhythms and music,
the caller is more of a facilitator.” A caller decides on the dance and consults
with the musicians, who choose the music.

Zakon-Anderson said there are a number of things a caller should do to be
successful:  It helps to be able to get people to learn comfortably and to pick
the right dances for the level of skill of the dancers.  “It also helps to have a
caller whose voice finds a nice place in the music and be welcoming because
that is what contra dancing is all about, human contact.”

That was certainly in evidence that evening. There was a smile with every
person I met while dancing. Zakon-Anderson walked around and helped us
along.  “But the best part of the evening,” he said, “is when a caller does not
say a word and just watches the dancing and listens to the music, and there is
a real give and take between the musicians and dancers.”

If you would like to learn more about contra dancing and where to find a
dance in your area visit      

About the author: James Duffy of Keene, NH, is freelance writer and poet.
Snow Ball, Peterborough NH - Photo by Allison Aldrich
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