Contra dance: a New England tradition


April 15, 2011
FRANCONIA- For one Friday a month, the Franconia town hall comes alive with the sights and sounds of contra dancing as men, women, and children take part in a New England tradition.

"I love the dance. It's a sense of community that's what I like about it," said Betsy Phillips, of Franconia. Betsy and her husband, Chuck, were responsible for starting up a contra dance in town every third Friday of the month.

"He and I did contra dancing years ago. We just thought it would be nice to get it started in the area," explains Betsy. "We wanted to start something that the whole community could enjoy."

The Phillips' plan seems to be working. Last month, dozens of people filled the hall of the town building, and regulars say it is not uncommon to see 50 or 60 people come out for the family-friendly event.

"There are dances like this scattered across New England," explains Caller Chip Hedler, who travels an hour-and-a-half from South Strafford, Vt. to call the dances. "Some places, you can go to dances every night. Up in the North Country, it's just spread more thinly, just like everything else."

As a caller, it is Hedler's job to teach each of the dances before the music starts and everything is thrown into motion. Hedler, an elementary school teacher, says that the educational aspect appeals to him. For beginners, the constant motion and lively pace can be intimidating, but in contra dance, inclusiveness seems to be just as important as making the right moves.

"Everyone laughs and has a good time, even if they don't know what to do," said Jennifer Krol, of Lisbon.

Contra dance, very similar to square dancing, is done in sets, which consist of two lines of partners, rather than a circular formation as in square dancing. Each minor set is composed of two couples, and runs once through a dance. Then, the couples form new minor sets, and perform the dance again. This process is repeated until the music has finished. The result: a whirlwind of motion, in which strangers share laughs and neighbors become friends.

"I was astonished," said Ohio-born Hedler of his first experience with contra dance when he came to New England for graduate school in the 70s. "I'd never seen anything like it. It was so inclusive, everyone seemed to be having a good time, and there was live music, which was the best part."

Contra dance acts as a Mecca both for those who love to dance and who love to play instruments. For many, the promise of live music is what attracts particularly, the chance to play, learn, and experiment.

"It was a totally different guitar-playing experience," said Hedler, who entered into the contra dance world as a musician. "Some of the tunes we play and some of the dances we do have been around for hundreds of years, but they're not fossils."

Musicians of all levels and experience are encouraged to show up to contra dance events and play, explained David Van Houten, of Bethlehem, one of the handful of local musicians who provides the music for the Franconia contra dancing events. The monthly events gave him an opportunity to pick back up his guitar.

Paul Cormier, of Randolph, provides a fiddle to the tunes, though he likes to dance, as well. Cormier, who has been contra dancing for over 30 years, met his wife while contra dancing.

"It's a great way to meet people without being in a tremendous amount of pressure," he said.

Cormier's story is not uncommon, explains Tova Cohen, of Franconia, who also met her husband of over 30 years at a contra dance. Now, the Cohens attend dances about once a week, she said, driving as far as Montpelier, where there can be anywhere between 100 to 200 people, said Cohen.

"It's the music. It's the people. It's everything," she said of her love for contra dance. One of the more experienced contra dancers in the group Cohen started dancing over 30 years ago when she lived in the Boston area she marvels at the progress the Franconia crowd has made since the dances started up last year.

"When this started, people didn't know what to do," she said, "and we're dancing now."

The next Franconia contra dance will be held at the town hall this Friday, starting at 7:30 p.m. There is a suggested $5 donation. Contra dances are also held in Danville, Vt. on the first Friday of the month at the town hall, starting at 7:30 p.m.

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