Odd Fellows Hall, in Santa Fe, is a modest building, easy to overlook, but twice a month it comes vibrantly alive, pulsing with the piquant tunes of an old time band and the rhythmic stomping of 70 pairs of feet. An occasional hoot punctuates the pattern of the dance while everyone holds hands and moves together to the music. “Gents! Allemande left,” shouts the caller. “Neighbors, gypsy and swing!” A flurry of colorful, spinny skirts bursts into motion as a roomful of smiling couples swing and twirl themselves silly. This is a typical contra dancing community. Happy, healthy, and—especially in summertime—hot! Not long into a dance, the doors are thrown open to cool off the radiant, flush-faced dancers, and life spills out into the night.
About a year ago, a shy young woman found the courage to walk inside and quickly fell in love. That woman was me. I never thought I would consider myself a dancer. I’ve never felt graceful, coordinated or confident on the dance floor, but contra dancing changed that forever. Now I can’t imagine my life without dancing––it nourishes my whole being––and my story isn’t unusual. “If you put club music on and expect me to move, it takes a lot of nerve for me to do something with my body,” says Erik Erhardt, president of the New Mexico Folk Music and Dance Society (FolkMADS). Contra gives us both a way to dance. “There’s this unity—I no longer feel weird and alone in my body,” he says. “Everyone’s dancing the same thing together, so there’s a oneness. And my experience of that oneness is that it creates community.”
I vividly recall the moment when I began thinking of this as my community: the first time I pinned on my sparkly name tag. In a reassuring way that felt both welcoming and official, it seemed to commemorate a rite of passage—I was no longer an outsider. The pinning took place at FolkMADness, our annual May dance camp, where I met many new friends like Nate Puffer. Nate is an old time musician who used to call dances in Taos. “This sort of dance and music community connects people with lives that otherwise don’t interact,” he says. “You can’t do it on your own, and that makes it feel more holistic and rooted and not frivolous but actually really important.” Because we’re not just dancing and making music. We’re cultivating a world that reflects the way we want to live and raise our families.
We all make the dances happen by working together—dancers, callers, musicians, sound technicians and many other volunteers. Bringing a dance to fruition requires a community effort, and this strong sense of community distinguishes contra from most other forms of social dance. “It’s not like swing,” says Erik, “where your attention is not on the whole floor as one but as couples doing your own individual thing, maybe somewhat in competition with the people around you. Like, ‘Can I have more attitude and flair than my neighbors?’ There isn’t a performance element in contra.” Connection is central to contra dancing, and showing off undermines that connection.
In this respect, contra is similar to the old time music we favor in New Mexico. “The music evolved in the Appalachians among the isolated rural communities,” says old time musician and former FolkMADS president Marj Mullany. “Old time is traditional. It’s different from bluegrass because bluegrass is modern, all about showmanship and hotdogging and taking solos.” Old time is about making music by coming together, like the weekly Old Time Jam at Tractor Brewing where Marj regularly plays with a circle of fellow musicians. “It’s not about impressing each other,” she says. “You sit down, you play the tune until you get tired of it, and then you play a different tune.” Likewise, in contra we dance a pattern until we get tired of it, and then we dance a new pattern.
These intricate patterns resemble the old time tunes that accompany them by interlacing an infinite variety of relatively simple moves to create a richly textured dance. Square dancing and contra dancing share many basic moves, but unlike squares, contras are danced in long lines, which allows everyone to dance with everyone else during every dance. The dance weaves people together on the floor as couples progress up and down the lines, dancing the patterns with new pairs of neighbors along the way. Erik calls this “geometry in motion.” Contra is named for its lines in which partners stand contra, or opposite, one other. “Historically,” he says, “the dances we do evolved from seventeenth century English country dancing —what we see in a Jane Austen movie.” Many dancers feel a palpable connection with their cultural heritage by participating in this deeply rooted tradition.
Dancers know which patterns to dance because a caller “calls” the moves. Nate and Erik each started calling as a way to support the community. Nate got involved with contra because he wanted to play old time music. When the community needed dancers, he started dancing. The same thing happened with calling. “In Taos at the time, the dance group could no longer afford to hire out-of-town callers,” he says. So they applied for a grant to have an experienced caller come and teach a workshop. Three of the six who attended the workshop became regular callers. “That grant was tremendously valuable for the dance scene,” says Nate. “Having local callers to call the dances as opposed to hiring outside callers got us through that tight period.”
Erik began calling in Albuquerque six years ago. “As a person in his 30s, I realized, ‘At this point I have a desire to contribute in a way that I didn’t care about when I was in my 20s,’” he says. Recognizing that this is a volunteer-based community that only exists because people choose to get involved, Erik chose to become more of a leader by learning to call. “That’s my way of making the community sustainable.” When he was approached by an aspiring caller, Erik created the New Mexico Callers Collective. “I decided it doesn’t make sense to just teach one person, so let’s make a group, have this be a community thing, and together we’ll all learn how to call.” Marj has been calling since 1995 and helps out as a mentor.
Although she’s not a caller, Stacey Chan regularly attends collective meetings. Stacey is a member of the FolkMADS board who is responsible for booking callers and bands. She supports the growing trend of gender-free dancing. When she met her fiancé, Ben Werner, he was wearing a skirt. “I had never encountered that before,” she says. “So I asked him, ‘Why are you wearing a skirt?’ He responded by saying, ‘Because it’s fun to twirl,’ and then proceeded to actually twirl. And it dawned on me—that’s why I wear a skirt, so why can’t anyone wear a skirt?” Stacey works in a male-dominant industry and appreciates the contra community’s openness to gender-free, nontraditional dance roles. Women, myself included, often dance the “gent” role and men regularly dance as “ladies.” Switching back and forth keeps the dance more interesting.
I think gender-free dancing will contribute to the community’s sustainability in the long run because it appeals to younger dancers. Erik, Stacey, Ben and I are all actively involved in establishing regular dances at UNM with the hope of building a more diverse, intergenerational dance community. Decades ago, contra was primarily a young people’s dance––in many places it still is––but our demographic has aged—particularly in New Mexico. “When I was in school in the northeast, there was a well-established and sustaining college dance being done by the students,” says Stacey. “Having something like that is what I envision for the colleges here.” The UNM dances haven’t gained enough momentum to fully support themselves yet, but we recognize those dances as an investment in the future of our community. We’re planting the seeds that will sustain us for generations.
Contra dancing is held in Albuquerque (first and third Saturdays of the month), Santa Fe (second and fourth Saturdays) and Taos (third Saturdays). English country dancing is held in Albuquerque (second Sundays). The Old Time Jam is held in Albuquerque (Mondays). Public megaband rehearsals are held in Santa Fe (first and third Wednesdays). Dance camp is held in Socorro (Memorial Day Weekend). Visit folkmads.org for more information.
Story by Emily Ruch