“Lean into it,” he said. “It’s supposed to feel like a washing machine.”
My dance partner was at least fifty years my senior. He had hunched shoulders and smiled through wrinkled cheeks, but his weathered appearance belied surprising vigor.
Following his advice, I tilted backwards into a forceful spin.
About fifty people had crowded onto the dance floor. A live band called Fifer’s Delight supplied cheerful jigs. Many women wore dresses or long skirts, while men sported various shades of casual attire, including one standout pair of bright green shorts. On this summer evening, the New Haven Country Dancers were hosting their monthly contra dance.
I paid the five-dollar student fee and made a name tag before joining the two lines of beginners for the opening lesson. At the direction of the dance caller, I wheeled around in a contra swing with the dancer across the aisle. When the caller ordered a “left hand star,” I clasped my neighbor’s left wrist, and we formed a circle with another couple. Then we repeated the sequence with accordion and fiddle accompaniment.
A folk tradition with roots in England, Scotland, and France, contra primarily involves walking steps, which makes it welcoming to novices like myself. It’s also easy on replacement knees; two of eight regular dances in Connecticut take place at senior centers.
After joining the New Haven Country Dancers in 2013 at age 24, Catherine McGuinness revamped the group’s website and helped with recruitment efforts. McGuinness is also an advocate for gender-free dancing. Instead of saying “gents and ladies,” some callers are transitioning to “larks and ravens” to challenge traditional gender roles and make contra more welcoming to LGBTQ people. Lark starts with the same letter as “left,” where the lead dancer stands, and “raven” for “right.” At the New Haven dance I attended, the caller used the gendered terms but mentioned that anyone could lead or follow.
Gender-free dancing has sparked lengthy debate in the “Stuff Contra Dancers Say” Facebook group, which has over 2,500 members across the country. Some commenters feel inconvenienced by learning new terms. Others believe the change is a symptom of excessive political correctness. And some even requested that callers issue a warning about the use of gender-neutral language ahead of dances. As one Facebook group member euphemistically put it, the new lingo might attract “colorful people.” McGuinness advised opponents of the new language to “just dance with whoever is coming at you.” David Lindsay, a bespectacled sixty-something-year-old who founded the New Haven Country Dancers in 1976, took a more conservative stance. He said he’s fine with people dancing their preferred part, but the lead remains the traditional man’s role.
A self-described folklorist, Lindsay was introduced to contra as a teenager at Pinewoods Camp, which teaches traditional European dance and music in the woods of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Lindsay still attends local dances but no longer has a formal role in the volunteer-run New Haven group.
Lindsay’s penchant for European dance extends beyond contra. He founded the New Haven Morris and Sword Team in 1977. Based on my Googling, Morris dancing appears to involve mostly older white men wearing ankle bells and performing synchronized skipping steps, while sword dancing concentrates on earnest stick combat. Mid-conversation, Lindsay jumped up to demonstrate an aerobic step, keys jangling as he hopped and kicked in the public library.
Not all dancers share Lindsay’s reverence for tradition, but most seem to agree on the importance of community to contra dance. The New Haven Country Dancers share snacks and conversation after the first hour and a half of do-si- do-ing, and some gather at a diner after the dance. According to Gaffney, many contra groups have a similar format. “If you go somewhere where there’s a contra dance, you’re going to be able to walk in and feel at home,” he said.
The contra community is tight-knit. It’s also mostly white. Some contra dancers say the welcoming vibes don’t extend to people of color. One Facebook post asked, “Why is contra dancing predominately [sic] Caucasian?” Over four hundred commenters interrogated the lack of diversity, suggested responses, gave examples of microaggressions, and contested the examples. One dancer from a North Carolina group said their group was “very diverse.” A second dancer from the same group called it “very white.” A third dancer offered, “As an actual, real-life contra dancer of color… I can tell you all that walking into a space that’s noticeably, overwhelmingly
white can feel unwelcoming and off-putting.” McGuinness wants the New Haven group to be more diverse, but she is nervous about making people of color feel uncomfortable or singled out for their race. “It’s something I’ve struggled with,” she said. “My understanding is that because [contra] tends to be quite white, a person of color comes, feels out of place, and doesn’t come back.” Lindsay, on the other hand, doesn’t think dancers should feel accountable for contra’s homogeneity. “Civil rights is way beyond the scope of trying to create an Anglo-American-based folk dance tradition in a community that’s a melting pot,” he said. Lindsay described contra dancers as both “community-oriented” and “a little bit tribal,” and seemed to ignore the conflicting connotation. Contra’s Facebook commenters continue debating what level of racial diversity should be expected of a tradition that has historically been connected with white European culture.
From the mid-nineties until late 2016, the New Haven Country Dancers didn’t actually meet in New Haven, and instead danced at a community center in the predominantly white suburb of Branford, where they moved after several members’ cars were broken into. Now the group rents the Friends Meetinghouse on a tree- lined street in New Haven’s Fair Haven Heights neighborhood. Bordered by the Quinnipiac River, the meetinghouse seems separate from the rest of New Haven. But onto the dance floor come questions that resonate throughout and beyond the Elm City, questions about how communities are constructed, and to what extent they require change.
– Abby Steckel is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College.
Illustration by Zihao Lin.