LEWISBURG — Rooted in Irish, English and Scottish jigs, reels and waltzes with mixed origins from the 17th century, contra dancing is alive and well in Union County. Contra dancing is easy, energetic and mostly involves a smooth walking step. All dances are called and are danced to live music that has influences from bluegrass to old-time Appalachian and from Irish to French Canadian and swing.
The Countryside Contra Dancers will hold its next open Contra dance from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Donald Heiter Community Center, 100 N. Fifth St. This social event has live music and a caller who teaches the dance. Calling this month is Hilton Baxter, with live music by Smash the Windows. All dances are taught, with a general review for new dancers at 7 p.m.
“I have never been to a contra dance that wasn’t fun,” said Arden Miller of Selinsgrove, and a member of Countryside Contra Dance. “Since I started contra dancing, I have met some great people from all walks of life and have formed new friendships.”
Contra dancing evolved from English Longways style of dance, a row of long lines of four couples facing one another. It was popularized first in New England but is now nationwide. It also is popular in some foreign countries, particularly England and Denmark.
Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world, but are most common in the United States and Canada.
“Contra dancing is a type of traditional American Folk dancing similar to English country dance but livelier and less stately,” said Betsy Noyce of Lewisburg, and coordinator of Countryside Contra Dance.
Typically, Contra dances are done in long lines of couples, who move up and down the line as the dance sequences repeat until they have danced with everyone in the line. A caller walks everyone through each dance’s moves and when the music starts, continues to call so that everyone is following along together.
The figures in Contra dancing are similar to square dancing, and sometimes callers will throw in a square or round dance during the evening.
“There is an emphasis on changing partners each dance so that everyone is included; we believe that you learn a little from each person,” Noyce said. “There is no fancy footwork, so dances are appropriate for all ages.”
The music is chosen by the musicians with guidance from the caller, and usually includes jigs and reels, played on a variety of instruments with fiddle and guitar often as mainstays.
Although the dance is meant mainly for couples, it is not necessary to bring a partner to the dance.
“This dance is for the fun of whoever shows up — no experience or partner is needed,” Noyce said.
It is an ideal social situation because each person meets and dances with other people, but you are together only for the dance.
All you need to enjoy the evening is a love of music, movement and a willingness to listen to the caller during instruction and to try.
“We have preschoolers and octogenarians, professionals and blue-collar folks,” Noyce said. “Every dance is taught and called so that everyone can join in.”
Those coming to the dance should wear loose fitting clothes and clean, non-marking shoes to help protect the gym floor. There is also a social break where some of the dancers have brought in desserts or fruit to share.
The Countryside Contra Dancers was started in the winter of 1996 by Bucknell staff with cabin fever. Not able to travel to Contra dance venues some distance away, they decided to try getting a dance together in Lewisburg — and it caught on.
The Lewisburg dance is run by volunteers and features talented musicians and callers, who often travel great distances (i.e. from Baltimore and Syracuse) for one night of fun and are as passionate about Contra dancing as the dancers.
“They are paid a small amount and the dance could not survive without them,” Noyce said. “Contra dancing continues to evolve today as new dances are written and each dancer puts her or his own mark on the dance form.”
Behind the scenes work involves scheduling a variety of bands and callers throughout the year, so that each dance has its own character.
“We try to create an inclusive, nurturing environment where we can share the joy of music, movement and each other,” Noyce said.
The Lewisburg dancers meet on the second Saturday of the month, September through May, and all dances are held at the Donald Heiter Community Center. The dancers begin at 7 p.m. and dance until 10 p.m. with a break for snacks half way through the evening.
Attendance for the dances typically varies between 20 and 40 people. There is a cost. First time dancers get a coupon to return free to another dance. The dancers range in age from 2 to 90.
“We hope that people coming to the dance will have fun and experience the joy of dancing to live traditional music as they mingle and meet other people,” Noyce said. “Contra dancing is an energetic, fun traditional dance form, accessible to and for everyone who attends,” Noyce said.
“What we hope all will take home is a sense of connecting with other people and the joy of moving in synchrony with lively music,” she added.
Noyce was introduced to folk dancing in college and started coming to Contra dances in Lewisburg about 20 years ago for fun. Her husband, Jeff Scheckter, has danced for about 10 years. Noyce became involved with Contra dancing through a college friend in Colorado, who urged her to try it out when he discovered that Lewisburg had a dance.
“I had never Contra danced before, went to that first dance, fell in love with it and haven’t stopped dancing since,” she said.
Noyce and Scheckter, have lived in Lewisburg for 30 years. Their professional backgrounds are in education and medicine.
“People gravitate to Contra dance because it is easy to do, involves lively music of jigs and reels with English, Celtic and Appalachian roots, and has a caller who tells the dancers what to do,” Noyce said. “Contra dancing includes people from any age or walk of life.”
For more information on the Countryside Contra Dance, call 570-524-2104.