Friday, April 22, 2011

Contra Dancing in Shepherdstown

    Have you ever seen those period Jane Austen movies that make a quaint little spectacle of the English gentry dancing in long proper lines to rhythmic but discrete music?  Now imagine those same long lines, only set to a pumped up version of the same type of music while receiving instructions from a caller after square-dance fashion.  Add in fiddles, guitar, banjos, pianos, hammered dulcimers, various woodwinds and a room full of happy people of all ages.  Now shake well (don't stir) and you have a general picture of contra dancing!
 (Called by Beverly Smith to the music of Rhythm Method)

     Every first Saturday of the month I venture with friends and family to the little village of Shepherdstown, WV to engage in this bizarre social ritual, but last night I seized the opportunity to talk with two prominent members of the board of Shepherdstown Music and Dance which is responsible for running the dances each month.
      "I start out by telling people that it's social dancing, sort of like square dancing, but in two long lines," said Becky Lidgerding, a long-time board member.
     And what of the weird name?  Almost sounds like "anti-dancing," right?
     According to board member Joanie Blanton, "Contra is a long-ways set dance where you dance 'contrary' or 'opposite' your partner.  It comes from 'contredanse' which came from France.  The long-ways set dances known as 'contra dances' became very popular in early America where both the English and the French traditions merged."
     Originally a synthesis of several traditional European folk styles that came together in the little villages of New England, it really spread around the rest of the country during a youth revival of folk music several decades ago.
     "It's what the young, free-spirited people were doing in the seventies," Becky told me with a laugh.
     I can tell you from my own experience that the dance has certainly maintained its "free-spirited" nature as Becky calls it.  I remember being quite a stick-in-the-mud before my concerned friends forcefully dragged my seventeen year-old self to the Frederick dance.  Before then, I never attended popular social dances because of the typical woes of an awkward teenage male.  Namely, I didn't know how to dance, I didn't have a date and I didn't like strangers.  But contra, as it would turn out, is a totally different scene.  Each dance begins with a workshop for newbies that teaches you step-by-step break downs of common move sets.  In addition, before the start of each dance of the evening, the specifics of that particular dance get a detailed walk-through.  No need to worry about bringing a date because everyone freely asks everyone else to dance.  Because of the way it's structured, you have to do some level of dancing with everyone in the room whether you ask them to be your specific partner or not.  It's a little awkward at first, but I immediately noticed that the experienced dancers were naturally jovial, non-judgmental, and eager to help me learn.  During the break the other dancers made an active effort to know me.
     As Joanie said, "Once you learn the dance you can relax and listen to the music and interact with every person you meet in a different way and it's really fun."

  (This video taken by the talented hand of Sasha)

  I still remember that on the night of my first Shepherdstown dance (11/30/2002) a large group of the teenagers took to the streets singing Christmas carols throughout the town.  With people like this, it's impossible for even the most reluctant of souls to avoid becoming one of them!

Interview with Sasha Crum about why she loves to contra dance

What: Contra Dancing
When: First Saturday evening of every month.  Beginners workshop starts at 7:30, dance at 8:00
Where:  Shepherdstown Men's Club
             War Memorial Building
             102 E. German St.
             Shepherdstown, WV 25443
For more info about contra and the many other SMAD events, visit them online at


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