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It's hard to do justice to contradance in words. It's an American folk dance that is still very much alive and evolving. It's not a square dance, though many of the moves are reminiscent of square. It's not a line dance, though a set consists of two lines. It is more like an intricate, moving knot of dancers, in which you and a partner progress down the dance hall and back again, dancing a series of figures with each couple you encounter on the way.
After choosing a partner and lining up 'across the set' from that partner, a caller walks the crowd through the moves. These moves permute from dance to dance, creating different patterns of movement, but cycling once through the dance (or 32 measures of the music, which repeats to fit the dance), you always find yourself and your partner at the beginning again, only with a different couple to dance with.
This may seem a little complicated, but all levels of experience can dance together and still have tons of fun. Participating demands no grace or poise (these can be added later), and some describe it not as dancing, but as getting yourself to the right spot at the right time, or walking around the dance floor. Really, if Sean can do it, you can do it. Footwork can be just as simple as walking (preferably in time to the music). But more experienced dancers add plenty of style, finesse, and variations to test themselves and thrill their partners.
Contra music (like the dance itself) draws from Irish, Scottish, English, Canadian and American bluegrass traditions, among others. Melody is usually carried by a fiddle or a whistle, or guitar, piano, handdrums, banjo, mandolin... pretty much any instrument is eligible to play a contra tune. Tunes are usually jigs or reels that last 32 measures and then repeat. They tend to be quick and energetic.
At Williams, Dancing Folk hosts about one dance a month. All these dances have a live band, usually our 'house band', Rude Cider. Once or twice a semester, though the club brings in a professional band, which adds a whole new level of energy to the event.
At its best, a contradance flows perfectly, seeming to lift you into the right spot. At its worst, it is a challenge of figuring out where you and your partner need to be, and getting there in time with the music. Either way, the dance is energetic, social, and fun.