Temperatures had dropped considerably Friday evening, after an unseasonable balmy day in early April in Belfast. Inside the American Legion Hall on Church Street, it was much warmer, as the First Friday Flying Shoes Contra Dance was set to begin.
From one side of the hall to the other, six rows of about 20 dancers lined up, ready to set their feet to flying. Onstage, caller Chrissy Fowler and the Henry Road Bandits, a young, energetic contradance band from Whitefield, started the first number, playing the bouncy blend of bluegrass, Celtic and maritime music that typifies such bands — with a slightly nontraditional dash of hot jazz and swing thrown in for good measure. Dancers ranged from elementary school-age kids to retired couples, with nearly half the crowd composed of those in their 20s and 30s.
“Where else are you going to get that diverse a group of people?” said Fowler, who has called dances in Maine for nearly 20 years. “You’ve got 7-year-olds dancing with 70-year-olds. I don’t know many other places where that happens. Anyone is welcome, regardless of your age, your background, your interests. You’re not there to have a political conversation. You’re there to dance.”
Since December 2005, Fowler and a rotating cast of musicians, dancers and friends have held the First Friday Contras in Belfast, their dance just one in the long list of contradances held monthly in eastern Maine. There are regular dances in Bangor, Orono, Trenton, Bar Harbor, Unity, North Whitefield, Rockport, Rockland, Winter Harbor and Blue Hill — the last of which, held at the town hall, is among the longest-running dances in New England, having started in 1975. That’s not to mention dances in Portland, Bowdoinham, Bath, Newry, Damariscotta and more, as well as hundreds of others all over the country.
“It’s such a great community. Everyone is so nice and so friendly. I’ve never been to a contradance that wasn’t like that,” said Mary Anne Eason, who, with her husband, Rick, organizes the Penobscot Contradance in Bangor, held the third (and fifth, if applicable) Friday of each month at the Unitarian church on Park Street. “It’s amazing to go to dances in other states, and you run into the same people. People are really committed to it. It’s such a great way to make friends.”
Contradancing in its traditional form has been around since the late 1700s. It developed as an American form of folk dancing, coming out of English and French country dancing traditions. Though there are traditions of contradancing in Ohio and in Maritime Canada, the dance’s true home is northern New England.
While contradancing languished in popularity during the first half of the 20th century, a few isolated New England towns such as Peterborough, N.H., Brattleboro, Vt., and Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth, Mass., held onto the tradition. One man specifically, Ralph Page, kept many of the dances going for decades. Square dancing, contradancing’s more structured cousin, experienced a revival in the 1940s, but contradancing remained less known. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that interest was revived, spurred by the newfound interest within the counterculture in bluegrass music and other traditional arts.
In 1978, George Fowler, cousin to Chrissy and the descendant of a longtime Maine family, had just moved to Blue Hill from his native California. Fowler, a mandolin and fiddle player, began to play with Hap Collins, a fiddler from Blue Hill, then in his 80s, who had heard that another fiddler was in town. Within three years, Fowler had learned countless songs from the elder master. He also had formed the Oakum Bay String Band with a handful of friends, which 30 years later is still the host of the First Saturday Blue Hill Contra Dance.
“I think a lot of the roots of contradance in Maine had to do with the back-to-the-land revival in the early ’70s,” said Fowler. “They wanted wholesome, family kind of entertainment that wasn’t from a radio or TV. In Blue Hill, it was a lot of families at those early dances. There would be piles of sleeping kids in the corner of the hall, and the adults would keep dancing into the night. It was a nice atmosphere.”
In the decades since, Fowler watched those kids grow into adults who had the contradancing tradition as a part of their lives since they were very small. Often, contradancing is a family affair, with generations of dancers and performers learning from parents, aunts and uncles.
Another new generation of contradancers came in the late ’90s, often interested in hiking, mountain biking and fitness in general, and found the dance a fun form of exercise.
“You see cycles of popularity,” said Chrissy Fowler, who began calling dances in the early ’90s, and now calls up to six dances a month. “You get waves of young people who rediscover it. We’re definitely in the middle of another wave right now.”
Today’s current crop of dancers seem to enjoy the fitness aspect of contradancing as much as they enjoy all the others — the sociability, the history, the easy-going, chem-free atmosphere, and the giddy, high-energy, sometimes raucous fun of dancing in a huge group of people.
“I think the modern model of contradancing is now based out of a group that organizes a dance. They may not be musicians or callers, but they love contra and want to make it happen in their community,” said George Fowler. “They bring lots of visiting callers and musicians, and they know how to use Facebook and Twitter, so they can reach a much larger, much younger audience that might never have gone before. It’s much easier to drum up enthusiasm now.”
Though contradancing and square dancing share many similarities, the key difference between the two is that contradancing generally doesn’t require much of any level of skill or knowledge. Both square dancing and contradancing employ a caller — a person who guides dancers through the steps — but contras are usually much less complicated. The social atmosphere is much more casual, too: no petticoats and Western shirts, no taboos on women dancing with women or men with men, and an emphasis on live music and community.
“With square dancing, usually you need to have some sort of training, or take a course or lessons or something,” said Chrissy Fowler. “Modern contras are a little different. There will be squares in each dance, most likely, but the idea is that you can kind of walk in off the street and dance. There are a few formations you need to know — swing, do-si-do, promenade, stuff like that — but you can just walk in and learn that. It’s very open. The caller tells you what to do, so there’s very little pressure to get it right.”
The dance formations have changed little over two centuries, and until recently, neither had the music. Today’s newer, younger crop of contra bands brings in more unorthodox elements to the music, such as full drum sets, jazz flourishes and more vocalists. Some of them come out of the prestigious Maine Fiddle Camp, held each year in Belgrade, while others are classically trained musicians who would rather play a town hall than a concert hall.
“I think the music is just as key a part of a dance as the dance itself,” said Mary Anne Eason, who started the first Penobscot contra in October 2005 in Hampden, before moving it to Bangor in January 2008. “Some of the bands that play, I’d be almost as happy just listening to them as I would dancing to them. There are some really, really excellent musicians out there. The dancing just makes it even more fun.”
Traditional instruments such as fiddle, mandolin, guitar and piano now play next to, in the case of Maine duo Perpetual eMotion, didgeridoo and electric violin. In the case of the Henry Road Bandits, it’s electric guitar, saxophone and a drum set. The Massachusetts-based Notorious can be a duo, trio or quartet, with or without drums. Others keep it fairly traditional, such as Oakum Bay or the Marsh Island Band in Orono. As long as the beat is right, there’s room for experimentation.
“I have my ideas about what makes good dance music, and other people have theirs,” said George Fowler. “But the essence of the whole thing is that it’s a contract between the dancers and the band and the caller. The dancers have to be moved by what’s presented to them. If you have good, enthusiastic dancers, and they’re really moving their feet, then it succeeds. If there’s a little jazz or swing in there, that doesn’t matter to me. It’s just got to have 32 measures with 64 beats, so the dance fits.”
Dancers want to dance — it’s as simple as that. Holly Dill, who went to her first contradance in New York City in 1979, is a regular dancer and helps plan the Belfast contradance. She has done her share of calling as well.
“My dance friends range from 10 to 80 years old,” said Dill. “When I first started, it was so I could meet guys, when I was going to class 40 hours a week in grad school. I think that’s still true for a lot of people at dances. It’s not as intimidating as a bar. It’s a lot less expensive, too.”
Robert Strauss, a 27-year-old Bangor resident, has driven all over the state to attend contradances. He goes to Belfast, Bangor and Orono, and probably would go to more, if time allowed it.
“I just started last summer, and I’m totally addicted,” he said. “I used to not know what I wanted to do on the weekends. Now I look forward to Fridays again. I mean, what’s better than going out dancing, getting really great exercise, listening to really great music, and meeting tons of really fun people? It’s the best.”
For complete listings of contradances, visit Down East Friends of the Folk Arts Web site at www.deffa.org.
ORONO Contradance with the Marsh Island Band, Joe Dupere calling, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11, Keith Anderson Community Center, Bennoch Road. $7.
ROCKLAND Second Sunday Contra dance with Hope Hoffman & Friends, John McIntire calling, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 11, Lincoln Street Arts Center. $10, families $15.
BANGOR Third Friday Contra dance with Whiffletree, Chrissy Fowler calling, 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 16, Unitarian Universalist Church, Park Street. $7, families $18.
TRENTON Contradance with Live Bait, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 17, Trenton Grange Hall, junction Routes 230 and 3. $7, students $5.