My first contra dance workshop: unexpected fun!

Dancers in motion

Today Abby and I attended the first CMU contra dance workshop put on by the Carnegie Alliance of Traditional and Social Dance, as I mentioned we might when I wrote about the formation of CATS Dance.

You have to understand that for years I resisted the idea of ever doing contra dancing. I had some bad memories of being forced to do a bit of square dancing in elementary school, I have a tendency to resist choreographed patterns, and frankly, I associated contra dancing with old, maybe clumsy people. In the past year, having met plenty of people who mentioned doing contra dancing, and who clearly are not old and clumsy (some are old but far from clumsy), I’d gotten interested in giving it a try.

The seed was first planted just from happening to get pulled into playing music for contra dancing ten months ago. But I didn’t act on it, other than participating a little bit impromptu at a birthday party.

Today I finally went for a full four-hour workshop, held at CMU.

I had a great time, way beyond my expectations!!


The turnout was great. I estimate there were about thirty to forty participants. Most of them appeared to be undergrad or grad students; others were older people, many of whom Abby and I already knew from elsewhere, including the French dance workshops we’ve attended in the past several months. The predominance of young people was a good sign.


Gaye Fifer

We were really blessed today to have a great caller, Gaye Fifer, who is not only clear in her instruction and calling, but also was always very observant and helpful to anyone who was in her line of sight. Whenever I was near her and messing up, she noticed and efficiently got me back on track. She did that for everyone, not just me. Given the size of the crowd, I found that care and attention to detail really impressive.

Gaye made the whole learning experience effective, friendly, and joyful!



We also had a fantastic live band, Gallimaufry, from Oberlin. This is a group of five youthful and very skilled musicians playing a whole bunch of instruments. I saw fiddle, cello, electric guitar, accordion, piano, drums.

They played with great rhythm and sheer exuberance and expression, and seamless ensemble work. Wow. They were rocking out. They knew how to ramp it up to get the dancers moving and smiling!


The energy level and enthusiasm of the dancers today was great. I have been in dance situations in which some of the dancers were not fully engaged, not really getting into the music or the movement, or choosing to remain distant with those they rotated around to dance with. I think it’s really important, for this kind of dance to work, for everyone to be fully present and open to the experience, and open to dancing with everyone else. It’s a communal experience.

There was a mix of beginners (like myself) as well as those who clearly already knew what they were doing. This was actually very helpful because those who knew what they were doing kept the rest of us on the right track, both through personal example and through verbal and physical reminders of what to do. As a result, typically after repeating a pattern ten times (down one end of the room to the next and then back) while the music went on and on, I was able to improve during each iteration to the point that by the end of each dance we learned, I more or less knew what to do and how to do it (not that I necessarily remembered it exactly or executed it smoothly).

By the way, I got pretty sweaty during the four-hour workshop. It was intense. This isn’t just shuffling around: it’s real exercise, with the music being lively and everyone being in constant motion. I was starving and dehydrated after the first two hours!


Abby partnering with David

There was a snack break halfway through, but I took other breaks to catch my breath and rest my mind, since the dances got progressively more complicated and faster (counting in four rather than eight, for example, and traveling more). It was fun to take a break and watch people dance, because the more experienced dancers added their own ornaments and spins and looked so smooth.

As the caller pointed out, the subtlety and the fun in contra dancing comes from making all the transitions smooth and coordinated. I have a lot of work to do to continue improving, but during the hours of the workshop as I learned to be more aware of my immediate circle and relative positions and movements, I got a real sense of how I could really improve my experience of and enjoyment of contra dance.

French dance during break

Also, during the break, Lisa taught some basic French dance to those who just couldn’t get too much dancing. Hopefully this will translate into increased participation in the upcoming French dance workshops.


As a nice typical touch, each of the two sets were concluded with a waltz. Abby and I enjoyed the opportunity to dance together, just the two of us, during the waltzes.

What next?

Abby and I have known for a while, of course, about the regular Friday night contra dance by the Pittsburgh Contras and Squares. That’s not a great time and day, unfortunately, because going out late on a Friday night does not appeal to me. I like the weekend afternoon schedule of the CMU French and contra dance workshops, currently held 4-7 PM. Being held at CMU also has the large advantages of being very close to home as well as encouraging a good turnout of young people to keep the energy up.

If the current CMU schedule continues, that makes it much more likely that we’ll continue to do French and contra dancing regularly.

Meanwhile, I expect to play music at the annual holiday ball again this year. This time, I am sure I will have no fear about maybe taking part in the dancing!


I had an unforgettable dance experience today. I never expected to enjoy contra dancing so much, but because of how friendly all of the workshop participants were, and the caller, and the amazing band, I feel like I now have a taste of why people do this, and I hope to do more!

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