by Tat’yana Berdan
“‘Hunker down’ is a technical term in contra.”
The above is one of the many verbal gems I overheard last weekend at the Friday night contra dance held in Carrboro’s Century Center.
My friend Dana introduced me to contra dancing my freshman year of college. I took ballroom lessons for many years as a little girl and was itching to dance again, so I agreed to try it, despite having no clue what the heck contra was.
It turns out contra is a lot of things—exciting, addicting, twirl-tastic. Contra is danced in long lines down the hall with couples dancing opposite each other—hence the name ‘contra’—as a caller names the steps throughout the dance. The dance form has its roots in English country dancing and is accompanied by Irish or Scottish folk music.
North Carolina has a thriving contra dancing community and a large Scotch-Irish population. This group began arriving in the state in the late 1600s, driven by religious persecution from England and moving down as land became scarce in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Although they settled all over the state, the greatest concentration of people of Scotch-Irish descent is in western North Carolina. Today, NC boasts the largest number of people that self-identify as Scotch-Irish, and the group’s influence is still evident in many aspects of NC culture, like contra dancing.
One of the things that really impressed me about contra was the widespread emphasis on the terms ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ rather than ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’. The idea that anyone can dance whichever role they prefer with anyone they want is wonderful and a refreshing break from other dance styles that often adhere more strictly to traditional gender roles. The idea is that in dancing, as in life, everyone should be made to feel as happy and comfortable as possible.
However, the best part of contra dancing—aside from my favorite dance move, the always-a-classic swing—has to be the people you meet. I’ve found that those drawn to contra are as varied as the dances themselves. People from all professions, backgrounds, and walks of life contra—my friend told me she knows a friend that once danced with James Franco! And while I have not encountered any celebrities, at my last dance, I met, among others, an inorganic chemist, a musician, and a college math professor. The common denominator among folks is that they’re all extremely friendly and smiley. The atmosphere at contra dances is always light and welcoming. I’ve learned it’s not difficult to find a partner if you can get over your fear and just ask because it seems like everyone really, really wants to dance.
I took a break from contra dancing last year (hunkered down, if you will), focused on classes, studied abroad, traveled. But now that I’m back in the Triangle and getting ready for my last year at the best school in the state (Go Heels!), I miss dancing and am most definitely ready to give it another whirl.
I think the lesson here is that there’s a time to swing and a time to hunker down. But the best people out there can do both.
Tat’yana Berdan, our 2015 APPLES summer intern and student at UNC Chapel Hill, is a Global Studies major with a double minor in Spanish and Russian. She is originally from Tirsapol, Moldova but moved to Charlotte, North Carolina when she was seven years old. She hopes to one day work within the realm of public relations and communications for an international organization or non-profit.