Bringing the art of Contra dancing to Lewisburg

Kelsey Werkheiser, Special Features Content Editor

What is Contra dancing?

Contra dancing is a social dance that originates from England and France, but has now made its name as an American dance form as well. This folk dance, similar to square dancing, is “called,” meaning that a caller will announce the moves and no prior memorization of the moves is required. The caller of the dance calls out the movements in time with the music, and the dancers follow according to their role.

Contra dancing is a partnered dance and is arranged in a line with two pairs of dancers across from each other. The dance consists of a set of moves that are called, leading the dancers up and down the two lines. A partnered pair will perform the called moves with another couple, their temporary “neighbors,” before moving past that pair to meet a new set of neighbors. 

All of the moves are walked through before the official dance is performed, and then the moves are repeated until the music stops. The live music and in-person calling allows for the dancers’ needs to be met, so the music can be slowed or quickened, and calls will be repeated as long as the caller feels the dancers need them. The caller is also able to choose a dance that they feel is best suited for the skill set of the dancers.

While other social partner dances such as swing dancing have binary power dynamics involved in the roles of “lead” and “follow,” Contra dancing is different. There are two different roles in the dance, but they only marginally differ from each other, and many dancers switch roles from dance to dance. As a social dance, dancers are encouraged to ask different people to dance throughout the night, and it is not required that one bring a partner. Due to the social nature of the dance, attendees are sure to meet someone new.

When and where

Contra dancing events in Lewisburg are organized by the Countryside Contra Dance group. Betsy Noyce and Jeff Scheckter handle booking the venue, caller and musician, but the group is less of an official organization and more just a group of people who want to dance together. The events usually attract 20 to 45 dancers, with dancers ranging from preschool age to over 80 years old. This variety of ages only goes to show how easy it is for anyone to learn the dance. 

The next Contra Dance will be on Oct. 8,  from 7–10 p.m. at the Donald Heiter Community Center, 100N Fifth Street, in Lewisburg. Hilton Baxter will be the caller, and live music will be performed by the band Unbowed. Admission is $10 for adults, free for under 16, and $5.00 for students with proof of student ID.

It is recommended that participants wear comfortable clothing that is easy to move in, and it is asked that people wear soft-soled shoes that won’t mark up the floors. Proof of vaccination is required to dance, and dancers must wear an N95 or KN95 mask at all times while inside the venue. First time dancers receive a coupon to come back to another dance at no charge. There will be a dance held on the second Saturday of each month, except for summer months, and more information is available on Facebook on their page. 

Bring social dance to Bucknell

Charlie Buckwalter ’23, had been involved in social dance prior to coming to Bucknell, and was excited to discover that Contra dance would be taking place in Lewisburg.

They spent the days leading up to the event asking their friends to join them at this event, eager to get others involved. At the most recent Contra dance on September 20, Buckwalter met an incoming Bucknell student, Emma Kristjanson-Gural, who shared their interest in contra dancing and they agreed that they wanted to bring social dance to campus. 

The two are currently in the process of forming a social dancing club that will hopefully be in full swing this coming Spring semester. The goal is for the club to meet twice a week, with one meeting consisting of learning and practice and the other meeting being on the weekend in order to transport members to nearby social dances in locations such as State College, Harrisburg or Lancaster.

While the club currently has no specific social dance focus, it is being arranged so that it can change focus to specific social dances such as Contra, Lindy Hop, Salsa, Blues, Fusion or Bachata as it changes hands in the future. 

One of the elements of Contra dancing that has attracted Buckwalter are the unique roles that differ from other forms of social dance.

“The roles are a lot less strict, and they’re a lot easier to learn, than in most partner dancing,” Buckwalter said. “In most partner dancing, when there’s only two people dancing together, there’s a lot of pressure put on the lead to initiate every move… and it also pressures men into taking on this role.” 

Most partner dances, because of their historic roots in gendered societies, are designed around a male and female dance pair. While Contra dancing originally used the terms “Gents” and “Ladies,” many dance communities have taken on genderless terms such as “Robins” and “Larks.”

Since the names of the roles are important for callers and dancers alike, some dance venues are reluctant to change terminology. However, since Contra dancing does not have unique footwork patterns for different roles, it’s easier for dancers to switch between these roles than in some other dance scenes.

Instead of relying on a specific partner like a “lead” when one gets lost, new dancers receive guidance from the caller and the surrounding dancers. With that, another appeal that strikes Buckwalter is the learnability of the dance.

“If you don’t know what’s happening, you just look around. It’s like crowd surfing… like everyone will gently guide you where you need to go, and it’s really nice to be led by everyone else if you’re lost. One of the local dances I went to in Harrisburg… I think their logo on their website was, ‘If you can count to four and walk, you can Contra dance.’”

Contra dancing is for anyone and everyone, and the Countryside Contra Dance group said they’d be delighted if students joined them at their upcoming dance.

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