Dancers ranging from age 20 to 60 practice their steps tentatively when caller Tyler Hall asks, “Music?” The crowd shouts back an enthusiastic “Yes.” The band starts up a traditional Irish number, “The Waves of Tory,” but that’s about the only traditional thing about the Halifax Contra Dancers.
Contra dancing evolved from Scottish and English country dancing as well as French quadrilles. It feels like a square dance, but the dancers form long lines rather than squares. Early New England and Maritime settlers brought the dances over from Europe, and one group of local volunteers is working to keep it relevant.
“You don’t need to be a great dancer or even have a sense of rhythm. You just have to know your left hand from your right,” says Kat Kitching, one of the organizers. Every dance is taught from scratch before the music begins, but each monthly event begins with a half-hour introduction of basic steps, like the “do-si-do” for first timers.
Contra comes from a time when men only danced with women. Today the caller still refers to gents and ladies, but only to tell dancers which steps their line will take.
“We encourage anyone to play either role,” says Kitching. “We get a lot of straight men trying out dancing with men for the first time. I love to see that gender barrier being crossed in a safe space.” The group provides a box of neckties and hair-bow headbands to help dancers clarify their roles.
Likewise, Hall’s outfit isn’t the button-down plaid one might expect from a dance caller. The ballet instructor/master’s student turned contra caller wears a hot pink tee and jeans. His bare, tattooed feet beat out a rhythm on the hardwood as he guides the dancers. “This is really a blast from the past,” he says. “It’s wholesome, sober fun.”
Tony Reddin and Marion Copleston travelled from Bonshaw, P.E.I. to celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary, but mainly see each other only during dance breaks. Contra’s style means partners switch with each set, so those who come stag will have a full dance card. A lounge off to one side of the hall offers a space to take break, grab a tea, and have a chat.
“It’s such good fun. We drive down when ever we can,” Marion says on a water break between dances. Within minutes she and Tony are back on the floor; he spins a woman in her 40s while she links hands with a man who could be her grandson.