June 23, 2011

Let's Dance!

My hometown must have had a large Scottish contingent, for when I was a young girl the annual Highland Games were a highlight and the local Scottish Country Dance troupe entertained at several events throughout the year. I remember watching in fascination as tall, elegant Mrs. Neville moved gracefully among her partners in the dance wearing a long tartan skirt, white blouse and lace up black leather Highland Dance slippers. The Scottish Country Dance troupe moved as a whole, weaving in and out to the music and creating a beautiful image in my young mind that I would never forget.

A couple of years after my husband and I and our young family had moved to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island I saw an advertisement in the newspaper inviting new members to join the local Scottish Country Dancers. I was always eager to dance in any case, but with fond memories of watching the dances in my childhood, I called the number in the ad straight away. The teacher happened to be the mother of a childhood friend whose family had returned to the Island a few years before - what a small world! I was only able to join the group for a few months before we moved farther north up the Island, following a new job offer for my husband, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I may have been the youngest dancer but by far the least experienced. The dances were fairly intricate because they involved footwork and patterns, and for me, a fairly steep learning curve as I had done little folk dancing, but the ladies and gentlemen were true ladies and gents and guided me along gently and with good humour. I had a ballet/modern dance background so my feet found the steps before too long and the necessary gracefulness followed. Like Eliza Doolittle, "I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more," but once we had moved north, I knew I could not realistically continue with the troupe when it would involve a three hour round trip. Our third child was still a baby at the time.

When we had lived through one glorious spring and a golden, fragrant summer at the lodge on the North Island I began to hear about the annual Folk Weekend which took place in the lodge building affectionately called 'the barn' each November. Workshops were held throughout the weekend in a variety of disciplines including theatre for children, bodhran (a Celtic drum) lessons, and instruction in making natural remedies from local flora. We took part in many of the activities during Folk Weekend, but the highlight of the weekend, at least for me, was the Saturday night Contra dance. I have consulted a Contra Dancing website for help in explaining what a Contra Dance is for the uninitiated:

"A caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances. A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The figures are similar to those of old-time square dancing. The figures are combined in different ways for each different dance.

The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone."

People of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome. Contra dances are a place where people from many walks of life come together to dance and socialize. Dancers often go out to a restaurant after the dance, have a potluck before or during the dance, or hang out with musicians in jam sessions and song circles."

Contra dancing requires no previous dance training, just a sense of rhythm (and is not even very particular about that), and a desire to participate, dance with many partners and have fun. Most of the dances require only a walking step and an ability to follow the caller's direction. Contra dancing is more about fun than finesse, more about participation than performance.

Our friend Mike and I getting the timing right!

Last weekend my family and I, after several years living here, were able to again take part in a Contra dance. Our friend Marilee, when she lived in Vancouver used to belong to a dance band which played fiddle tunes, many of which Marilee wrote, for Contra dances. Marilee and her husband Stefan celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary and decided to hold a family dance, hiring the members of her old band to come and play for it. Around fifty of us gathered in the Anglican church hall late on Sunday afternoon and danced for two hours straight. We learned dance after dance, including standbys like The Virginia Reel, and some simple English and Scottish Country Dances. Laughter rang through the hall as we all, many of us strangers to each other, repeatedly missed our step or clapped hands on the wrong beat, but no one minded. When the dancing was done, it was time for supper. Everyone pitched in to set up the tables and decorate them with ivy, glittering stars and seashells. We certainly had worked up an appetite and ate the delicious potluck meal (there were many gifted cooks and bakers in that crowd) with enthusiasm. My daughters thoroughly enjoyed themselves, glad to be included in the celebration. The dancing was all they could talk about the next morning. They found it strange (and a bit hilarious) to have danced with so many different partners, as the dances are set up to introduce and mix as many people as possible. They had danced with young children, they had danced with middle aged women and elderly men.They were also surprised at their dad, who had danced every dance!

Marilee's Contra dance made me think about the tradition of community dances. I don't know the history of dancing in detail, but I do know that English and Scottish Country Dancing have been around for hundreds of years and that Contra dancing is a North American countrified, simplified version of both. The fact that it was commonplace for whole villages to gather in the assembly rooms to dance together on a regular basis is something I wish we still did today. I think it would greatly add to the health and sociability of the community, but perhaps that happens in other forms today.

When I was searching for information on Contra Dancing I came across a few videos - and like I said previously, Contra dancing is more about participation than performance. I soon moved on to some videos of Scottish Country Dancing, and they proved to be a bit more enjoyable to watch. The one I include here reminds me very much of the dancing I used to watch Mrs. Neville and her troupe do in Lakeside Park during the Highland Games all those years ago.



  1. neat. my parents are amateur square dancers which rely on calls as well...a good fam friend is a rather big caller in our area of the country...i love to dance...and love it when everyone can get involved...

  2. Now - that's my idea of hell!

    Still traumatised by the way we were made to do stuff like this for school dances and got shouted at every time you lost step or timing. {And they schooled us in doing those 'spontaneous' little squeals of exuberation.

    Thanks Rebecca - I need to lie down in a darkened room now.... lol.

  3. this sounds like so much fun! i so love the thought of how simple life could become if these kinds of gathering were commonplace again. =)

  4. Brian: My grandparents were accomplished ballroom dancers - but without the dancing with the starts spangled costumes. I do love to dance, too!

    Al: Oh Lord, I'm sorry to bring up the evil memories! I remember a song by Mark Knopfler where he sings about dance instruction by a teacher who'd been in the army. One of the lines was 'we'd be slippered if we got it wrong.' Yeah, that sounds a bit harsh for dancing lessons! We did social dancing in high school as part of P.E. but it was FUN, and no one yelled. They saved that for basketball.

    E.P.: It is fun! And I'm all for a simpler life :) I just spent an hour talking to another mom in the school parking lot about how muddled we are about the present education system...

  5. We used to do 'Country Dancing' at school which sounds very like your contra dancing. And people often go to ceildihs over here - especially at weddings etc. It's great fun. There's obviously a strong tradition of similar types of dancing in the UK and Canada and the USA. Have you ever seen Morris Dancing? It's really dramatic and has ancient Celtic roots. Keep on dancing....

  6. Kate: I have seen Morris Dancing...we have a video of a Canadian version done with hockey sticks. It's somewhere on Youtube!

  7. Thank you Rebecca. This brought back happy memories of Scottish dancing lessons. I had a real kilt and still have the kilt pin. I remember liking the travelling step! My favourite dance was the Sir Roger de Coverley.

  8. Is it not marvelous that for the men the dance was used as a form of dexterity for the use of the sword. And on the sword as it were. It doesn't take a genius to work out the circuit describes the Celtic Cross of the old religion and not the 'new' religion of the Plantagenet.

  9. Lucille: I'm glad your memories of Scottish dancing lessons are happy ones, unlike Alistair's above! I will look up the dance you mention...I think the dances are beautiful.

    Vince: Very interesting! I never looked at it that way, but I'm sure it is as you say. The Scots people would find all the ways at their disposal to enact small rebellions against the outside influence on their culture.

  10. Love the pic. Such fun!

    When I was in 7th grade, we learned square dancing as part of our P.E. class. Most of us pretended our lack of interest because it was so un-cool, but couldn't manage to remain stoic as laughter errupted from us.

    I hope to have the opportunity to dance some of the old dances again some day. Hope to convince the husband. :)

    Thanks for the story and the lovely video. And now when I hear Contra dance, I won't be totally puzzled.

  11. That looks like so much fun! When I was young we used to square dance and polka. I love the Polka : )
    Your header picture is beautiful!

  12. What a wonderful dance!!! Truly SO MUCH FUN!

  13. This type of Dancing is such an very Enjoyable and Happy Moments for all the People. It's looking very Funny.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!