The first Saturday night of each month, I go contra dancing in Water Mill. The word “contra” always arouses curiosity. Typically, it goes like this:
“You do what?”
“I go to contra dances.”
“Is that some sort of Central American activity?”
“No, it’s North American country dancing.”
“Oh, then why contra?”
“The first New Englanders called it contra, maybe their slang for country.”
Imagine Paul Revere galloping through town on an average evening, lantern in hand, shouting, “Contra dance tonight!”
My first dance was, appropriately, on a visit to Massachusetts in 1986. Friends invited my husband, Eric, and me to their regular dance in Concord. The Scout House is a large, rustic community hall in the center of town, and that evening the hall filled with young and old for the Saturday night social. We formed long lines of couples opposite each other, and thus began the first of many dances that night.
Terror punctuated giddiness as the regulars do-si-doed, swung, and promenaded us up and down the hall until we popped out at the ends of the lines, dazed and exuberant. Bent over in laughter for a few seconds, we were soon pulled back in to repeat the same moves over and over again until the music stopped. Then everyone quite properly thanked each other with a slight bow and prepared for the next dance as the caller urged us to “find someone new and line up.”
Before we knew it, Eric and I were separated and in the hands of friendly strangers for the next round. The caller took us through the sequence of moves and we were off. All this happened so swiftly that nothing serious could develop — sort of a Puritan wife swap, if you will. The band drove us down the hall with a vigorous tune from Ireland. This was quite a departure from square dancing in sixth grade. By the time the musicians were packing up their instruments late in the evening, we were sure we had met up and danced with everyone from Massachusetts.
Home and hungry for more contras, the following year we took our young family to a festival sponsored by the Long Island Traditional Music Association. It was held at the 4-H camp on Long Island Sound in Riverhead. Arriving after dark on a rainy Friday evening in mid-October, we set up our pup tent quickly. The sound of a Scottish reel drew us to the main hall. Stepping into the softly lit room holding our sleepy babies, we stood mesmerized as 40 or so people danced before us.
The caller had dropped out by then, his directives having been absorbed by all present. The musicians led the hall with fiddles and a strong bass player marking the beat. We watched dancers twirl and circle, moving in patterns, skirts flowing, exchanging smiles and nods. Hoots and laughter accompanied the music. It was magical to witness sound and bodies united by rhythm for that moment in time and space.
Since then, Eric and I have danced with our babies in backpacks, in the heat of midday, and in the coolness of late night. We have joined hands with 20 people and with 300 people, and sashayed in our living room alone. Spacious barns, outdoor tents, fields, gymnasiums, and meeting halls here and across the ocean have felt our soles beat against their floors.
Once, while visiting the island of Fyn in Denmark, we searched out a contra dance. After driving miles down pitch-dark country roads, we arrived at a school gymnasium full of dancers. Although the caller’s words were foreign to us, language hardly mattered. Once in the line, we understood.
True to the Danish tradition of evening coffee, everyone stopped dancing midway through the night. Tables stacked against a wall were pulled to the center of the hall and set up in a long rectangle. Colorful tablecloths were spread across them. Pastries, actual ceramic cups, and carafes of tea and coffee taken from baskets were arranged on the tables. Everyone sat down to socialize over the refreshments for about 45 minutes. How civilized it was. After cleanup, the dance continued for another hour.
Newcomers, especially women, always have an important question. “What should I wear?” Anything goes. Just wear comfortable shoes. An annual formal does take place every winter in Water Mill, however. For a contra dancer this can mean your best jeans, wedding dress, or sequined gown. On the East End, most men prefer a dusty wedding tux or a fancy Hawaiian shirt and shorts. But I have seen all kinds of outfits at other dances. The most inspiring ensemble I ever saw was a husband and wife in matching satin prom gowns at a festival near Albany. What would those proper New England forefathers think?
Each time Eric and I enter a dance, we are excited by what will unfold that night up and down the hall. The caller gathers us, and our feet wiggle in anticipation of flirty twirls and friendly faces encountered up and down the line. We love being dance partners, and when the caller instructs us to seek another partner, we ask a first-timer, a single, or even an old friend to step onto the floor. After all, it is a contra dance tradition learned that first night in Concord, when strangers took our hands.
The dancers and the callers who shape each event are at once similar at any venue around the world and yet unique to that place and time. At a contra dance, you become part of a community bonded through the beat of the music, the smile across the line, and the hand of someone new in yours. The dancing is the thing, and no matter how left-footed you are, before or past your prime, large, small, thick, thin, single, or partnered, you are welcomed into the fun.
Hilary Herrick Woodward lives in Southampton with her husband, Eric Woodward. Contra dances are held at the Water Mill Community House October through May.