Contradancing at LPL

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LEWISTON– I don’t know quite what to expect. It’s the second Friday night of the new year, ten minutes before 8, and I’m reflecting on the frigid city beyond the enormous window of the Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall, when my attention is broken by Kim Roberts calling out, “Okay folks, let’s try one,” over the tuning sounds of the two-man band. Roberts is a semi-professional contra dance caller, the band is Maine-based Perpetual e-Motion and I am attending one of Lewiston’s more authentic cultural traditions, a contra dance.
    I don’t know what to expect because I have only ever been to one contra dance, several years earlier, and because I’m just recovering from a bout of stomach flu. But any inhibitions quickly dissolve as I get acquainted with some of the other dancers/attendees (most from other towns around Maine, several from hours away) and as I get reacquainted with the art of contra. Cindy Larock, the Cultural Center Coordinator at the library and the organizer of the dance, introduces me to some of the “regulars” and explains to me that “contra dancing came to New England before the revolution,” and that the term “contra” refers either to the opposing lines of dancers that characterize its form or, alternatively, as a corruption of the term “country dancing,” initially English but mispronounced by French callers who traveled from town to town teaching the dances. It is this history which separates contra, or “New England country dancing”, from other forms such as southern or western square dancing, she explains. The caller is the leader of the dance, hollering commands and giving direction to the pairs of dancers on the floor. This particular aspect makes contra dancing easier (and more social) than square dancing or line dancing. Ron Staples, who began dancing for the health benefits, says that he “tried square dancing, but it was too hard,” which led him to contra. Ron and his wife Sue have come from Farmington tonight for the dance.
    My contra education is interrupted by the call for the first dance, a free-wheeling, organized chaos in which every pair dances in sequence with every other pair on the floor, moving down the opposing lines like a human conveyor belt. The dance lasts roughly ten minutes and leaves me slightly dizzy, more-than-slightly sweaty, instantly familiar with all the other dancers, and wanting another go.
    And this will be the order for the rest of the night, ten to fifteen minute dances separated by short rests. Some of the dances are “true” contra, patterned on the opposing lines of dancers, while others (“scatter mixers”, for those in the know) use “squares”, or groups of four, and others are circle dances, meaning that all the dancers work their way around the room in one giant circle, though all the dances are guided by the commands of the caller.
    The music tonight is a combination of traditional Celtic and French-Canadian and some modern sounds. “Electric world music based upon tradition,” explains John Cote, one half of Perpetual e-Motion. “We try to stay true to the soul of the tradition,” says his partner, Ed Howe. The liveliness of the music drives the aerobic, jaunty nature of the dance –important for the success of a contra dance. It also means that several of the fifty-or-so dancers in attendance rest on the sidelines during any given dance, with reinforcements constantly coming in to take their places. Many of those here tonight are regulars, though the dances all use repeated movements which are explained before hand, making it easy for novices.
    “Now, slowly you’re going to melt that gypsy into a swing,” instructs Roberts before the fourth dance. “And you’re going to end that swing with the lady on the right… It’s called the promenade.” This might sound like Greek to you, but only two hours in, I was promenading and swinging my partner, if not like a pro then at least like someone reasonably coordinated.
    Sixteen-year-old Chrissy Begin, of China, explains the appeal of contra dancing. Begin has come with several family members, including her cousin, who introduced her to the social, fast-paced activity. “My cousin really liked it, and she said, ‘Chrissy, you’ve got to come with me.’ And the music is great. Basically, we got hooked.”
    “Older dances, the ‘chestnuts,'” says Larock, “aren’t quite as active.” But after a revival in the sixties and seventies that brought younger guitarists and fiddlers onto the old-time contra scene, the resulting, newer dances “are more active, more intense.” Which seems to suit this crowd, made up of young and older dancers alike, just fine.
    Karin Dumas, of North Yarmouth, has driven fifty miles tonight to attend the dance. What makes it worth her while? The music, she explains and adds, “I like that we’re on the third floor. I like the view.”
    Kathleen Carroll, who has been contra dancing since the seventies, got her daughter Gretchen involved at a young age. “As a kid, I would fall asleep on the stage,” says Gretchen, who now teaches music (including traditional music) to a new generation at Park Street School. The Carrolls’ case is not unusual and it illustrate the community and generational aspects of contra dancing.
    After roughly a dozen dances, with most everyone in the room exhausted, the night draws to a close. Final analysis: There’s nothing wrong with Full Moon Madness at Margarita’s or attempting the bull at Club Texas, but if you are looking for something with a little bit more tradition, a little bit more exercise, and a chance at real human interaction, try your hand at contra. Despite the flu and my inexperience, I had a great time. The next local contra dance is scheduled for Friday, February 12, between 8 and 11 p.m., in Callahan Hall at the Lewiston Public Library. For questions, please email Cindy Larock at clarock@ci.lewiston.me.us or call at 513-3050.

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