Out and About: Contra dancing the night away at the German Club
I was heading out to Westerly for some fancy martinis, pretzel sandwiches and burritos when I decided to try something different on a recent Saturday night.
I had heard there was some sort of square dancing going on in a building in Mystic across from the Seaport, so I, a transplant from the Midwest who had do-si-do’d a time or two in my youth, felt compelled to check it out. The Mystic Holiday Boat Parade had just finished up so traffic was ridiculous, but I eventually pulled into the Seaport parking lot across from the tugboat, over by Frohsinn Hall (folks ‘round here refer to it as the German Club.)
I walked to the front of the building, up a small flight of stairs and through the open doors facing the street. Paying the $10 entry fee, I received a coupon for half off the next time and a raffle ticket for a free piece of pie. I liked where this was going.
There was a stage set up straight back at the far end of the hall, and chairs lined the walls, just like a middle school dance. The room had an old-fashioned wood floor, a high ceiling and was well-lit. The event was alcohol- and smoke-free but there was a table set up with a pitcher of water, some plastic cups, and the aforementioned pies. Some people had gathered in the middle of the dance floor and were listening intently to an instructor who later served as the “caller.” Dance moves like “Alabama-right” and “Alabama-left,” “Balance and Swing,” “Promenade,” and “Swing That Neighbor There” were demonstrated by people “who knew what they were doing” to “the people who didn’t.”
The instructor threw out little tips and tricks such as: “To keep from getting dizzy, look your partner in the eye,” and “Don’t worry if it feels like total chaos.”
More people filled the hall and left their coats and sweaters on the chairs and some took off their shoes. There were about 30 people ranging from around 7 years old to 70. Some women wore flowing skirts, some wore pants. Some of the men wore shorts.
At 8 p.m. the caller took her place on stage and grabbed the mic. Those partaking in the dance formed two lines, partners facing each other.
A word of caution: The person you face at the start of the dance will NOT be the only person you dance with, just so you know. The band on stage consisted of a cellist, an accordion player, a guy sitting on a drum box with percussion instruments like a wood block, a doumbek and whistles, and a guitar player with a cittern. They called themselves “Chimney Swift” and had traveled from Boston to play this gig. The cellist rang out a low repeating note (sort of like the sound you hear at the end of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”) to get the beat going.
It was that fast. People were expected to move their feet that fast, too.
This was no square dance. Nor a country line dance, or the Chicken Dance or the Hokey Pokey or the Electric Slide. This was something out of another century, a bygone era, a little bit Pride and Prejudice and a little bit Lord of the Dance.
The music sounded Celtic or Old English folk-like, with a hint of bluegrass.
The musicians were well-accomplished, classically trained and quite professional. They were tight, as we in the biz like to say.
They played the first song for 13 minutes, and the dancers didn’t stop the whole time. When the music finally stopped some people grabbed some water or sat down for a second, then the band was back at it with a new song. The caller announced a new dance, and off they went.
I was out of breath just watching them. As I sat on the sidelines I almost got hit a couple times with a flowing skirt. At least four people came up to me asking me to “just come on and try it.” I had every excuse in the world: “I have high-heeled boots on” (I did). “I’m really out of shape” (I am). “I’m just observing” (I really still wanted a martini).
I was the only one sitting. One woman said, “It’s such great exercise. I wore a step counter once and from 8-11 p.m. I took 13,000 steps!” I quickly calculated. That’s like six miles of brisk walking and six hundred calories, give or take.
As the night went on people started sweating and ripping off more layers. A man yelled to me between twirls, “Some weekends I attend three dances! I love it!” The enthusiasm in the place was infectious and I didn’t stop smiling.
This type of dance does have a name, it turns out: Contra dancing.
It’s a traditional form of New England social dance with roots dating back over 200 years. Who knew? The bands and callers change and the type of music varies a bit each time.
So if you’re up for something quite different, these dances happen monthly at the hall. Wear flat shoes, comfortable clothes and bring an open mind.
More info and the schedule are located here: http://mysticdance.webs.com.
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