Not-So-Square Dancing: Contra dance swings into the UofC’s International House

(courtesy of the band)
Stomping feet, gleeful cries, swinging skirts–the contra dance weekend hosted by the Folk Arts Community is taking over the Assembly Hall at the University of Chicago’s International House this Friday and Saturday. Traditional music, which visiting fiddler Ethan Hazzard-Watkins describes as “similar to bluegrass, old-time, Irish, et cetera,” will set feet tapping, heads nodding, and couples promenading down the floor. For those who have never heard of contra dancing, this weekend is an incredible opportunity to try it out, with a nationally known band and four dances over two days. The International House’s description of the event calls contra dance “one of the friendliest social situations imaginable,” and the dance weekend promises to be an experience like few others, especially for those just being introduced to this brand of traditional dance.

The headliner for the weekend is Elixir, with a guest dance set from Chicago natives the Cosmic Otters. The five-member band is based out of Vermont and includes its own caller (the person who tells the dancers the order of steps and figures). Each dance is a specific series of steps, and the caller and dancers run through them once or twice before the music starts. Once the rest of the band joins in and the couples begin dancing, the caller sings them through with phrases like, “four-hand star, three-quarters round, swing that girl, swing that boy.” Calling makes contra dance accessible to beginners, telling them what they should be doing at each point in the dance. Three out of the four dances offered this weekend are open to people who have never even heard of a do-si-do. For all the avid contra dancers out there, the Folk Arts Community is offering one advanced dance from 3-5pm on Saturday afternoon.

Elixir is known for its unusual instrumentation; clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and guitar accompany the more traditional fiddle. Hazzard-Watkins, the fiddler, says, “Contra dance music allows a great deal of freedom to incorporate wide-ranging influences and musical ideas.” The various band members can use their diverse musical backgrounds in flamenco, classical, jazz, Irish music, and other genres to add variety to their sets. The music and dance are intimately connected, to the point where Hazzard-Watkins says that the “performance and dance become more of a collaboration.” While dance and music are often interactive forms, this is especially true in contra dancing, where dances are 10-12 minutes long, inviting the band to, as Hazzard Watkins puts it, “create an emotional arc in the music.” Dancers experience the arc physically, rather than intellectually, so although they might “miss some of the details or nuances… [they] are invested in the music on a deeper level.”

Even without an all-star band, contra dance is just plain fun–choosing a stranger as a partner and taking a new partner every dance, is intrinsic to the spirit of contradance. Each dance set builds on itself, so that as the night goes on, beginners are able to do more and more complicated figures. The increasing difficulty of each dance, the energy of live music, the sociability of the participants–all yield a tumult of movement that resolves itself into surprising order, visible only from the sidelines where dancers rest and clap along to the music.
International House, 1414 E. 59th St. April 9-10. Friday, 7:30-11:30pm. Saturday, 3-5pm, 7-9pm, and 9:30pm-midnight. Prices vary, discounts for students available. (773)753-2274. fac.uchicago.edu