Contra Dance

Contra dance (also contradance, contradance and other variant spellings) refers to several partnered folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines or in a group of four. It has mixed origins from English country dance and French dance styles in the 17th century.

Our introduction to Contra Dancing was in Bishop Hill, IL, 2013. We were invited to the tiny historical town to perform at their Midsommer Music Festival. After our performance the festival moved indoors for the finally, a contra dance, (also known as a Barn Dance, but not the same as country line dancing.) We had never been to a contra dance so were unsure of ourselves but delighted to find that it was a welcoming community and easy to learn.

The¬†evening began with a caller,¬†who explained and guided the group through a dance. Then once everyone had the general gist, the music began. It was fiddle based tunes, with piano, guitar, banjo and bass accompaniments. It was festive and the energy level was brilliant as we flowed from one partner to the next. The movements were whimsically smooth and spirits were high. One thing that caught us off guard however, was the intense eye contact.¬†Contra dancers make eye contact whenever possible. This adds to the connectedness of the dance, and as we found out, helps reduce dizziness, especially during “the swing.” There were no costumes or role playing, it was just pure dancing pleasure.¬†

Austin Contra Dance Fast forward a year and we are on our way to Austin, TX  May 2014, with our fellow bus riders, Greg and Jeffrey. Somehow Contra dancing came up and we decided to look up a dance in Austin. We discovered the Wednesday Night Contra Dance that was open to the public and also allowed musicians to sit in with the band, which they call the Local On-Call Orchestra (LOCO) . It was a win/win, so we took our friends, taught them to dance and played music!

It was such a great time that we went back one last time before our departure, north where we would sit in Wisconsin for the summer. Then as we began to make our way back south for the winter, we told Rhys, our Australian bus rider, about Contra Dance. He smiled that sort of, “yeah, I’m probably not gonna dance,” smile. But we were convinced he’d try it once he saw it. Ha! We joined the Wednesday night Contra Dance as soon as we arrived back in town. Rhys was happy to play music with the band but reluctant to try the actual dance. We got him out there eventually. He was a good sport and in the long run, he can at least say he’s tried.

 

 The History of Wednesday Night Contra Dancing, Austin TX

Contradancing in Austin originated when¬†AFTM¬†(Austin Friends of Traditional Music) started a jam session at¬†Hancock Recreation Center¬†over 30 years ago or so. Somebody (the name was lost in time) said “Hey, this is a good dance floor so let’s dance!” and thus the dancing started. The dancing went through several variations and around 1990 became predominately contradance.

To this day the Wednesday night dance at HRC is still a community dance with an average of 40-60 dancers and occasional 75 dancing to the music of LOCO (Local On-Call Orchestra) – an open band of 3-10+ members with many excellent musicians, where anyone is welcome to come and play. The callers will call a variety of dances, whether it be contras, squares, circles, or whatever. This is a free dance courtesy of the City of Austin and Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

If you’re near Austin, TX we highly recommend a Wednesday night with the The Austin Barn Dancers. They meet every Wednesday night at Hancock Recreation Center from 7:30 until 9:45.

If you aren’t in Austin, do a search for Contra Dances in your area. Fun for the whole family!

Midsommer in Bishop Hill

DowntownBishopHill.jpg

There is something quite delightful about small town USA. Homespun shops, beautiful gardens, rich history and interesting architecture. Bishop Hill is no exception. This little town sits between Moline and Galesburg, IL and you have to be purposeful to visit the historic site as it’s not on any of the main highway routes. It’s worth the effort to make a detour however.

TheHollandsBishopHill.jpgWe were invited by the Bishop Hill Arts Council to perform at their Midsommer Music Festival, a summer solstice celebration filled with music, dance and the traditional decorating of the Maypole.

We rolled into Bishop Hill the night before our performance and thanks to the Heritage Association we parked our bus next to the Livery Stable. We were tired from a days travel and hungry, and on recommendation we went to the Filling Station for dinner. Linda, the owner, struck up a conversation with us and invited us to dine on the house. The meal was hardy and Linda was a fantastic host, funny and down to earth.

On our walk back to the Livery Stable we took a side trail to the grave yard. We noted many of the grave stones dating back to the early 1800’s, probably of settlers that were actually born in Sweden. There were buzzards flying over head as the sun was setting on the horizon and air was still.

Blackhawkpipesanddrums.jpgAfter a good night sleep we awoke to the brilliant sounds of the Blackhawk pipe and drum band wafting throughout the air. ¬†The beginning our exploration of what has been frequently been called “Utopia on the Prairie” was off to a good start. Our first stop, the Bishop Hill Bakery and Eatery where we found the most amazing old world cinnamon roll you can imagine. After breakfast we explored many of the historical buildings including the Blacksmith Shop, home to the Prairie Arts Center and VagnHall Galleri. We met Jeffrey Goard, the potter, we met¬†a broom crafter, and a luthier named Gary Carey, who makes beautiful mountain dulcimers and other lovely instruments. We also met a ¬†fella who was showcasing photography from his time as a field worker (missionary) in South America. It was inspiring to hear his story of travel and service to the widow, orphan and poor.

Steeplebuilding.jpgNext we visited the Steeple Building, where we learned about the Swedish heritage and history of those that settled in this area. We learned that this little town of 125 was established in 1846 as a commune by 75 Swedish settlers led by religious radical, Eric Janson. Nearly a quarter of the Colonists died that first winter and about four years later Janson was murdered by a member for not allowing a marriage to take place. Despite other set backs, they colony persevered and grew to about 600 members until dissolving in 1861. A hundred years later, in 1961, the Bishop Hill Heritage association organized and the town was designated a National Historic Landmark and is on the National register of Historic Places. We also visited the Bishop Hill Museum to take in one of the most renowned folk artists, Olof Krans. His paintings provided a fascinating glimpse into the story of the first Old Settlers Reunion in 1896.

In the afternoon, we performed for delightful crowd despite the heat of 89 degrees. Our performance was followed by the crowning of the Midsommer Queen and the decorating of the Maypole. A gent in his 80’s played rollicking traditional tunes on his accordion while we marched the Maypole to the old School House. Craig was invited to be one of the Maypole carriers. Three blocks later the Maypole arrived at its destination where it was erected and the dance ensued. There were a few folks dressed in Scandinavian garb who lead the processions around the pole. After about an hour of dance the leaders lead a snake line of participants into the School house for a light supper. Later in the evening we attended our first barn dance, held in the old school-house. Many there were learning for the first time and the band/callers were very gracious in teaching us all. The night was filled with laughter and joy. It was what one might call, ‘good, clean fun.’ The night concluded with a stroll by moonlight back to the bus and a final farewell to this darling community. Until we meet again.