Returning to Mr. Airy, Philadelphia
Driving from the Western suburbs of Philadelphia, I negotiate through the treacherous, if not beautiful, Lincoln Drive to get to the dance hall. The impressive Henry Avenue Bridge, constructed in 1932, extends over the road and the Wissahickon Creek. The heavily wooded gorge form part of the Fairmount Park system, but I can’t take my eyes off the twisting road for a minute.
This was the route I took several years ago when I found myself at the corner of Green Street and Carpenter Lane, looking for Big Blue Marble Bookstore where I signed up for a writing course. Little shops lined the streets inviting me to stop in to visit. I’m back on Carpenters Lane once again where the sprawling Commodore Barry Club, or Irish Center, occupies a corner. A spacious ballroom, one of the largest in the area, is the venue for the dancing.
The Music: Borrowed from the Celts and English with Appalachian Influences
On my first visit, what amazed was to see a live band setting up on the stage. Each week a different group performs, filling the hall with traditional fiddle tunes. Reels and jigs are the most common tunes played, but musicians also play the hornpipe, waltz and polka for variety. To learn more about these music forms, check out this page for details, as the differences require lengthy explanations. Accordions, harmonicas, flutes, bass fiddles, violas may accompany the traditional instruments, such as the fiddle, piano, and guitar.
For this evening, The Free Raisins, a band from Boston and self-described as “fusing New England roots with a modern groove,” performed with Audrey Knuth on fiddle, Jeff Kaufman on mandolin and trumpet, Amy Englesberg, on piano and accordion. I enjoyed their contra music interpretation with a rock beat, and I noticed that some of the dancers improvised swing-like twirls to their moves.
Rick Mohr called the dance. According to CDSS Country Song and Dance Society, calling for contra dances “is a fine art and a science, with subtle skills that can take a lifetime to master.” The caller instructs the dancers, usually with a run-through first without the music. The caller continues to announce the moves until the dancers have learned the steps, which may include from six to twelve figures, and then repeats. Dancers use smooth walking steps for movement between figures. The “swing” requires some practice, holding the right hip at the center while pushing around with the left foot. At break time, volunteers instruct dancers on the nuances of the swing.
One website described contra dancing this way,
Contra dancing is social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music.
The rest is just details.
On my first visit, I joined the beginner’s lesson, which started half-an-hour before the dance. I could explain all the contra dance terms, but for the most part it is possible to learn as you take part. One of the moves is called a “gypsy,” where you circle around your partner without touching but keeping eye contact. Maintaining steady eye contact, as least for me, was a bit unnerving because it felt like staring, but this is common practice and underlies the importance as a social dance and connecting with folks. I found I couldn’t keep the gypsy without smiling.
The gypsy stare also helps reduce dizziness. Yes, while dancing the swing, you can become quite dizzy, which happened to me the first couple times. Partners turn at different rates and if you are paired with a spirited dancer, by the time you land back at your place, the room can still be going round and round–and there’s not a lot of time to recover as you’ve got to be ready for the next move. What I noticed was that if I fixed my gaze, I experienced less dizziness. If I glanced outward at the room, it was whizzing by in a blur.
I came without a partner, and because policy underscores the social nature of the dance, I could still dance every number, if I wanted. Dancers are encouraged to find different partners, and dancing with same-sex partners is perfectly acceptable and may have no relevance to orientation. In reality, you dance with everyone in the room as you cross over or change partners. Couples form long, parallel lines, starting from the stage and stand across from or “contra to” their partner. Traditionally, couples move up and down the line as the dance progresses. When arriving at the end, you pause with your partner, which gives you a welcome but brief rest before joining the dance again.
Three Hours of Dancing!
Snacks and water provide rejuvenation during a twenty-minute break, which gives me some time to reflect on the experience. I noted diversity of age among the dancers, from children to college students to seniors. People come to the dance from all over the city and neighboring states of Delaware and New Jersey.
After drinking three or four glasses of water, I’m back on the floor scouting out someone for my next partner. I especially enjoy the flourishes that some of the experienced dancers add to the steps, usually involving the woman twirling around once before settling into her spot. With new dancers, it’s great to help them out and encourage them if there’s a misstep or two, which adds a bit of humor to the experience in a shared fumbling moment. The dancing is so energetic, I think to myself, “Oh, I’ll never be able to dance the next one, and yet, I am back on the floor looking for that next partner.
Video: September 10, 2015 . . .a friend remarked to me after watching the video, “Dancing looks complicated, I could never remember all those moves!” Experienced participants prompt the newcomers, and they’re ready to dance!
If you like exercise tied with meeting new people and enjoying live music, find a contra dance venue in your area. If you live in Philadelphia, check out the Mt. Airy Contra Dance schedule. See you there!
Many thanks to the Mt. Airy Contra Board for their support for this blog post.