The choice of footwear ranges from socks to sneakers to monkey slippers, but every pair of feet has the same goal: stomp the ground, kick up some dust and have a good time.
View a video of people contra dancing at the Bethel Grove Community Center The Bethel Grove Community Center has been hosting weekly contra dances since 1971. Ithaca resident Ted Crane and his wife, Pamela, are in charge of organizing the weekly events, which regularly attract community members and the occasional college student.
In a traditional contra dance, dancers are arranged in two parallel lines
of many different couples. Each couple has a lead, typically a man, and a follow, which is usually a woman. A caller stands in the front of the dance hall next to the band and shouts commands to the dancers.
Contra dancing’s popularity skyrocketed in the late 1960s in the U.S., but its origins actually trace back to 17th century France. From France, the dancing spread to England and then the Western world.
Ithaca resident Melody Johnson has been contra dancing for more than 30 years and is a semi-regular attendee of the weekly dances at Bethel Grove. She said many single people enjoy contra dancing because they can have fun without any big expectations.
“We change partners every dance, and even if you come as a couple, you’ll still be changing partners,” she said. “So it doesn’t have that cliquish feeling.”
Bryant Adams, a graduate student at Cornell University, said he felt immediately accepted the first time he went several years ago. He said it’s all part of Ithaca’s welcoming “dance community.”
“I come more in the winter than the summer because I overheat easily,” he said.
Adams does more than just dance. During the occasional open-caller nights at Bethel Grove, he takes to the microphone. He said he vividly remembers the first time he wrote and called a dance in 2002.
“I didn’t have stage fright,” he said. “However, I was nervous that it wouldn’t work out right — and it didn’t. I finally got that dance working this year.”
A different caller is featured each week at the Bethel Grove dances. Ted Crane has called a number of dances himself, but his experience is not limited to New York state. He has traveled as far south as Georgia to call a contra dance.
“It’s not a very lucrative profession, though, so the farther you go, you really have to be a fanatic booker,” he said. “You have to be willing to book yourself a year in advance for several weeks at a time. I’m not really in love with the idea of planning my life a year ahead of time.”
Long-lasting friendships, and some deeper connections, are often made as a result of dancing with so many people. Melody Johnson said she met her husband at a contra dance, and they have been married for 25 years. Their son also grew up with an interest in the dance. He started playing the fiddle at Ithaca contra dances when he was only 5 years old. Johnson remembers a night when her son was the only available musician and had to play by himself.
“He only knew three tunes, but he played them over and over, and we had a great night of dancing,” she said.
Johnson also said it’s a good alternative to less constructive weekend activities, like going to bars or clubs.
“There’s no drinking, and there’s no drugging,” she said. “It’s just good, clean fun. And the music is beautiful.”
Larger contra dance events are held five to six times a year by the Hands Four Dancers of Ithaca. The organization, which was formed in 2003, books more well-known contra bands and callers, typically attracting about 200 people at each event. Ithaca resident Jennifer Cook, the group’s president, said she is happy with the average turnout but wishes more college students would get involved.
“We’re always trying to get more students to come, so it’s not just us older fogies,” she said. “In some parts of the country, there are groups that are predominately students. Then there are some that cater to families and older crowds.”
Many college students are unaware that contra dancing exists because it is not necessarily popular in every part of the country. Ithaca College senior Julia Sternam said she wouldn’t have known about it if her friend, senior Amanda Schlenker, hadn’t taken her to check it out three weeks ago.
Even as a newcomer, Sternam said it’s easy to learn the moves and dive right in.
“The people are very friendly,” she said. “They tell you what to do, so it makes it easier to follow. Plus, I love the music.”
Sternam is not the first friend Schlenker has brought to a contra dance. She said she has introduced about eight of her friends to the dance, some of whom now come with her regularly. Ultimately for Schlenker, it’s the uplifting nature of the dance that keeps her coming back for more.
“You could be having the worst day in the whole world, and you come contra dancing and everything is great again,” she said.
Contra dances are held from 8 to 11 p.m. Fridays at the Bethel Grove Community Center, 1763 Slaterville Road. Admission is $5.