Contra dancing in Buffalo!
Members enjoy a QCCD dance in May, 2015
Photo by Barbara Dyskant
“Right hand star!”
“Ladies chain across!”
If you’re looking for a new hobby, a weekend activity, or a friendly community full of welcoming people, get in line—literally—at a contra dance. This folk dance style, made up of long lines of couples who take direction from a caller, is a little bit traditional, a little bit contemporary, and one-hundred percent fun.
Queen City Contra Dancers board member Mary Collins has been a part of the local contra dance scene for decades and has attended social dances for as long as she can remember.
“I’m (from) a place very much like Eden,” she says, “it was a farming community, and my friends and I would always go to dances at the Grange. My whole life, I’ve sought out folk and bluegrass music.”
Contra dance, with its varied origins in several different folk styles, was the perfect fit for Collins. She enjoys the friendliness of the contra community, the wonderful aerobic workout her hobby gives her, and that there is so much room in contra dance for people to “be themselves.”
“Contra dance is easier than European styles of folk dancing,” she says. “There’s a lot of room for self-expression; gender roles are less rigid. It’s also more social than other forms.”
The “social” aspect of contra dancing is just what Werner Ceusters appreciated when he moved to the Buffalo area in 2006 from Belgium.
“I’m from a culture where contra dancing is not practiced, but where ‘bal folk’ is extremely popular among ages fifteen to eighty-five. I knew I would not find bal folk here, but never expected contra dance would be able to fill that hole,” he says.
Thanks to the friendship of the QCCD community, Ceusters felt fully at home in Buffalo in just a few weeks. He’s been a Queen City Contra Dancer ever since and has even started a couple of bands that play at contra dances.
“I was immediately addicted,” he says. “It’s very happy music, a combination of Irish, French Canadian, and New England styles. I was laughing constantly.”
Collins contends that contra is “a walking dance,” and that if you can count to eight, know your right from your left, and can follow simple directions, you can contra dance. Ceusters says that helps, but you may not even have to know that much.
“The caller calls what moves you have to do, in what way you need to progress,” he says. “There are about twenty-five moves in all. When you properly remember the sequence, you can do it on your own. Even when people are not in the place they’re supposed to be, that’s fun, too, in its own way.”
Experienced, inexperienced, even those with two left feet are always welcome, as QCCD member and longtime contra dancer Corinne Potter explains.
“There is a culture here that reflects a goal of inclusion,” she says. “We accept everyone—accommodate people’s differences, such as being inexperienced or perhaps needing to move in a different way than most. I have personally danced with all sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities of people and learned from them. You don’t need special clothing or to come with a partner. All you really need is the desire to learn how to contra dance and show up ready to plug in!”
Ceusters says that although the exact origins of contra dance are unknown, much of its heritage comes from England, France, and Scotland. Other sources say it took on new life in Appalachia, where it loosened up when American country and bluegrass were added to the mix.
“The American derivation is lovely,” he says. “It’s way less serious; we dance to lively jigs and reels, and there isn’t much formality.”
Rick Hull, “member-at-large” board member of QCCD, has been a contra dancer since 2012. He is also hooked on the positive atmosphere created by contra dancing and can’t choose what he loves most: “The upbeat, happy music; the happy people, or the endorphin release,” he poses. “Pick your choice!”
Karen Kwiatkowski, another QCCD board member, says that contra dancing is “a good way to relieve stress and interact with others in a non-competitive environment.” In fact, all of the contra dancers love their community. Dancers are respectful, events are drug- and alcohol-free, and folks of all ages have a great time together.
In addition to the QCCD events held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo (October through June, first and third Saturdays; July through September, third Saturdays), the Fredonia Grange hosts “First Friday” dances from October through June. The Southern Tier Country Dance Society welcomes contra dancers the second Saturday of the month at the Cuba Grange. Most dances run from 8 to 11 p.m., with a warm up for beginners about a half hour beforehand. Shine your dancing shoes and get ready to “swing” into the season this fall! Bring friends, family, and even grandkids—everyone is welcome.
As Hull promises, “You can’t help but leave a contra dance happy. Tired, but happy!”
Rebecca Cuthbert lives, writes, and cares for shelter dogs in Dunkirk. She is a frequent contributor to Forever Young and Buffalo Spree.