Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

An Inside View of Contra Dancing in Brooklyn, 2015: Swing Your Partner and Do-Si-Do

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

An Inside View of Contra Dancing in Brooklyn, 2015: Swing Your Partner and Do-Si-Do

Article excerpt

Nightlife options have expanded in Park Slope, as Brooklyn Contra doubles its dance series nights this spring, now offering two evenings every month where you can "swing your partner" and "do-si-do" to the latest live acoustic bands. There is no beer, wine, or intriguing blue cocktails, and yet, young folks are seeking out Brooklyn Contra for a good time, dancing together in a modest church gym called Camp Friendship. Unlike the noisy bars and clubs of the Big Apple, conversation at this dance is actually possible without shouting.

It's been said that contra dancing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Brooklyn Contra is the latest addition to a contra dance subculture that for over half a century has been hidden in plain sight among the glittering distractions of New York City. The latest contra dance growth spurt started some 15 years ago at the Manhattan contra dance series, when an influx of younger dancers arrived on the scene and kept coming back every week for more. Many of these dancers lived in Brooklyn, and now some of them have started a new dance series of their own called Brooklyn Contra. This new dance series is a welcome success story, drawing dancers of all ages from across the area to Brooklyn, for exceptional contra dancing pleasure.

Early History

Today's contra dancing has its roots in the social dances of Europe. English country dances became popular at the court of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century. Royals and peasants alike enjoyed these simple repeating dance patterns. Men and women could meet, greet, and retreat from each other, while enjoying a fun, playful, and flirtatious evening's entertainment. In 1651, John Playford published his first collection of English country dances and tunes. Dancing masters were employed to teach the latest dances to high society. The English dances crossed over to France, where this popular form of dancing in a long set of partners first became known as contredance.

Contra Dance in the US

French and English colonials brought their dances to the New World, where set dancing of all sorts became a popular pastime. It's well documented that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington liked nothing better than to dance with the ladies: quadrilles, which became modern square dancing, as well as longways-set dances, such as the famous Virginia Reel, an early contra dance.

In post-colonial America, it was the rural farmers and townsfolk of New England who kept the old set dances alive, hosting "junkets" in their kitchens and barns. As urban centers turned to polka, ragtime, the Charleston, Swing, and other newer dancing pleasures, isolated areas in New England still danced the old set, including contras, squares, and circle dances. In the latter half of the 1800s, the national Grange farmers' movement built scores of large halls in small towns and rural communities across the land. While these were built primarily as venues for the movement's meetings, Grange halls in New England became known for their regular dances. As farming declined, many of the Grange halls fell into disrepair, and some were even purchased by the contra dancers who cherished them.

Just as the old dances seemed destined to die out and be forgotten, the early 20th century brought a revived interest in the folk arts generally. The Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) was founded in 1915, as a national advocate for English and American traditional dancing in the United States. Brooklyn Contra, like most contra dance organizations in the US today, enjoys the benefits of membership, as an affiliate of CDSS.

Due to the efforts of a handful of dedicated Eastern enthusiasts, contra dancing evolved in the 1960s and '70s and shed its identity as a mostly forgotten, indigenous folk dance of New England, growing to become a popular sensation. By the mid-1990s, contra dancing had expanded to include hundreds of regular dances in cities and towns across North America, all run by volunteers who wanted a local dance of their own, because contra dancing is so much more than just plain fun--it's a vibrant, community-building activity. …

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