Lindsey Dono is a contra dance caller based out of Washington State, and we had an awesome conversation on Zeitgeist Radio.
As Lindsey says, "It turns out the hardest part of contra dance is actually describing it." If someone has invited you to a contra dance and you're trying to decide if you want to give it a try, I suggest you just go! You can always leave after a dance or 2 if you're not having a good time. But you might be surprised what a wonderful experience you have!
Benefits of contra dance
One of Lindsey's favorite definitions of contra dance is "THE most efficient use of your time." How does she come to this conclusion?
Physical: You're moving a lot! Using highly un-scientific data from dancer friends with fitness trackers, an evening of dance can give you your 10,000 steps.
Cognitive: You're also cognitively engaged through the whole evening! You're learning new moves and patterns. There are even studies that show dance increases white brain matter in a part of the brain called the fornix, which is related to recall memory.
Social: At a contra dance you'll meet some pretty great people! One of my personal definitions of contra is "smiling people coming at you for 3 hours." Friendships, relationships, careers, and more have come from contra connections. Plus, if you dance regularly at your local dance, you might decide to do a dance weekend sometime... and then you'll really be hooked! You'll meet people from all over the country and likely be drawn to dance in other places as well!
Here are some ways to make sure you have the most fun with your evening:
Choose comfort over fashion
I've been contra dancing in this dress for 20 years! It's colorful AND twirly!
Most contra dancers go with comfort above fashion. It's ok to dress up (though casual clothes are fine too), just make sure you're not wearing anything too tight! You'll be moving constantly throughout the evening.
Many people will likely be wearing fun, colorful, flowy clothes. Don't be surprised if you see tie dye!
Depending on where you are in the country, a lot of communities and dancers are gender-fluid-friendly (more on this later). Regardless of what gender you may identify with (or not!), feel free to wear twirly skirts or fun dresses!
Another thing to consider is that you're moving a lot. You'll get warm! One of my favorite graphics is this graph of the draw on an HVAC system during a day-long contra dance event. You can see the dramatic effect a hall full of dancers has on temperature and humidity in the hall!
Image by Tom Wimmer
The shoes you wear really, really matter! First of all, most dances prohibit "street shoes." Sneakers or other shoes with rubber bottoms often have rocks or sand stuck in the soles. As you dance these rocks gouge the dance floor, potentially ruining the entire floor. These floors are VERY expensive to replace! So please do NOT wear sneakers or "street shoes."
Now is NOT the time to break in your new heels. You will want to choose comfort over style here! Too many times I've seen people (including myself!) wear new shoes and end up with painful blisters.
Coming alone is fine!
There is absolutely no need to come to a dance with a partner. Contra dance is a social dance, which means you'll dance with all sorts of other people. I promise, people will be welcoming. Expect to be asked to dance by people you don't know. You'll likely have several new friends by the end of the evening!
Dance with lots of different people
Contra dance is truly a social dance. It's normal to change partners every single dance.
If you do come with someone, while I understand wanting to dance with them, it's actually generally a better experience to split up the evening. Seek out experienced dancers especially (though hopefully they're being good and seeking you!).
Try alternate dancing one set with your honey, then a dance with someone new. You both will learn and grow so much more than if you only dance with a single person throughout the night. Plus, you'll meet so many more people, learn new tricks, and have all the more stories to tell each other when the night is over!
Mistakes are irrelevant
One of the hardest thing for new dancers is to be ok making mistakes. It really does not matter if you make a mistake! Contra dance is one of the most error-friendly dances out there. If you end up in the "wrong" place or doing the "wrong" move, Lindsey's advice is "Dance with who's coming at you!"
You'll likely sort out where you're "supposed" to be... or not! Either way, listen to the caller and let the experienced dancers help you out. Trust me, we're used to helping.
One thing that really helps minimize the effect of mistakes that will happen (experienced dancers make them all the time too!) is to adhere to the previous tip about dancing with experienced dancers. If you make a mistake and you're in a group of experienced dancers, it's very easy for them to help you out and put you back where you need to go. However, if a mass of new and confused dancers is traveling together, it can be hard to get so many people sorted at once. If you come with a group of new friends, split up!
Nametags can be for more than just names!
When you show up at the door, you'll be given the opportunity to write your name on the nametag.
Please also write your pronouns on your nametag. This give folks helpful information and creates an inclusive space for all!
You can also put other things on this nametag to help other dancers understand how to interact with you. Many experienced dancers like to add twirls or other embellishments as they dance. If you have a shoulder injury or don't like to spin, you can write "NO SPINS" or "INJURY" on the affected side.
After break is different than before break
Typically you will have some dances, then a break (often with a waltz and sometimes another partner dance like a hambo or schottische), then more dancing. But the post-break dances aren't always "more of the same"!
If by break you've felt like the night was a challenge, you can absolutely head home - lots of newbies do this. Congrats on your first contra! We hope you come back.
However, if you're down to see the more complex side of contra, stick around after the break. Typically the dances get a little more ornate. The caller will have more moves, more complex moves, and different types of formations.
However, this does NOT mean these dances aren't beginner friendly! Experienced dancers love it when newbies stick it out through the end of the night... but make sure you're giving it your all and focusing on having fun!
This is intergenerational fun
Contra dance is a place people of all ages can go to have a wonderful evening. You'll see 8 year olds dancing with 80 year olds and everyone is smiling and watching out for each other.
This is a place you could bring your grandparents, older friends, or your 12-year-old niece/nephew. I've seen babies strapped to parents and dads dancing with their 6-year olds. I've danced with 90 year olds on their way to a dance weekend in Seattle who regaled me with tales of their latest polka weekend in Vegas.
A note to singles: Contra is a place for genuine connection and getting to know people in your community! If you're single and looking, contra can be a wonderful place to do something fun with others and develop new friendships. And it is true that some beautiful relationships have blossomed from contra dance! I actually met my husband at a contra dance. But the frame of the dance is wholesome family fun. This is not a place to go to hit on people or expect to hook up. Don't behave in a way you wouldn't want your grandma or child to see!
A note on gender
Some of the most vibrant dance communities in the country have embraced a gender-free space. They use terms like "larks" and "ravens" to describe the dance roles and are friendly and welcoming to queer folks of all flavors.
However, some of the smaller and more rural communities haven't quite caught up or accepted this yet. While I'd love to tell you contra is an accepting space to all, it's probably good to check your local community out first if this is important to you.
There are lots of positive reasons to update the terminology (Listen to my interview with Lindsey for her perspective as a caller!), and at this point communities are probably doing themselves a disservice if they haven't gone gender-neutral. Traditions can be hard to move away from; dancers and callers who have been dancing to the same lingo for 40+ years may have some resistance or confusion with the change.
If this is something that matters to you, it's worth reaching out to the organization before you dance. Ask if they do gender neutral calling and encourage them to adopt the language. Many communities are looking to grow, and if they know their actions are keeping new dancers from showing up, it may be the final straw needed to change their policies.
As allies, it's also good to speak up and request that your community adopt this language. It benefits everyone and is not only more welcoming to queer folk... but as Lindsey points out, it's also more welcoming to singles! If a dance is "gender unbalanced" but using neutral calling, there will be fewer people sitting out without a partner. This means more fun for everyone!
Contra dance isn't for everyone.. but it IS good fun for a lot of people! If you're considering attending your first dance, I hope you give it a try. After all, it is "the most efficient use of your time!"