Old-Time Contra Dances Build New Sense Of Community

Oct 11, 2018

Contra dancers perform an Appalachian big circle dance last month at ACES' Rock Bottom Ranch
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

When you walk into a room full of people you don’t know, you may pull out your phone and avoid eye contact. If you’re at a contra dance, you might as well smile, because the odds are good that you’ll have do-see-doed with most of the room by the night’s end. Contra is a traditional community dance. It's social, done with both big groups and partners. Its modern followers in the Roaring Fork Valley see it as an antidote for an increasingly isolated world.

I didn’t know quite what to expect as I walked into the barn at Rock Bottom Ranch for my first contra dance.

I learned pretty quickly a contra dance needs a caller to teach the steps and then call out different formations during a song. Chris Kermier was standing at the mic. He bore more than a passing resemblance to Mark Twain, and he started the crowd off slow.


“So please find a partner and make one big circle around the room. We always start off with a really easy step and it gets harder over the course of the evening, so if you’re here for the first time..." he said.

Kermier’s directions were lost as people searched for a partner. I felt the same kind of panic and excitement as middle school, when the teacher told the class to pair up.

Eventually, the crowd of 50 or so was standing in a circle, looking expectantly at Kermier. He announced he’d start with a dance called an "Appalachian big circle."


"OK, if you’re a gentleman dancing with a young lady, put her on your right-hand side," Kermier explained patiently.

"The only other thing you need to know for this first dance is you have to know how to follow the leader. Does everybody know how to do that?" he joked.

Kermier demonstrated how to promenade. Us newbies linked arms with strangers and laughed nervously as the experienced dancers whooped and strutted.  


And then, the music started. I just tried to keep up as partners stomped and skipped and moved up and back in different formations. Even when I went left when I was supposed to go right, other dancers cheered me on.


"You’re batting a thousand. You’re doing great," one told me after I bumped into him.

One attendee, Kerrington Brown, said these dances are all about community. “It’s the kind of dance where you go and you don’t know anybody and the next thing you know someone’s passing their baby around so they can go dance,” said Brown.


Community dances have deep roots in many rural towns. Don Paine is the fiddler in the Wooden Nickel String Band. They played the music that night. He said old-time dances like this one have a long history in the Roaring Fork Valley.


“We’ve seen photographs from the early 1900s in Glenwood Springs of acoustic string bands, and so I think there’s always been traditional music in the valley here,” said Paine.


For such an old form of entertainment, the crowd seemed pretty young. Sarah Johnson and Brandon Jones are both millenials and are also big fans of contra dancing.


Jones waved away the squeamishness that people might feel about partner-dancing with strangers.


“So many other countries in the world love partner dancing and aren’t weird about it,” he said. Sarah Johnson said she’ll take a contra dance over a dating app any time.


"A lot of times we, especially single people, are looking to meet people and it seems like the only way to do that is to go to the bars, and it doesn’t feel very genuine. Whereas when you go to a contra dance, and you actually dance with everybody," she said.


Johnson said a lot of people, younger and older, find contra dancing is the answer if they want to burst their personal bubble.


“You’re forced to hold hands with people and actually be human with each other, and I think that’s a really special opportunity we don’t have in our community, or in our culture very often," she said.


The Wooden Nickel string band struck up another song. Kermier told everyone to switch partners and form two lines. I found I wasn't nervous anymore. People were laughing too hard to worry about holding hands with a stranger, or missing a step or two.


A contra dance takes place at the Carbondale Community School Saturday night, with live music from the Wooden Nickel String Band.