Community dances bring a touch of New England to Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

Swing your partner round and round, promenade left, do-si-do and, above all, don't forget to have a good time.

An enjoyable evening for the family and community is the order of the day at Kenai River Folk Dancers' contra dances, held once a month all winter long.

The next contra dance, the second of the season, will be Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m. at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School. The dances are held the third Saturday of every month and will continue through April.

A contra dance is a form of folk dancing in which a dancer and their partner dance a series of figures (or moves) with each other and with another couple for a short time, to the beat of the music, said Heidi Chay of the Kenai River Folk Dancers.

Contra dancing is similar in format to square dancing. It is a group dance with a caller and many of the same moves, like do-si-do, ladies chain and allemande, are found in both dances. But in a contra dance, the participants are divided into two long parallel lines and participants end up dancing with many different partners during one dance.

A contra dance event typically involves many types of dances. There are usually contra dances, square dances and even some waltzes. The evening is an informal community event that involves people of all dance abilities and ages, from children to elderly.

"If I say a contra dance to someone from New England they know I'm talking about a communitywide event with live music, a variety of dances and that's really informal," Chay said. "Nobody's going to be there with a costume."

The great thing about contra dancing is that it's a lot of fun for those involved, yet it's easy enough for anyone to do, said Chay. Unlike country line dancing or even square dancing, there is no fancy footwork to manage or moves to memorize. The caller teaches the dance moves to the participants and does a walk-though of the patterns in each dance before the music starts. And most of the moves in contra dancing are smooth walking steps.

"A lot of square dancing that's done is called mainstream square dancing," said Chay. "That kind of dancing requires a lot of practice. You have to go to practice and learn a lot of moves to be qualified to go to a dance. This is very beginner-friendly, anybody can come in the door and dance."

Contra dancing got its start from the country dances of Europe, mainly in France, England and the British Isles. The music, which has is roots in Irish music, and dances were brought to the East Coast of the United States by European immigrants and spread from there, although it eventually declined in popularity.

The folk revival of the 1960s and '70s revived an interest in folk and contra dancing as well, Chay said.

"You'll find active contra dance groups all over the country and in almost every community," she said.

The Kenai River Folk Dancers got their start in 1998. Chay moved to Alaska from New England and missed the contra dances that were held back east. She teamed up with a friend who also had participated in contra dancing and hatched a plan to organize a dance for the communities of the central peninsula.

"We hooked up with a very strong group of other folks who had never done it before but were interested in the idea of healthy, family-oriented, community-minded fun," Chay said. "They jumped on board and the group blossomed into at least a dozen people organizing these dances."

The first dance the group held was in October of 1998. The group brought a caller up from Juneau and more than 200 people attended the first dance.

Since then the group has organized calling workshops and formed its own live band, the Contra BanD, to provide music for the dances. Now each dance averages between 50 and 70 participants of all age levels.

"I find that we have new people at every dance," Chay said. "I think contra dancing has a pretty strong appeal to those coming back. There's a great live band, and the dances just have a great energy. You leave with a glow and it's a great wintertime activity."

The band has grown since it was first organized and usually includes a fiddle, guitar, piano, mandolin and sometimes a flute or bass. Chay said any community member with an instrument sitting around their house is welcome to lend their talents to the band.

Refreshments always are present at the dances and participants are asked to bring

bite-sized goodies to share with the group. Children are welcome at the events and encouraged to join in the dancing, although it's easier for children over 5 to learn the dances. Children not involved in dancing are required to be supervised by an adult.

Other than that, Chay recommends people bring soft-soled shoes, dress in layers and avoid wearing heavy perfumes or aftershave.

No dancing ability is required to participate in the dances. For those who have never danced before, the first hour of the dance, 7 to 8 p.m., is dedicated to teaching newcomers the moves. Memorizing the patterns is not required, although it can be helpful.

"It's good training to memorize the patterns," Chay said. "If you can get the whole pattern down, it makes it that much more fun. To be in a flow of 60 people who have all got it and are moving up and down and back and forth to really great music is really beautiful."

A partner is not required either, especially since the nature of the dances is to end up dancing with just about everybody else anyway.

For the shy and uncoordinated, Chay still recommends they come and at least give it a try.

"I often find people that just think they are not dancers and our feeling is you don't have to be a dancer to have fun at a contra dance," Chay said.

"The caller guides you step by step, the spirit of the thing is if you go the wrong way and get tangled up, that just adds to the fun of the event. And if you're shy about dancing, you can come and enjoy the music and, if nothing else, we always have a good spread of baked goods on the refreshment table."

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