Memories of pre-pandemic dancing

Published 3:55 pm Friday, March 19, 2021

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Perhaps it’s because of this past year of pandemic-induced free time, but I’ve been feeling pretty nostalgic lately.

I’ve been rewatching all my favorite movies and shows from high school. I’ve contacted my best friend probably about a million times with random “hey do you remember this moment from our childhood??” messages. And I keep finding old files on my laptop of silly things I typed up and saved from middle school.

So as I’ve been journeying down memory lane lately, my most recent nostalgia trip has been for contra dancing. I went contra dancing specifically just one single time over a decade ago, but the memory suddenly popped in my head as clear as if it was yesterday. I had honestly forgotten about it completely, but I suppose there are some fun memories in our heads that our brain keeps in a protective wrap for those rare occasions when we want to revisit them.

I would guess that most of you out there have probably never heard of contra dancing before, which isn’t that surprising. It’s not a broadly popular form of dancing and I don’t know of anywhere remotely nearby that would host the dance (not even before the pandemic hit).

Contra is a kind of folk dancing that looks a bit like square dancing and line dancing weirdly mashed up together. The origins of the dance style can probably be traced back several hundreds of years, but it first gained popularity in the 1700s in England, Ireland, France, and plenty of neighboring countries in that part of Europe. It was just called “country dancing” among English speakers, but the French called it “contredans” (meaning, “opposites dance”) Over time, as languages evolved, the name “contra dance” is the one that stuck around.

Opposite dancing is an apt name considering how the dance is set up. In the dance hall, you’re partnered up with a person for the dance and you start off in two long lines of dancers facing each other. You’re in one line and your partner is in the other. While the music is playing, a “caller” will call out the dance sequence to follow. You and your partner will make your way up and down the line, dancing with new “neighbors” along the way. There’s often a lot of swinging and circling involved.

If that sounds confusing, I recommend searching a couple videos on youtube to see how it looks and sounds. It sometimes seems like barely controlled chaos, but it’s also a lot of fun!

The music, performed by a live band, features lively fiddles and often other instruments like banjos, mandolins, pianos, and more. So the dancing is always upbeat and will definitely get your heart pumping.

I was a college student that one time I went contra dancing. A friend attending school in Greensboro invited me along one evening. She advised me ahead of time to wear my old ballet shoes and a good skirt for twirling around.

When we arrived, there were people of all ages in attendance. There were a few younger than us, but the rest of the people ranged from their 30s all the way up to probably their 70s and 80s. The group was welcoming and friendly, quickly jumping in to teach me and other first-timers the basic steps to know beforehand. The band was set up on stage at the back of the large room, warming up before they got ready to dive straight into their performance.

I absolutely loved the experience. The fast-paced dances were dizzying, and sometimes I wasn’t sure I could keep up. Things felt like they moved in the blink of an eye. But it was also exhilarating to just dance around the room, my long skirt twirling just as I expected. Nobody cared if you missed a step or were a beat late on your turns. It was all encouragement and smiles and the kind of laughter you make when you’re surrounded by friends.

Like I said, I only had the opportunity to go once, but I’ve never really forgotten the fun. I’m sure the pandemic has put a hold on contra dancing around the country right now. It’s the kind of dance where you get to interact with and hold hands with basically everyone in the room at some point. Definitely not the best thing to do while we’re still having to social distance.

But the pandemic won’t last forever, and one day soon, it’ll be safe again for contra dancing. I’d like to imagine those people I met in Greensboro will still be meeting up in the future, happily teaching beginners like me how to carry on the old folk dance.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.