‘Contra Dancing is Kind of My Church’

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A high-energy dance has drawn a passionate following

By Adam Phan | Photography By Joshua Steadman


On the first Saturday in March, people of all ages and backgrounds crowded into the performance hall of the Carrboro Century Center. Old friends mingled and welcomed newcomers. When the night kicked into gear, everyone partnered up and gathered in the center of the hall, ready to dance. But they were not there to perform just any dance – they were there to contra. “In a minute, you’re going to circle three-quarters again,” says Charlotte Crittenden, who is leading the dance. “And you’re going to ooze into that wavy line like in the very beginning.”

Contra dancing is a traditional folk dance that can be traced to 17th-century England, Scotland and France. It is performed with couples arranged in long lines. The couples perform the same steps as the couple opposite them, and each pair makes their way down the line until they’ve danced with every other couple.

The leader, known as the caller, teaches the steps and calls them out during the dance to guide newcomers. The dance “doesn’t take too long to catch on to,” Kelly Wice, a frequent participant, says. “It’s fairly beginner-friendly, so it’s not that you have to have a lot of music experience or dance experience to start contra dancing. You pretty much start as a brand-new beginner.”

Contra dance traces its roots to 17th-century English, Scottish and French traditions.

Kelly, a UNC graduate, began contra dancing while in high school about 10 years ago, after attending a community dance. The dance felt welcoming and provided a sense of community, she says. She knew she’d fit right in. “Everyone’s just smiling all the time, so that’s probably what sold me on it – everyone just all together having a great time,” Kelly says.

As for DeeDee Laurilliard, who admits to being somewhat timid, she appreciates the physical closeness of the dance. There’s no need for small talk because everyone performs the same moves. “For those of us who are a little shy socially, it’s perfect because you’re spending time together,” DeeDee says. “Now I have many, many friends from that community that I’m quite happy to just spend time with socially. But if you’re new to an area and you’re just getting to know people, it’s a perfect way of making that connection.”

Contra has a passionate community in the area, and there are dances almost every weekend, sponsored by the Triangle Country Dancers (TCD) or other groups. “Contra dancing is kind of my church,” says Pat Gingrich, a retired assistant professor at UNC School of Nursing. “The place that church holds in some people’s lives, the dance holds that in my mine. It’s my community. It’s where everyone is sort of on their best.”

Pat, who’s been contra dancing since the ‘70s, became involved with TCD when she moved back to the area in 1992. The community has become more diverse and welcoming, she says. “I would say we still have a long way to go, but we really have tried to incorporate welcoming aspects to the dance and make it less gender-restrictive,” Pat says, explaining that certain moves were only for men, and that men partnered only with women. “And that has opened up, I think,” she says. “The dance has evolved along with society. And I’d say our callers are more in touch with the diverse population.”

David DiGiuseppe, who bills himself as “not your grandmother’s accordionist,” plays the music at a contra dancing event in March.

The music has evolved, too. Its roots are in the pianos and fiddles of traditional Irish and French-Canadian music. But, in the 80s and 90s, accordions and clarinets joined the mix.

David DiGiuseppe, who plays the accordion with his jazz fusion band, Contrazz, played the music for the contra dance in March. David has been performing contra dance music since the ‘90s, and his band takes a jazz-like improvisational approach to the songs. There’s an adrenaline rush when he’s performing for the dancers, he says. “The dancers react to what we’re doing, and they show their appreciation, and that gives us energy,” David says. “And that puts our energy onto the floor. There’s this real cool synergy that’s going on.”

DeeDee agrees. “There’s just a joy to it when the music is fabulous and you’re all making these moves,” she says. “The whole room is dancing together. There’s a fluidity, and you’re transported, which is just always lovely.”

Read the original article from the January/February 2019 Issue:

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