Contra dancing an energetic, friendly hobby open to all

By Stina Sieg | May 09, 2011
Tom Steffel and his partner share a dance move during the Waynesville Contra Dance.

Contra dancers walk among us. They look like us and talk like us, and they might even be our friends or neighbors. For the most part, contra dancers are us — though perhaps just a little friendlier, happier and more welcoming.

At least that’s how it feels at any contra dance worth its salt.

That’s certainly how it was at The Gateway Club a few Sundays back, when a predictably unpredictable swath of the community turned out for the newest contra dance around. The afternoon was filled with live music, an energetic caller and old folk dance steps reinvigorated by the crowd. People danced for hours, and nearly all of them had inextinguishable, infectious smiles.

To quote Kathy Odvody, who helped bring the dance to Waynesville a couple of months ago, contra is “joyful.”

“And it’s a great experience,” she went on. “It’s a fabulous community of people who are very accepting.”

As she took a break from the dance floor, she described how she was immediately drawn to contra when she first came across it sometime between six and eight years ago. She was in her early or mid-50s then, and though she deeply enjoyed the folk dance form, part of her was embarrassed that she wasn’t picking it up faster and was still flubbing up every once in a while. After contra dancing maybe five times, she actually resolved to stop. That was before a quiet guy she had danced with a few times walked up to her and gave her a simple but life-changing compliment.

“Your dancing has really improved in the last month,” she remembers him telling her.

That was the small spark of encouragement she needed. She has been dancing ever since.

She explained that stories such as hers are common in contra dancing circles, in which people come together to enjoy each other, not to show off their dance chops (though they can often be quite impressive). In a typical contra, dancers start with one partner, but the choreography often calls for them to contra with many of the other dancers in hall during the course a song. The best contra dancers know how to be sensitive to the abilities, tempo and personal style of whomever they’re dancing alongside.

“Because it’s so much fun, they want other people to love it too,” Odvody said.

Though not everyone used the word “love” to describe their feelings at The Gateway’s most recent dance, it seemed implied. The strange thing, the beautiful thing, was that most everyone who spoke about contra sounded as if they were on the exact same page, regardless of their age or how long they had been doing this all-American dance. Though contra’s origins date back hundreds of years, the day of dance was fresh and full of life.

A woman in her early 20s who only goes by the name Cheshire called the dance “really dynamic in a lot of ways.” With her spiky hair, lip ring and gauged ears, she didn’t have a typical Haywood County look about her, but it didn’t  matter. She was scooped up into the contra fold just as much as anyone else. Though she had only been to five or so contras in her life, Cheshire, who was taking a break from activism at West Virginia’s Blair Mountain, explained that this sense of welcome is part of what keeps her seeking out the dances.

“It think it’s incredibly fun. I think it’s a blast — and you get to meet a lot of new people,” she said.

Sheldon Lieberman, an Ashevillian who makes sure to hit up local contras at least twice a week, called the feeling at a contra dance “unconditional acceptance.”

“Everyone’s accepted for who they are,” he said.

Though he obviously had some of the best dance skills in the hall, he didn’t mention anything about that as he described his thoughts on contra, in which he has been immersed for two-and-a-half years. Instead, he spoke about how much he likes the social and exercise aspects of it. He looked to be anywhere between 30 and 50, but he didn’t feel like giving an exact number. This didn’t seem to be a vanity thing, but more of a practical one. In contra, he explained, age doesn’t matter.

“We all get to connect,” he said. “All you have to do is smile to connect.”

This can even be true for contra newbies. Jean Adams, an 83-year-old who lives at Lake Junaluska, came that day without a partner or any contra experience — and had a ball.

“I love to dance, but I’ve never contra danced,” she said.

Still, she found herself picking up the traditional moves without too much trouble. The walkthroughs, held before the start of each new dance, helped, as did the wide assortment of partners who asked her onto the dance floor. As so many contra dancers will, they helped teach her. She sounded certain she would be back.

“There’s such a variety of people — and not judgmental,” she said, adding a few beats later, “I just admire the people here who brought it to town.”

From her years of contra, Odvody knows that these sorts of good vibes pretty much come standard with every contra dance, though that delight never gets old. One of the things she likes about watching contra is seeing all sorts of people who might not normally interact get a chance to know each other. It’s like witnessing a little village take shape, she explained, in which people are connected because they share the same love.

“This is so cool because community is being created,” she said. “Community is happening.”

And it’s happening one folksy, tradition-filled step at a time.

The Waynesville Contra Dance takes place from 2 to 4:30 p.m. the fourth Sunday of every month in the ballroom at The Gateway Club, 37 Church St. The dance features live music and a beginners walkthrough at the afternoon’s start, as well as an additional walkthrough before each new dance. Admission is $5. For more information, call 734-1027 or 454-5514.