‘The more the merrier’
Contra dancing marks 15 years in Grand Valley filled with reels, jigs and waltzes
Ron Young knows a local place where a single man could “just get swarmed.”
It’s the same place where a single woman can expect to “have many men” in her arms in one night, Connie Smith added.
They both laughed. They know how that sounds. They were just being honest.
The place they were talking about where one could meet a revolving door of dance partners is a Grand Junction contra dance: a several hour social event held seven times a year for people of all ages and genders to come together to laugh and dance simple figures, or moves, with dozens of different people.
“The more the merrier, really,” Young said.
Those without dance partners can find one at a contra dance. Those with dance partners but interested in meeting new people can do both.
Thanks to the efforts of Smith and Young along with local sponsorship from area businesses, live music from their band Fifth Reel, and the dozens who come to the Grand Valley Community Contra Dance Society’s monthly dances, contra dancing is celebrating its 15th season in Grand Junction, despite the fact it “without question is below the pop culture radar,” Young said.
The first dance of the new season is set for Saturday, Sept. 28, at La Puerta Dance Studio, 523 1/2 Main St.
Contra dancing is nothing like ballet, ballroom or Irish step dancing that highlight a person’s posture, footwork and skill.
“All you need to do (in contra dance) is know how to walk and know your right from your left,” said Sam Glenn, 20, a junior at Colorado Mesa University, who has been contra dancing for two years.
It’s relatively simple — Young estimated there are several dozen figures, or moves, to learn — and involves dancing with a partner but also with the group around you — called neighbors — as you progress through a tune.
“It’s a great mixer because you dance with everybody. That’s the way it’s designed,” said Fruita’s David Price, 62, who has attended the dances since moving to the area 13 years ago and began contra dancing nearly two decades ago.
Contra dancing dates back centuries to Europe, where, as the story goes, Queen Elizabeth was riding in the country and saw lords and ladies dancing happily with the staff in a much less formal manner than typical English dances, Young said.
The queen thought it looked like fun, and contra dancing was born.
Contra dancing surfaced in the United States with English immigrants but has maintained its presence throughout the U.S. Go to dancingtheweb.com/coloradocontra/ccovenue.htm for a list of Colorado contra dances.
Young and Smith said contra dancing shares some similarities with line dancing and square dancing, but contra dancing is more group-based.
“Contra dances are so incredibly fun,” said Mike Allen, owner of Toys for the Fun of It, a longtime sponsor of the local dances and an occasional participant. “The reason I sponsored contra dances from day one until now is because it’s a good, healthy, family, community activity.”
Children ages 10 and up are welcome at all the contra dances, and every January there is a family dance for children age 5 and older.
Mark McKenney’s twins started contra dancing when they were 7 years old, picking it up after “three or four times.”
The ability for McKenney, 57, to take his whole family made contra dancing an attractive outing.
“I liked it because it was a fairly simple thing to learn to be honest,” said McKenney, who has been dancing locally since the late 1990s. “The calls all make sense and you repeat them over and over and over. The end result is just a handful of certain steps.”
Young, who is typically the caller, or the person responsible for giving directions and keeping the dances flowing, remembers the first local contra dance in Palisade in November 1999. More than 100 people showed up.
“We were blown away,” Smith said.
During the past 15 years, Grand Junction’s contra dances moved from Palisade, to Lincoln Park Barn, to the Masonic Lodge, and then to La Puerta Dance Studio.
The evenings have stayed relatively the same since the beginning, Young said.
Fifth Reel, which actually predates the local contra dances, always provides the music. Guest musicians and callers sometimes attend.
The soundtrack is a mix of American Old Time, Irish, jazz and classical tunes. The only requirement is the tunes fit the dance form: eight beats in one phrase, with the basic steps typically completed in 30 seconds only to be repeated numerous times with a partner and neighbors.
“Even if you don’t dance, the music is great,” Price said.
Young starts each contra dance evening with a 30-minute tutorial so newcomers or people wanting a refresher can walk-through the evening’s steps. From there, the evening usually features seven contra dances, a circle mixer dance and a couple optional waltzes.
“In 30 seconds there will be an attractive person of the opposite sex in your arms,” Young said, describing what a newcomer might expect during an evening of contra dancing. “And 30 seconds later, there’ll be another.”