The Maneater

Contra dance incorporates community, comfort, country

The Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers host dancing at the First Christian Church.

Pamela Gibbs dances with her partner during contra dancing Oct. 29 at the First Christian Church. Patrons and members of the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers gather at the church often to participate in contra dancing.

In the bottom level at the First Christian Church downtown, everyone is dancing. Everyone smiles at their dance partners, children run and interrupt couple dances and men and women do not simply tell you their favorite moves — they show you.

“There are swings and spins and all kinds of extra flourishes that you can do, that’s what makes it exciting here,” Peter Yronwode said, as he assertively asked a woman closest to him to help him demonstrate. Before she could answer, he had already spun her around and illustrated his favorite swing move.

This kind of assertiveness is common in the dance form of contra, a combination of line dancing, swing and waltz. Blending Irish and French Canadian culture, contra incorporates old-English country dancing culture.

The popularity of contra is somewhat sporadic, with its initial popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, and its last revival in the 1970s. Men and women of all ages continue to practice the traditional dance by participating in the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers’ practices.

The dancers, who range from beginners to more experienced veterans, are from a variety of backgrounds. Many have been dancing since the 1970s and some began dancing after friends and family introduced them to the eclectic style.

MU senior Valerie Young said she went with her neighbors to their contra dance practice when she was 10 years old.

“I made my parents take me after that and they were hooked, and I’ve been dancing ever since,” Young said.

MU gradate student Rhett Hartman was new to the city and wanted to find an outlet that allowed him to meet new people.

“I never thought of myself as a dancer,” Hartman said. “So, it was something new to learn and people seemed real nice and down-to-earth.”

MMTD dancers give off a comfortable and laid-back vibe, and they are not held to high dancing standards. In fact, the dance announcer, or caller, walks dancers through a variety of basic contra steps before the music is added.

Even though variations and self-embellishments are encouraged, the caller announces steps that are choreographed to go with the music.

“She has to be able to teach and pay attention to how long people dance,” MMTD board member Krishna Fogle said. “She can tell the band to stop.”

Fogle said there are 64 dance counts with the music, but dancers usually add their own steps, which include the Do-si-do, hay for four — which involves four people walking in a figure eight — and the California twirl.

No matter what style or embellishment a dancer ends up doing, everyone in the room dances with everyone. MMTD ensures a friendly experience by making sure everyone feels accepted and by fostering a sense of belonging.

“We encourage everyone to change partners because you really have community,” MMTD secretary Linda Karns said. “You have people dance more often and ensure new people can learn it.”

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