By 7:30 p.m. March 1, the Birdsboro Community Memorial Center was alive and swinging with dancers both new and experienced. Quite a few newcomers to contra dancing showed up half an hour early for a little basic instruction.
The caller – Ridge Kennedy – patiently taught the group with demonstrations. He reminded everyone that it’s “easy to get started with [contra dancing]” and that if they kept coming back, eventually, maybe after three or four nights of dancing, they’ll have a “magic moment when your body learns how to do it and you stop thinking.”
Kennedy describes contra dancing as “country’s cousin.” The music and dancing descend from folk music of Ireland, Scotland, and England. These are moves and beats that have been around for hundreds of years.
Contra dancing is a form of line dancing, but it’s not the square dancing with which many people are familiar. There are many differences, but one of the most notable is that square dancing requires more rigid amounts of people. Contra dancers form lines of couples with every pair of couples dancing together. Pairs often switch around so that, while one person is often with their partner for the dance, the couples dance with all the other couples in their line over the course of one dance. Before the live band begins to play its lively, rhythmic tune, the caller explains all the steps. Each dance lasts 15 to 20 minutes, allowing dancers to work up a sweat and get lost in the soon-familiar movements. Experienced dancers often partner with newcomers. At Saturday’s dance, everyone was smiling and laughing over their mistakes and grinning over theirs and others successes. After two hours of stomping feet, swirling skirts, spinning dancers, and spirited music from the band Ladies in the Parlor, the large group took a break for refreshments – punch provided by the organizers and a potluck table of snacks brought by the dancers.
The Birdsboro Contra Dance group has been swinging for 12 years. One of the founding members and organizers, Jamey Hutchinson, explained that Berks County contra dancers had to travel to Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia to find the nearest events. Now contra dancers in the area can dance locally at least once a month.
Both Ridge Kennedy and Jamey Hutchinson emphasized the allure of community and live music that draws people into the contra dance world.
Eye contact with a partner is important to keep people from getting dizzy during the swings. It’s the sort of “social interaction you just don’t find in normal life,” says Kennedy.
Few people dance with the same partner all night. Nearly everyone has a different partner for every dance. Several children joined the dances on Saturday night. It’s an “intergenerational” event that brings together all ages and personalities.
The Birdsboro Contra Dance meets once a month on the first Saturday, except in July and August. The next one is on April 5 from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., with a time of instruction at 7 p.m. or first-time dancers or those just looking to brush up on some skills.