By Annette Hinkle
For more than 20 years, there’s been something of a dance revolution taking place each month on the East End.
While most revolutions are about moving society forward loudly and in some dramatic way, this revolution is about taking folks back in time — to old New England when contra dancing was not only an effective way to mend fences and meet prospective mates, but burn off a little steam in the midst of a long winter to boot.
The contra dance takes its name from the fact that at some point during the form, dancers find themselves in two parallel lines facing one another. With the do-si-do and the ladies chain, while the steps themselves are akin to the southern tradition of square dancing, the contra dance is pure New England.
“In the movie ‘Ethan Frome’ there’s a scene where Liam Neeson goes to a contra dance in a barn and they dance just like we do,” notes avid contra dancer and Sag Harbor resident Karin Strong. “A lot of people in that barn don’t want to talk to each other — they don’t even like each other. But they dance together. It overcomes a lot of stress and is really a good way to share an experience without talking.”
For the past four years Strong has managed the contra dances held the first Saturday of each month at the Water Mill Community House. But she’s been dancing there far longer than that. The local contra scene was introduced more than two decades ago by avid dancers Elizabeth and Dick Haile who brought a turntable and their moves to the Southampton Cultural Center and shared them with anyone who was interested.
“Hilary Woodward was there with [her husband] Eric and fell in love with it. She’s good at broadcasting news and started to take it over slowly but surely,” says Strong. “She enlisted local people, pulled friends into it, motivated a core group of dancers and said, ‘now we need support.’”
So Woodward approached LITMA (Long Island Traditional Music Association) which hosts contra dances and other traditional music experiences up island to see if they would get behind a monthly dance on the East End.
LITMA agreed, Woodward secured the use of the Water Mill Community House, started lining up callers and bands and it’s been going strong ever since (and the Hailes still show up to share their moves).
“It’s a beautiful building and a beautiful place to dance,” says Strong. “The sound in there, the size, everything, is conducive to community dancing. It’s perfect for us, though if we get more than 50 people, we crash into each other.”
Distinctly an off-season tradition, the dances always feature live Irish or bluegrass music and are offered monthly from September to May. The next Water Mill contra dance is Saturday, February 2 with caller Chart Guthrie and live music by the Shelter Island-based band Dunegrass. Dancing starts at 8 p.m., but newcomers are always welcome and invited to join in a tutorial of dance steps at 7:45.
If you’re considering it, now’s a good time to give it a shot as the group is offering “Winter Dance Challenge” tickets. It’s $32 for four dances (the regular price is $14 per dance), including an advanced dance and pot luck dinner on March 16 at 6:30 p.m. with caller Dave Harvey and music by the Huntingtones.
But be forewarned — in an advanced dance the caller may stop calling moves altogether in the middle of the dance or change the steps quickly. Which is why Strong advices participants to go to the February 2 and March 2 dances and get the moves down in preparation for the March 16 event.
Those who want to jump in to the action even quicker can stop by “Puppy Love Prance” a fundraising barn dance for Southampton Animal Shelter this Saturday, January 26 at 230 Elm Street, Southampton. It begins at 6:30 p.m. with Dave Harvey calling and music by the Barnburners.
In the course of her contra dancing career, Strong has noticed a few things over the years — one, it’s a great way to make new friends, and two, there’s a certain type of person who seems to particularly enjoy it.
“It’s great aerobic exercise and you’re meeting a whole set of people,” she says. “For some reason we’ve had a lot of scientists from Brookhaven Lab.”
That may not be an accident. It turns out contra dancing attracts people who love lines, form and shapes — life’s engineers, if you will.
“In the dances there are all these are geometrics — parallel lines, circles, squares which every architect loves,” explains Strong. “It tends to be people who have a little imagination. Anytime we do a dance I’m thinking what it looks like from above, the weaving shapes. Anyone visually oriented or physics oriented might be fascinated with this.”
Having the ability to let go of inhibitions is also helpful in contra dancing.
“It’s the same skill set that goes with ice skating,” says Strong. “If you’re comfortable with your body and have the ability to laugh at yourself, you’ll like contra dancing. If you’re too attached to yourself and easily embarrassed, you might choose not to do it, just like people who are afraid of falling at skating.”
“There’s a lot of laughter at doing it wrong and meeting people by mistake,” adds Strong. “It is a heady crowd with an independent streak. You don’t find people there who are hiding in the back of an office. These are people who are really socially connected, willing to dance and do foolish things.”
“It’s also the kind of energy where you realize you’re doing something new and unique with people you’ve never met,” she says. “And you’re actually face to face.”
That social connection may be one of the most important roles filled by the local contra dances over the years — especially in those early days when far fewer people opted to live year round on the East End. It certainly was for Strong who met Jim Ritter, now her husband, at a contra dance.
“He was a great dancer. I found out that he was a boat builder and kind of an engineer,” she says. “We met at the last dance of the year.”
With that in mind, Strong is hopeful that the next generation — those now in their 20s and living on the East End — might stop by a dance in the next few months and give it a whirl.
“It’s a great place to meet people. So many friends I have from today are from that core group,” says Strong. “It’s a great place for singles and also a safe way to get to know someone.”
Though, alas, probably not Liam Neeson.
The next LITMA Traditional New England Barn Dance at the Water Mill Community House (743 Montauk Highway) is Saturday, February 2 at 8 p.m. (introductory lesson 7:45) with caller Chart Guthrie and music by Dunegrass. The next dance at 8 p.m. on March 2 features caller Ted Crane and The Huntingtones, and the March 16 Advanced Dance (and potluck dinner) begins at 6:30 p.m. with Dave Harvey and The Huntingtones. Tickets are $14 ($7 for students and free for kids under 16 with a paying adult). “Winter Dance Challenge” tickets are $32 for four dances. Call 725-3103 for details.
The 2nd Annual “Puppy Love Prance” to benefit the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation is at 230 Elm Street, Southampton on Saturday, January 26 beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 and include a buffet dinner. Caller will be Dave Harvey with music by the Barnburners. To reserve call 329-5480.