Long lines forward and back. Right hand star. Do-si-do. Partner balance and swing. Circle left. Neighbor swing. Move down the hall to the next pair. Repeat.
With 32 bars of dance to 32 bars of music, the dance pattern flows in waves and circles. As dancers catch on to the sequence, the movement becomes fluid. The caller eases off in-depth descriptions, giving the dancers freedom to adapt the pattern—perhaps add a twirl or flourish.
Twice monthly in Santa Cruz, the vibrant Contra Dance community comes alive, filling the Veterans Memorial Hall and Live Oak Grange with an amazing form of exercise charged with laughter, energy, talent, and creativity. This traditional New England style of folk dance brings together musicians, callers and dancers from near and far for an exciting social scene. Everyone is invited.
Live music drives the motion. Contra moves are repeating bars, and match the format and style of traditional Irish fiddle tunes such as jigs, polkas, marches and reels. Fiddle, guitar, recorder, and penny whistle complement the fast-paced notes. Keyboard, mandolin, clarinet, flute, bodhran, clogging, accordion and concertina liven up the music.
Some musicians add jazz elements and improvisation to spice things up. “I love the energy that flows between the band and the dancers,” says local musician Luke Abbott. “When I’m playing, the dancing inspires my playing—rhythmic effects, improvisation, and so on. And when I’m dancing, I get to embody the groove that the band is laying down.”
The caller is responsible for teaching new folks the various “figures,” such as a “chain,” “hey,” “butterfly whirl” or “mad robin”; they must also consider the desires of experienced dancers for something fun and intriguing. “Solstice Special,” “Early in the Evening,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “Ice Princess Meltdown” are some of the thousands of written dances a caller may choose to teach. Some expert callers pull together a variation of dance figures on the spot, or create a medley to add an element of surprise.
The dance form lends itself to inclusivity for its simplicity and adaptability, therefore contra dancers are diverse in age, energy and experience. New dancers are always welcome; each dance begins with a workshop to teach the basic figures.
“I love bringing newcomers into the joy of contra dance,” says local dance caller Andy Shore. “It is wonderful watching their faces as they realize ‘I can do this!’ More seasoned dancers get to experience this, too.” Contra is incredibly forgiving of mistakes made in the dance pattern and some forgetfulness adds laughter and playfulness to the mood.
Up and down the hall, dancers greet one another with eye contact and a smile as progressions to meet new dance pairs make contra very social. Contra friendships develop through movement, often without exchanging words. As partners and neighbors get to know one another, the dance may develop to include a twirl, lindy hop move, or a blues dip. A bouncy and fast-spinning circle-four may follow a slow, smooth promenade; contrasting the pace keeps dancer energy high.
Local Santa Cruz contra dancer Ginger Hobbs describes the scene as “an exhilarating combination of socializing and exercise, flirtatious, creative and playful, and all happening to fantastic live music.”
The band changes tunes from a reel in A minor to a faster piece in G. The mood in the dance hall responds, with the sounds of foot-stomping, whoops and tongue trills. The dancers’ enthusiasm creates a positive feedback loop with the band and intensifies the energy in the room. Several minutes into the dance, the moves become subconscious and a dance trance ensues. The caller stops prompting and the music and movement flow.
The Santa Cruz contra scene, in its 34th year, is part of a global subculture. One can travel dance-to-dance around the country and continent-to-continent to engage with contra folk.
If only the world would be more like a contra dance—inclusive, flowing, creative, playful and synergistic. At least we cultivate it right here in our own town.