On the second Saturday night of the month, several dozen Mainers gather at the Farmington Grange — just as they might have a century ago — to spend a couple hours dancing jigs, reels, waltzes and polkas.

“I love the tradition of it,” said Cynthia Phinney, who started the Farmington Contradance more than a dozen years ago. “People have been doing this together for generations in these beautiful old halls with wood floors, dancing after a hard day’s work.”

Musicians Michele Roy and Will West of Twisted Strings play for the Farmington Contradance. Photo courtesy Cynthia Phinney

Contradance is a distinctively American style of social dance native to New England. Its roots are as old America’s — and, like America — contra is still evolving, with new dances being written, new musicians picking up their instruments, new callers being trained and new dancers joining in all the time.

“Some dances thrive on featuring highly talented musicians and callers from around the country, while we focus on nurturing local musicians and new dancers,” Phinney said. “It’s all an important part of the ecosystem of dancing.”

Steve Muise, with directs the Franklin County Fiddlers, encourages his musicians to take turns stepping onto the dancefloor themselves. “It’s energizing and fun, and one physically feels the pulse and form of the music — which, in turn, can make one more musical,” he said.

The music comes from the Francophone, Celtic and old-time Southern traditions, and it all melds together in New England fiddling contradance tunes, said Hank Washburn, who learned to play the fiddle by ear. Each tune repeats after a minute or so, making the music well-suited to an oral tradition. Along with the cyclical nature of the tunes, the dance steps repeat in figures — that is, a series of moves that tends to reappear in other dances, such as “right and left through.”

“Once a dancer knows how to do a right and left through, they can use that in other dances,” Washburn said. “At our dance in Farmington, we always have a big percentage of beginners, so the callers tend to introduce one new figure per dance.”

Dancers walk patterns to the rhythm of the music following the caller’s instructions, such as “forward and back,” “circle,” “march and swing” or “long lines.” More experienced dancers not only lead the way for the less initiated but add more pep in their step, making it a more dance-y and more aerobic activity.

Unlike many other forms of social dance, there’s no need to show up with a partner. Traditionally, partners change after each dance, and a new dance starts every 12 minutes or so. The choreography is such that each dancer interacts not only with their partner but with everyone in their line.

“It’s a community thing, and it includes people of different generations and ability levels,” said Washburn, who has been dancing for four decades. He met his wife at a dance in 1977 when contradance was wildly popular.

“There was a lot of dancing in the 19th century,” Washburn said. “The tradition nearly died out with mass media — television and radio — but the tradition was pretty much preserved in New Hampshire and sprang back up in the 1970s.”

Phinney, who got the Farmington Contradance started at least 15 years ago, went to her first dance in 1977 in Bowdoinham.

“The Bowdoinham dance at that time was a very crowded and highly energetic dance with music by the Maine Country Dance Orchestra,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but I felt like I was picked up and my feet didn’t touch the floor again until I went home. I couldn’t remember when I’d smiled so much and so hard.”

Soft-soled shoes are recommended, but some folks wear bowling shoes, brush off their street shoes or go barefoot. Some dancers opt to wear something that flows with their movement, such as a dress or a kilt. A water bottle is a must.

Admission is $2 per adult, $1 per child for the family dance, $6 per adult, $5 per student for the regular monthly dance with $15 family maximum.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough.


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