By Emily Hopkins
Energy radiates from the dance hall. A foot stomping fiddle tune begins and a traditional dance made popular in the 16th century comes alive in downtown Worcester. The promise of music and dancing draws people of varying backgrounds and interests to the Worcester Contra Dance at the Wesley Methodist Church on Main Street, but it is the vibrant, friendly community that quickly turns first-time dancers into regulars.
“I like how you get to dance with many different people,” says Mike Wagg, a former high school teacher. Wagg began regularly attending dances about a year ago with the encouragement of a friend.
Contra is a highly social form of dance.
“You can come without a partner and you can dance with all sorts of people,” says dance coordinator Carolyn Noah. Partners form sets of long lines. As the music progresses, dancers move up and down along the lines from neighbor to neighbor. By the end of a dance, participants will have danced with just about every person in the line.
“During a dance,” says Noah, “a lot of the barriers that people build for themselves are gone.”
This becomes apparent immediately upon entering into the dance hall. College students, high school students, children, senior citizens and everyone in between can be found socializing with one another. And it is not uncommon for men to wear kilts or skirts.
Other broken down barriers are less obvious. It is part of the dance tradition to make eye contact during the swing moves. Looking into a dance partners eyes while spinning them around can help prevent dizziness. Yet for new dancers, this sustained eye contact with strangers can come as a shock.
Dances are held once a month from September through June at the Wesley Methodist Church.
“Worcester is so welcoming,” says Noah. “We have new people all the time and we want them to feel like they are a part.”
Each dance begins with a half hour lesson to ease beginners into the swing of things. Those with experience are encouraged to help out newcomers.
“The beauty of contra is that it is a called dance, so you are not out there making up moves on your own,” says Michael Mclaughlin, a student at UMass Lowell who has been coming to dances for around three years. A caller’s job is to keep dancers in step by announcing the various moves in time with the music.
“But at the same time,” explains Mclaughlin, “if experienced dancers don’t like a called move, they can substitute it with a move they do like so long as it takes the same amount of time.”
The Worcester Contra Dance began in the early ’80s and has been running fairly consistently ever since. The founders still attend from time to time and recently a dance was held as a sweet 16 for a young woman who grew up in the Worcester contra community.
“You get to know the regulars” says McLaughlin.
Noah attributes some of the longevity and recent growth of the dance to advances made in social networking technology. Worcester advertises along with the Northborough and Berlin dances, and all three are held on different Saturdays of the month. This way, enthusiastic dancers can spend just about every weekend at a contra dance.
The Worcester dance features a different band each month. Music typically consists of sets of traditional high-energy fiddle tunes played by an assortment of stringed instruments. The last dance of the season will be held on June 11 featuring the band Einstein’s Little Homonculus.
General admission is $8 a person or $6 a student with ID. Children 12 and under are free. Family admission is $18. Worcester Contra Dance can be found on the web at worcesterdance.org.