Allemande, Do-Si-Do, Swing
August 25th, 2018 by Mike Teegarden

Dancing lifts the spirits while twirling to live music

With a few gentle strokes of a rosined bow, fiddle strings come to life, and another contra dance begins in Eugene, Oregon. Dancers move under the direction of caller Woody Lane, who guides them through the flowing dance as they travel up and down the dance hall in lines, greeting other dancers with big smiles.

Woody, from Roseburg, Oregon, calls out the next move as the powerful and rhythmic music performed by Chico Schwall and Friends fuels the dancers through the steps. As the music builds to a crescendo, the dancers feed off the energy and their enthusiasm rises. Some whoop or cheer, sensing the end of the tune is near, and work to add one last flourish before the dance ends.

“I’m of the philosophy that this is a big party,” Woody says. “People are having a good time together in a safe, supporting place.”

Many dancers say they cannot have a bad time contra dancing. With the uplifting music, the social interaction and endorphins released from exercise, the dance hall is full of positive energy.

Between sets, the room buzzes with conversation as old friends catch up and new friends get acquainted.

What is Contra Dancing?
Contra dancing is an American folk dance with roots in France, England and Scotland. Contra roughly means “oppo-site” in French. Dancers are often oppo-site their partners in long lines up and down the dance hall.

With moves you might find in square dancing—such as do-si-do, swing and circle left—new dancers catch on quickly. A caller walks dancers through each dance before it begins and keeps them on track.

No fancy footwork is required. Anyone who can count to eight and walk a straight line can master the basics.

“It is easy,” says Christine Cormac, a dancer at the bimonthly Eugene dance sponsored by the Eugene Folklore Society. “It is fun. People are friendly and super forgiving.”

“It’s a fun way to exercise,” says Karen Olsen, who drove more than 100 miles to attend the dance. “It’s always live music. It’s like being a kid again, running around and being silly.”

Part of the magic of contra dancing is that while you have a partner, you also dance with everyone else in your line. A series of moves is performed with another couple next to you in your line. At the end of that series, each couple progresses in the line and repeats the pat-tern with a new couple.

Part of the contra culture is that experienced dancers pair up with beginners. By doing so, new dancers learn quickly, and the experience for everyone improves.

Another custom is changing partners after each dance. When the music stops, partners grab a drink of water and look for their next partner. Anyone can ask anyone to dance.

Each dance set lasts about 15 minutes.

What is the Music Like?
A live band plays jigs and reels with a lively beat, but it is not limited to those genres.

The melody is often carried by a fiddler but can trade off with other instruments. The band might consist only of a fiddle and piano player, but most often  has three to five musicians. Other common instruments include guitar, banjo, mandolin, bodhran (an Irish drum), accordion or concertina, string bass and penny whistle.

As the dancing heats up, stomping feet and clapping hands at key moments in the music adds another dimension to the sound.

One dance in Portland, Oregon, plays techno music.

What Should I Wear?
Contra dancing is a good workout, so dress accordingly. Unlike its more formal cousin, square dancing, puffy skirts and bolo ties are rarely seen at a contra dance.

Men often wear shorts and T-shirts, and women wear skirts long enough that they are comfortable when they twirl. Many wear shoes with a leather sole, which facilitates twirling on the floor, but any comfortable pair of nonmarking shoes is fine. Some dancers find bowling shoes work well. Avoid high heels or boots. The best shoes allow dancers to slide on their toes as they maneuver around the room.

If You Go
New dancers are always welcome and a partner is not required—singles will haveno trouble finding a partner. Most dances are family-friendly and have a 30-min-ute lesson for beginners before the first dance. The caller reviews the basic moves and offers tips. By the end of the evening, the new dancers blend right in with the veterans.

Woody offers a simple tip for first-time dancers.

“Smile and just have a good time,” he says. “Try to dance with people who know how to dance.”

Want more? Check out the video from the dance at