“If you can alternate your two left feet, you can contra dance,” says Marilee Standifer, who ought to know. Not that she has two left feet. It’s that she’s been dancing with the Madison Contra Dance group for nearly three decades. As she speaks winter boots come clomping in on the hard wood floor in the airy space that is Gates of Heaven in James Madison Park. The synagogue was built in 1863, which makes it nearly as old as contra dancing itself.
Don’t let contra dancers catch you calling it square dancing. But for you squares who don’t know, well, that’s kind of what you should picture. Taking its origins from 17th century country dancing in England, Scotland and France, the form, partly due to the popularity of the fiddle in the region, was eventually — and inevitably — adopted by mountain folks in Appalachia. Live music is a given and callers, speaking in a concise cadence that is music in and of itself, describe the steps, or “forms,” as the dancers proceed up and down in a line. As many as 12 different forms may be included in one dance, the sum of which can make for a dance as long or as short as the caller sees fit.
The Madison group holds dances at Gates of Heaven every Tuesday night. Tonight, a good 30 to 40 dancers flow in at the last minute and are raring to go as soon as their coats are off.
“The basic dance step is just walking,” says veteran dancer and caller Steve Pike. That sounds simple enough but, once in motion, looks much, much more complicated. Imagine the circular patterns you see moving and blooming when you peer into a kaleidoscope tube.
If it were just for the spiraled movements created by an ever-changing series of partners gliding in and out of a dizzying helix, contra dancing would be fun enough. But there’s a social aspect to the form that’s as old and adhered to as the dance steps.
“You’re pretty much dancing with everybody in the room in the first five or 10 minutes of the dance,” says Pike. In the old days, these were opportunities, like speed dating now, to socialize and maybe meet a spouse. “I’m looking around this room,” says fiddler Carol Ormond, “and you could ask how many of them met a long-term partner on the dance floor.”
These social aspects of the dance are articulated on the group’s website; guidelines that emphasize consent and safety. Madison Contra Dance forms are gender-free, meaning there are no “gents” and “ladies.” Instead, a dancer is known as either a “Lark,” the left-hand dancer, or a “Raven,” the dancer who takes the right. In this way “permission is given to dance whatever role you want with whomever you want,” says dancer Katie Mueller.
Mueller says this frees dancers from having to follow the stereotypical roles of “gent” or “lady.” What’s more, it invites people to learn two ways to dance rather than one. “That adds a completely new element to the dance where you have two people negotiating in the middle of a dance, without words, to swap back and forth, seamlessly, continuously, throughout the dance and it adds so much playfulness and so much extra challenge.”
Watching the proceedings from the balcony beside the 10-piece band, it’s clear that the form is more challenging for some than for others. One Lark in particular stamped about the room in a way that made it look like he was putting out a grass fire. But that’s the point. Whether you’re a firefighter or a velvet-smooth veteran, beginners and experts make it click, together. As they’ve been doing at contra dances for hundreds of years.
Mid-1800s: Contra dance popularity wanes as couple dances like the polka and waltz become popular.
1950s: Contra dance blooms in New England.
“In the hundreds”: Contra dances that Steve Pike has called all over the country.
1,200: Different, individual dance forms Pike knows.
64: Number of beats it takes to get all the way through a dance before the pattern is repeated.
Contra dance crossovers: hip-hop and techno