Become a Dancing Queen—or Maybe Even a Dance Gypsy

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By Clover Carroll

Contra dancers at the Greenwood Community Center.
Contra dancers at the Greenwood Community Center.

Have you ever wished you could find a wholesome, inexpensive evening activity that involves some exercise and maybe some music, where you could join a friendly community, release your creativity, and leave your cares at the door? Well, look no further than the country dances being held weekly right here in Western Albemarle. This welcoming, partner-not-required, social dancing never fails to release unbounded joy within as you move in graceful harmony with other dancers and with the beautiful, old-time music played by live musicians. “You dance with: with the music, with your partner, and with others in your set. It’s community at its best” (www.cdss.org). Besides the dancers, many participate in the dance scene by playing the toe-tapping tunes, both historic and modern, on fiddle, bass, piano, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, hammered dulcimer, banjo, concertina, and/or guitar. “I enjoy contra because it’s one of the places where I feel most alive,” comments Becky Cohen, organizer of the Greenwood Contra Dance. Dancing can be a form of meditation, a form of therapy, a form of exercise, or a way to make new friends—but whatever your motivation, you are guaranteed to have a ball—and where do you suppose that expression came from, anyway?

“English and Scottish country dancing, colonial era dancing, and contra dancing all have common roots in the courts, assembly rooms, private homes, and village greens of the British Isles and Europe.  This type of dancing has been popular since before John Playford published the first collection of dances in 1651—and is still a living tradition that has spread to all corners of the world,” explains Dale Mantautas, a local caller and teacher of both English and Scottish dance. In this type of social dancing, a group of couples (usually four or six) perform circle dances, square dances, and most commonly, set dances. In set dancing, the couples form a longways “set” with men and women arranged in two parallel lines opposite—or “contra to”—each other. The many variations of country dancing, especially Contra, have been popular in the Charlottesville area for at least thirty years, with local Contra dances typically attracting 80 to 100 dancers! While on any given night of the week you can find at least one country dance somewhere in the C’ville area—including Contra Dance, English Country Dance, Scottish Dance, Irish Dance, International Folk Dance, Waltz, and occasionally even Renaissance Dance—we don’t really need to leave Western Albemarle to find plenty of choices, with Contra, English, Scottish, and Waltz meeting regularly close at hand. This is because we are fortunate to have two large, beautiful dance halls with wooden floors very nearby—one at the Greenwood Community Center, managed by the Albemarle Co. Parks & Rec, and the other in the parish hall of St. Paul’s Ivy Episcopal Church on Owensville Road, which kindly rents its space to dance groups.

Everyone is welcome at the dances, so you will find dancers of all ages, from 8 to 80, in attendance. You don’t need to bring a partner to participate; as the tradition is to change partners after every dance, over the course of an evening you may find you have danced with every person of the opposite gender in the room (and perhaps some of the same gender if numbers are uneven)! Dancers are some of the nicest people you will ever meet, so your shyness will quickly evaporate. Each dance, usually lasting 10 minutes or so, consists of a sequence of figures strung together into a unique geometric pattern. The dances are usually progressive, which means that the top couple moves down the set one place after each round of the dance, eventually ending at the bottom of the set.

When you are new, attendance at the introductory dance workshops offered before the main dance starts is highly recommended; here you will learn the basic, oft-repeated figures so you can participate with confidence. Since the dances are called, theoretically once you have mastered the basic figures—setting, casting, balance & swing, figure eight, grand chain, etc.—you will be able to make your way through any dance without getting lost. In reality, everybody gets lost from time to time, but mistakes are laughed off and other dancers help keep you on track. “It’s more important to have fun than to do it right,” Becky points out. And don’t forget the proverb: “if you stumble, make it part of the dance.” Country dancers form a culture all their own, a national and international network who travel great distances in pursuit of the elusive “dance trance” and to feed their insatiable love of dancing. People who hit the road frequently (as in most nights and weekends) or are willing to travel long distances just to attend a dance have been dubbed “dance gypsies.”

Contra Dance (http://www.contracorners.com) meets the first Friday and the second and fourth Sundays of each month at 8:00 p.m. at the Greenwood Community Center, 6:30 -9:00 with beginner’s workshop at 6:00. Adults $8.00 Youth $4.00. Live music and experienced callers. Contact Becky Cohen [email protected]

English Country Dance (http://home.earthlink.net/~hmarkham) is less athletic/aerobic but more elegant than Contra, using a light walking step and moves such as setting, casting, right-hand star, gypsy, and poucette; the ballroom scenes in Jane Austen movies feature this style. Each dance has its own music, which range over many moods, meters, and styles. Music for the early dances included popular ballads as well as theater music, including tunes by Henry Purcell. ECD meets the second Friday of each month Sept-May at St. Paul’s Ivy, 8:00 pm with instruction at 7:30, cost $5. Contact Howard Markham [email protected] or Dale Mantautas 979-3258.

When the country dance form was brought to Scotland by travelling dancing masters in the 18th century, it was matched to Scottish tunes and rhythms played on the most popular instrument of the time, the violin—resulting in Scottish Dance (http://mhscd.avenue.org), characterized by lively jigs, driving reels, and elegant “strathspeys” that cause toes to tap and feet to move. Meets every Tuesday year round at St. Paul’s Ivy, 7:00-9:00 with instruction at 6:30, cost $3. Taught by Celia Belton, 979-0939.

Open Waltz is a friendly, informal evening of folk waltzing to recorded music. Both folk and ballroom waltz are danced to music with 3 beats per measure, American folk waltz is more casual and less performance/competition oriented. No formal instruction, but help provided upon request. Some members are interested in other dance styles such as Swing, Salsa, and Zydeco, so we encourage others to suggest we change the pace towards the end of the evening. Meets every Tuesday year round, 7:30-9:30 at the Greenwood Community Center, cost $5. Contacts: Rick Martin 434-823-6999 and Carol Bradford 540-942-3914.

The night is cool and fragrant with crushed leaves. I sling my dance bag over my shoulder, hop in the car and head out to Greenwood. Pulling into the parking lot, I am warmed by the fairy lights twinkling inside as the sound of laughter drifts through the windows, mingling with the band’s first tunings. I hurry inside, tie on my dancing shoes, and take my first partner by the hand. The music heats up, setting the pace but also bending and flowing with the dancers’ moods. Soon my energy is released and I’m flying—balancing, swinging, heying, grand chaining, losing myself in my own dance trance. Everyone in the room is smiling, lit up with beauty and joy. The feeling is indescribable: I am one with the music, one with the dance, one with my partner, alive in the moment.

[This article has been revised from its original print version by its author.]