Contra Dancing: There's A Gypsy in All of Us
By ANGELA WAMPLER | PHOTOS BY DAVID WILEY | April 28, 2009Turning, moving, spinning,
dresses swirling, music beating,
eyes in contact with a partner,
then another, then another, then another,
and the fiddle turns a corner,
the phrase repeats,
the dance repeats.
You smile. Your body smiles.
Since my first contra dance in 1987 I've marveled at the intensity and joyousness it brings forth in me and how I can feel connected with so many others in the same state. It's ecstatic spiritual practice masquerading as recreation. It's also aerobic, flirtatious, and social." — Doug Plummer, a West Coast photographer who enjoys contra dancing.
Since his first contra dance in 2005, David Wiley in Jonesborough, Tenn., has felt the same way as Plummer. In fact, Wiley considers himself a "dance gypsy" — someone who frequently spends more time traveling to and from a contra dance than at the dance itself.
Wiley says, "Once you become a contra dancer, you become a dance gypsy who will drive 100 miles to go to a contra dance."
(Click HERE for a slide show of contra dancing.)
He continues, "Contra dance is one of the best ways to interest and initiate people into folk dance. Interest in dance in general is widespread in the Tri-Cities region because of programs aired on public television and the very popular TV hit, Dancing with the Stars."
Wiley loves contra dancing so much that he founded the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society (HJDS) and organizes at least two contra dances each month at the Jonesborough Visitors Center.
He also makes the regional contra scene swing by producing a Contrathon twice a year. Dancers swarm to Glendale Springs, NC, for these popular day-long dances on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.
Wiley, 60, became a contra dance fanatic at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, NC. While volunteering at the festival, he noticed a big tent with a plywood floor and a posted dance schedule. Conveniently, his volunteer shift ended at 2 p.m. and the contra dance began at 3 p.m.
"I was a 'non-dancer' but I was intrigued, so I said 'God help me, today is the day,'" he recalls. "In typical contra dance fashion, a lady asked me if I had a partner and I told her 'I don't know how to do this.' She took me under her wing and danced with me a couple times. It was a breakthrough moment for me and I spent the next hour contra dancing."
Two weeks after that, Wiley went to a contra dance at the Lake Eden Arts Festival near Asheville, NC. "I danced until I couldn't walk any more," he recalls with a laugh. "But I was beaming, smiling, high as a kite."
Shortly after that, Wiley attended the Old Farmer's Ball at Warren Wilson College near Asheville. "There were 250 people in their early 30s, so there was a lot of young energy. It was an amazing event!" he notes.
Since then, Wiley has been traveling to the Asheville area twice a week for the last four years — sometimes even as far as South Carolina — to attend contra dances.
To get contra dances in Jonesborough, Wiley began going early to dances in North Carolina — to introduce himself to bands and Callers. "I told them 'I'm going to be producing a dance in Jonesborough and I need help to get it going.' Nobody ever said no," he says. "That's the beauty of it. The bands and the Callers are all very supportive because, if we're successful, it gives them another venue to work."
Wiley says another reason for visiting other contra dances is to hear bands and Callers first-hand. "If I haven't danced to your music, or someone I respect hasn't danced to your music, we probably won't book you," he explains. "That's not much of a problem, though, because so many contra dance bands and Callers are nationally and regionally renowned."
Before organizing his first dance, Wiley scheduled three dance workshops free of charge in the fall of 2005 to see if there was any interest in the community. For the first two workshops, Wiley paid the Callers and used recorded music; for the third workshop, a band
volunteered to provide the music.
Today, Wiley organizes two to four dances each month at the Visitors Center, sometimes with themes such as "Foot Ball" and "Skirts and Shirts." The dances attract participants from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Asheville and Boone.
New Dance Floor
The Historic Jonesborough Dance Society was chartered in the Fall of 2005 as a non-profit, educational organization to promote a better understanding and appreciation of American folk dancing, its music, its history and related folklore. HJDS has a nine-member board of directors and is an affiliate of the Country Dance and Song Society.
HJDS has developed a comprehensive strategic plan for its future, which potentially includes a new building to house a "movement center" to encourage people to be more active, with a program of healing arts, yoga, meditation, and massage.
"We already have the plans drawn," Wiley says. "We're just waiting for the right opportunity to go on with that."
Meanwhile, dancers are enjoying a new wooden floor at the Jonesborough Visitors Center.
"Until last year we were dancing on concrete, which has no flex and is very tough on ankles and knees," Wiley explains. "In addition, there's no 'sound' to it. Part of the overall effect of contra dancing is the resonance of people's feet stomping on the floor."
When dance members voiced their wish for a wood floor, Wiley says, "Mullican Flooring in Johnson City donated a significant amount of flooring to jump-start the project," and when a hardwood flooring contractor heard about it, he volunteered to install it for us. Both made this contribution — which amounted to $50,000 — because they knew contra dance was having an impact on the community."
The Society presented a mock-up of the floor construction for approval by Jonesborough's Board of Mayor and Aldermen and to the town's Tourism Committee, then raised another $15,000 to purchase supplies and equipment for the installation.
Wiley recalls that, after a 12-hour Memorial Day Contrathon last year, at 7:30 the next morning 35 volunteers showed up at the Visitors Center to help install the new floor. "Talk about getting goosebumps!" he exclaims.
Several volunteers pre-assembled 200 sheets of plywood off-site — stapling rubber cushioning to the wood — and began laying pieces in the dance hall before the contractor started the installation. "They gave up their holiday to do that," Wiley says. "Then, over the next two weeks, volunteers came and went, even during lunch breaks from work, to help out."
'Social Engineering At Its Best'
"It's amazing how people came out of the 'woodwork' to work together as a community," Wiley says. "But we can't rest on our laurels. We must keep reaching out to new people. There is a significant group coming to every dance, and others come occasionally. So we must continue to promote and reach out."
To that end, at the door the Society asks newcomers to sign a guest book. Wiley then calls the guests to ask them about their experience. He also conducts surveys via e-mail, asking people what they think and what they would do differently.
Wiley says, "Right now, we want to teach everyone in the region traditional music and dance. If we don't, dance — our cultural heritage — will go away. Three generations ago — our great-grandparents — used to flock to community dances. Outside of church and work, the dance is where they courted, flirted, or traded mules and horses. It shaped how community members interacted or didn't interact."
He continues, "I'm not completely at war with popular culture, but people spend too much time watching TV, renting movies, recording shows on TIVO, using their computers, Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Every now and then, they need to go out and enjoy an evening of music and dance. It's my job to drag people kicking and screaming out of their 'life box' and throw them into a pile of people they've never met and see what happens. In our group, that has resulted in three marriages. It's social engineering at its best!"
— A Contra Dance Primer
— Contra Dances This Month
— Advice from Developer of Dancing Contras DVD