Go to a contra dance and party like it’s 1799
Post Independent Arts Writer
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – It was that one word – contra – that always puzzled me.
For years, I’ve see mentions of contra dances being held in local gymnasiums and halls, but I just couldn’t get past that word. Contra dancing immediately conjured up images of guys dressed in camouflage two-stepping in a circle, machine guns held high overhead. Contra dancing? No thanks.
That’s until I learned what contra dancing really is. Although “contra” can mean counter revolutionary activity, when it’s paired with dancing it pretty much means the exact opposite of guerrilla warfare.
The term is derived from “country dancing” or the French “contredanse.” Since lines of dancers stand in rows facing, or “countering” each other, it refers to partners or couples standing opposite to one another.
Contra dancing has been around as long as this country has been arguing about politics (i.e. since well before the Declaration of Independence was signed). Similar to square dancing, but literally more linear in its design, dancers pair up with one another, though in some dances they constantly change partners.
Ricardo and Julieta Miranda live in Carbondale, and are originally from Venezuela. For them, attending a community contra dance is a way to get steeped in American culture.
“There’s nothing else like this,” said Julieta, taking a breather on the sidelines at a January contra dance held in the Glenwood Springs Elementary School gymnasium. “This is the roots of America. This is all-American.”
According to Ron Reed, who organizes Glenwood Springs’ contra dances, Julieta is right.
“These dances have been around for more than 300 years,” Reed said. “Many of these dances are based on ones from the Old World. And some of the dances we’ll dance tonight Thomas Jefferson once danced.”
Squint your eyes, and you’re in a timeless setting at a contra dance. The elementary school gym’s blaring fluorescent lights are off, and instead, clear tiny Christmas bulbs created an inviting glow on those who gathered to dance, sweat and laugh their way through a Saturday night.
Singles and couples of every decade milled around chairs outlining the dance floor before the action kicked in. Some women wore high-heeled boots and skirts that flared out when they twirled, while others stuck with jeans and smooth-soled shoes.
Even on a cold winter’s night, layering was the key. As the night wore on, sweaters and sweatshirts got peeled off as the dancers worked up their heart rates.
Mark and Danielle Howard of Glenwood Springs are regulars at the monthly wintertime dances. Danielle said she attended her first contra dance a couple of years ago during a ladies’ night out with a bunch of girlfriends, and had such a good time she wanted her husband, Mark, to join her.
“It’s great,” Mark said. “We bring a big bottle of water and we go right through that in a couple hours. It’s a good workout, and it’s fun.”
“It also makes you think,” added Danielle. “It’s easy, but you have to constantly listen to the caller.”
Reed has taken the helm of Glenwood’s regularly scheduled contra dances, which are held the first Saturday of the month during the winter.
Reed, a well-known Glenwood Springs letter carrier when he’s not organizing dances, grew up participating in contra and square dances in Pennsylvania with his grandparents. He was naturally drawn to the local contra dance scene when a group started forming here nearly a decade ago.
Locals Don and April Paine used to head up the group; now Reed makes sure that he’s reserved the gym the first Saturday of the month, arranged for live music – usually a fiddler, banjo player and acoustic guitarist playing bluegrass and folk dance tunes – and reserved a caller who is well versed in contra dances and “calls out” to the dancers the moves that get them through each dance. Other dances are featured, too, including line and square dances, plus an occasional polka or waltz.
Reed definitely has the dancing bug. Besides local contra dances, he attended four contra dance festivals in Buena Vista, Colo., Park City, Utah, Saguaro, N.M., and Portland, Ore., last year.
Reed said besides the camaraderie of a community contra dance, the patterns the dancers form are quite involved and intricate.
With an adept caller, for example, a dancer can start with one partner, work their way around the room with many other partners, and end up back where they started with the partner he or she began with.
“To be a butterfly on the ceiling watching a good caller’s choreography,” said Reed of a well-orchestrated contra dance, “… it’d be fascinating to see the big plan.”
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