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04.16.08

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Photograph by Will Mosher
Turn, Turn, Turn: Contra dancing is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

Swing, You Spinners

A fresh crop of dancers revitalizes contra in Santa Cruz.

By Will Mosher


The tune remains basically the same--usually a cheerful, reeling number with live fiddle, bass and mandolin--but the dancers are always changing partners and spinning. The trick, they claim, is to look at the person with whom you're twirling. And it must work; after the song is over, everyone is smiling and walking in straight lines rather than trying to cling to the walls, even though by now they've all been at this for hours. These are contra dancers, and they want you to know that this is the single most important piece of information about contra dancing: Look at your partner or collapse under the weight of your own disequilibrium.

But let's back up. It's possible you've never heard of contra dancing before. First of all, it has nothing to do with South American counterrevolutionaries and everything to do with New England, and, to be fair, it isn't just spinning. It's also holding hands and swapping partners--much like square dancing, only without the gingham.

The word "contra" is said to come from the word the French gave to English "country dancing" before it traveled across the Atlantic, shipwrecked in New England and crawled to California, where it shot its root into the Bay Area's funky cultural soils. Although it was originally popular with baby boomers, the dance has begun to spread to the younger generation, especially to gay people, which is something the boomers never anticipated but are very enthusiastic about. Andrea Lehrer, a veteran contra dancer, is a firsthand witness.

"A lot of people who have been dancing here have been getting older and older," she says. "And in the last six months or so we've been getting younger and younger people, so there's kind of a blooming."

That blooming is due in part to an all-gay dance organized in January. And it's due in part to the features of contra itself. The egalitarian style of dancing and wildly relaxed dress code appeal to a lot of people. A lot of the older men show up in what look a lot like skirts. Mmm. Ventilation.

Compared to other types of dancing, contra involves none of the usual discrimination that comes with choosing partners. Sure, there are partners at the beginning of the dance, but partners switch over and over again as they travel up and down lines, swapping over a set. Everyone dances with everyone else. The entire hall dances.

This is also true in a literal sense. According to local lore, the floor of the old Felton Community Hall would sway like jello beneath the herd of dancers changing direction. Many older dancers recall wondering if the entire floor would open and send them plummeting into the basement.

Fortunately the contra dancers never broke through the floor of the old hall. It only burned down, and though contra dancers were not responsible for the hall's destruction, they did help to rebuild it.

The new hall is a little sturdier, but only a little. To feel it you need to get away from the stage, stand still and then wait for the dancers to change direction. If you're lucky, you can feel the floor lurch a couple of centimeters.

More experienced dancers love to tell newcomers that anyone can dance. This is a kindhearted half-truth that more experienced dancers invented to encourage the younger set. It's demanding. And, although it's easier to do contra than to get into international folk dancing or ballroom dancing, it takes an entire night of swapping partners to pick up the caller's terminology--and, more importantly, to become comfortable with the dance.

It's also family friendly. Jim Snook has been contra dancing for about 20 years. He met his wife at a dance; he had contra dancing at his wedding.

"I met a woman on the bus going up to Scotts Valley to work," said Snook as he stepped out of the Felton Community Hall and took off his dancing shoes (the better to keep grit off the dance floor).

"She started talking about this all-night contra dance she had been to in Watsonville, and I thought it had something to do with Hispanic dance and Central America and who knows what."

Snook went to the dance. And for him--as for dozens of contra devotees in Santa Cruz--the rest is history.

SANTA CRUZ CONTRA DANCE, featuring the Crabapples and caller Erik Weberg, holds its regular Third Sunday Dance on Sunday, April 20, at 7pm at the Vets Hall, 846 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets $10 general/$9 members/$6 students. For more information visit santacruzdance.org.


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