“Contra Dance? It’s awesome,” said Morgan Hamill ’11. “It’s like the only tradition New England has left—that and town meetings”
To say that contra dancing has deep roots might be a bit of an understatement. It first began to emerge in Europe in the 17th century, when English country-dances began incorporating French fiddling styles. The form then migrated to the New World, filtering through French Canada before finding a home in the thirteen colonies. It was somewhat supplanted by square dancing in the mid-1800s, and then revived in the ’40s and ’50s as part of the general folk music revival that you probably know about because it produced Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.
“Then in the ’60s the hippies took over and had some fun with it,” said Emily Troll ’10, a member of the Folk Revival Initiative (FRI), the student group that organizes the University’s monthly contra dances. “Since then it’s been a mix of hippies and other folks.”
“It’s still a dynamic scene,” added Josh Van Vliet ’09, another member of the FRI. “It’s fun to watch it change even over the course of a few years.”
The contra community at Wesleyan is relatively young. While there were active contra dancers here about 20 years ago, the current scene originated two years ago in the Butt B lounge. Last year, the dances relocated to Beckham and students began hiring the occasional professional band. Dances have been growing steadily in popularity.
“I think there’s a core group of people who come on a regular basis who have connections to contra dance outside Wesleyan, but more people come every time,” Van Vliet said.
Some of that growth is thanks to Visiting Instructor in Chemistry Andrea Roberts. Last year she offered students in her Organic Chemistry lab 10 extra points for attending a contra dance.
“I expected that five or six students to show up, Roberts said. “ Instead there were around 83 people. Then at the next dance, 76 of my students showed up.”
Contra dance music has recently acquired some musical DNA from jazz, as popular contra-bands have begun to incorporate horns and big-band riffs. The cross-pollination is appropriate. Like jazz, the fiddle music heard in contra dances combine established tunes with group improvisation. And like punk, contra dance is very scene-oriented.
“There are pockets [of contra dancers] throughout the country,” Troll said. “There are big ones in Boston, Western Mass., some parts of California, and Asheville [North Carolina].”
FRI members are quick to differentiate contra from square dancing—the clearest difference being that contra dancers arrange themselves in a line, while square dancers form a square—as well as dispel myths about both.
“People assume you wear cowboy clothes and sort of galumph around,” Troll said. “Square dancing is a really geeky thing. You have to learn like 60 moves, and then you’re at level one.”
This highly technical style of square dancing, popular in New England, is referred to as “tech square.” It often uses recorded music and sequenced patterns of moves. Individual square-dancing cultures, however, range in temperament depending upon where one travels.
“Square dances down South can be as crazy as punk rock shows,” says Anna Roberts-Gevalt ’09, another FRI member, who will be spending next semester in Kentucky studying the fiddle. “Old square dances in the ’20s and ’30s were kind of dangerous places to be, but the whole community would go.”
“Contra includes a bigger group of people, especially a bigger age range,” Troll added. Contra dancing tends to be easier to learn, and always includes live music and callers (who shout out which moves dancers are supposed to perform). Contra is also a very open community; contemporary dances are gender-blind. But the spirit of community is common to both forms of dance, and contra scenes are very tight-knit.
“The contra dancers in my hometown make maple syrup together,” said Kelly Morgan ’11.
“I miss my community back home,” Troll said. “We take care of each other when someone’s sick and we have meals together. You get to be friends with adults, which is fun.”
More and more people from Middletown and the general Connecticut contra community are coming to on-campus dances. Dances are now held on the second Friday of every month for the benefit of outside contra dancers, who tend to have a scheduled circuit of dances that they are used to attending.
“The contra dance world feels like it’s a place, even though it’s not,” Troll said. “Other dancers feel like they’re your neighbors.”
Gevalt says it’s this spirit of community and inclusion that ultimately makes contra dancing so appealing for her.
“If you go to any other dance party on campus it’s about who you already know, or it’s super-sexualized,” Gevalt said. “I like contra because it forces you to meet people. Originally it was supposed to bring Wes together, but now it’s about stretching out beyond that.”