- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

"It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on," laughs lithe towhead Anne Sergeant in the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, Md., before grabbing a neatly goateed Wayne Harvey by the hand to join a lengthening contra line.
Pulse-firing fiddle music fills the air, while boisterous dancers twirl each other along the line and stomp their feet roundly with the beat. They do-si-do, allemande left and promenade between opposing lines that stretch the length of the hall. It feels like a high-spirited barn dance.
Contra, as close to American folk dance as you'll find, now ignites the popular fancy like never before. The growth is evident: The Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS), an umbrella group that fosters English and Anglo-American folk dance and music, now numbers more than 250 affiliates in the United States, Canada and overseas, double the figure of just 10 years ago. The Baltimore-Washington area alone boasts almost a dozen member groups.
And each weekend, several hundred Washingtonians find their feet in the Spanish Ballroom, a place Ms. Sergeant dubs "down at the heels, but the best dance floor in the known universe."
Still thrilled after seven years as a regular, she got married this June to Mr. Harvey, whom she met where else? on the Ballroom's smooth, broad, wood floor.
"You probably would hear from a lot of people here that it changes their lives," says Colleen Reed, president of the Friday Night Dancers, a non-profit group allied with CDSS and formed in 1993 to sponsor one of the two weekend contra series offered at Glen Echo. In fact, she also met her husband, Clark, between the faded yellow walls of the red-tile-roofed ballroom. For their wedding, a year and a half ago, they threw a contra dance party.
* * *
Contra calls for strong eye contact with your partner, who may well be a complete stranger, since everybody finds someone new for each set which means that even those who show up alone will get to dance.
"It was disconcerting, when I started contra dancing, to look at some stranger I didn't even know," says Mrs. Reed. "But now it's really a way to connect with people. There's this energy. There's this magic that happens when you're feeling that connection with people and the dance is happening and the music is incredible and everybody's moving together. There's that spark that happens."
And looking your partner in the eye keeps you from getting too dizzy, while swinging round and round like a fast-flying vestibule.
Mrs. Reed also plays flute in the open band, heard the second Friday of every month. Open band is an institution that dates from the earliest days of the Friday Night Dance. The series began in 1974 at Concordia United Methodist Church near George Washington University downtown. It soon outgrew the church and moved uptown to the National Cathedral School's Whitby Gymnasium late in 1981. It came to its current home the next year.
Anchoring the open band at Concordia, which then played every Friday, was a group named the Swamp Donkeys. It originally included fiddler Steve Hickman, piano and banjo player Denis Botzer, guitarist John Carter and Linda Hickman, whom Mr. Hickman describes as "my ex, who played bass, flutes, concertina, pennywhistle and every damn other thing."
Mr. Hickman is still the heart of contra bands everywhere. His infectious fiddling can be heard at dances all over the east coast. It defies the feet to keep from flying.
"He can do things with his music to make the crowd react," says Mrs. Reed about the jovial, bearded fiddler. "If he wants them to go 'Whoo!' we cut out a few notes and just play chords to get everybody really excited for the top of the A."
Musicians and dancers conduct a powerful, instantaneous dialogue involving everyone in the hall. The music's simple binary format includes what are known as A and B parts, which function something like the verse and chorus of a song.
"You just kind of lay your eyes out there so that your ears can hear better," says Mr. Hickman about how he inspires that dialogue. You get your optic center looking at the pretty girls … And you just watch. You don't look for anything in particular. It's like a meditative state … When your eyes are watching the dancers, your ears work way better."
Bill Trautman chimes in: "Sometimes watching the dancers can help you to set the tempo," he says.
Mr. Trautman used to perform bluegrass music on his guitar but later found playing for contra dances more fun, because the audience is more responsive. Today he calls dances as well. He helped build Mr. Hickman's house, constructing the chimney and laying red tile on the roof, in the King George County woodlands east of Fredericksburg, Va. Mr. Hickman lives there with his second wife and three children. The middle daughter, four-year-old Tara, loves to dance.
"She calls me Stevo," Mr. Hickman says. "We were dancing last night. We have a little dance in Fredericksburg … 'Come on, Stevo, let's dance!' She's about that tall," and he proudly holds his hand some three feet from the ground.

The music's structure, which reflects the structure of each dance, makes for a predictability that can sooth the dancers. As Ms. Sergeant says, "you're doing the same thing in the dance at the same part of the music. And there's something really comforting about that."
She likes a little calming in the hectic days of late. Adding to her fultime job as a scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she was elected in July as Dance Chair of the Folk Song Society of Greater Washington, which sponsors the Sunday night contra series at Glen Echo as well as several other metro-area, folk-dance series. So she's scrambling more than ever, trying to book bands and callers.
Callers and these days that includes the lanky, long-haired Mr. Trautman give dancers the verbal cues they need to learn new dances. A caller first teaches the pattern of steps comprising a dance during a "walk through." When the music begins, dancers are then prompted as each new figure comes up.
"There's a huge repertoire of traditional fiddle tunes," Mr. Trautman says.
"Thousands and thousands," Mr. Hickman agrees. "My favorite tunes right now are French Canadian tunes … It's a live tradition. This is not a revivalist dance. We just grabbed a hold of something and rekindled it."
"Ran it through the food processor," puts in Mr. Trautman.
"Ran it through the food processor. And did it the way we do it," Mr. Hickman finishes.
Nearly everyone has a different idea about where contra came from. Many believe its roots trace to country dances done in England that were first recorded by John Playford 350 years ago. Its name likely derives from "contredanse," which etymologists think is a French corruption of "country dance." Since "contre" means "opposing" in French, this connection makes sense for a dance in which partners face each other across two lines.
The dances arrived on our shores before 1800. In fact, George Washington danced new ones written to celebrate his victories during the Revolutionary War. But to American ears, "contre" sounded like "contra."
"It's not an anachronism, like re-enactment or something," says Mr. Hickman of a dance form that continually adapts to changing times. "We don't wear funny duds or try to portray some purist idea. We've got a lot of people writing tunes, a lot of people writing dances and a lot of musicians who can improvise on a theme."
Contra is a mongrel, like the country it adopted, a hodgepodge of cultures. Celtic, klezmer, bluegrass, Appalachian, Latin American, French Canadian and many other zesty flavors swirl together in a heady brew of music and movement.
Giving tradition a new stamp is something Americans have been doing almost as long as contra dances. So grab a pair of soft-soled shoes and step out to a brand-new, old-time beat. It might just change your life.

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