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RFDS Contra Dance
8-12pm, Sat July 26, 2008

By Julie Bishop
Posted Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why should you come to Granville Town Hall on Saturday 26th July, 8pm to midnight?

Well of course you want to help the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). It's 80 years old this year!

But – admit it – you want fun too. And nice people to have it with. And great music to do it to. Oh, and weight-bearing exercise, of course. If you’ve contra danced before, you know all about it. If you haven’t – well, hundreds of smiling dancers from previous RFDS contras, or the National Folk Festival, or other folk festivals, or the regular dances and workshops in Canberra, could tell you. Contras are flowing, they’re flirty – they’re fun!

American contras are most directly descended from English country dances where the men lined up in long lines across from the women. In Richard Nevell’s wonderful book, A Time to Dance*, he says that at least some Puritans (though not all!) who settled the New World “shared the attitudes of their favourite authors like ... Bunyan in whose works ‘all good people dance, from the angels down’.”

By the time of the American Revolution, everyone was doing country dances. Most were contras, whether traditional or specially created (e.g. Jefferson and Liberty, Washington Quickstep) to celebrate events or heroes. Contra dance was seen as very democratic: in part because, being for “as many as will”, all can dance if they want to and if numbers are even. America’s French allies called it “contredanse” – while introducing their quadrilles.

With the anti-British sentiment of the War of 1812, English contras gave way to French squares. In cities, professional dancing masters ran schools of dance, deportment and etiquette. But by the late 1800s, they found their livelihoods diminished by “callers” (who called out the movements during the dance) and by a scandalous new fashion in traditional dance – the swing.

In the Appalachians, big circle dances and running sets were more popular; in the west, a hybrid evolved that became western square dancing. But in rural parts of New England, attachment to traditions had kept contra alive, all that time: to be “rediscovered” in the late 1960s to ’70s. Before long, halls across the country were filled with the sound of exciting Celtic and French-Canadian music played by wonderful fiddlers and other musicians, punctuated by the simultaneous stomp of dancers’ feet in the balance-and-swing.

And now contras are here – and we love ’em! And while we're talking birthdays: Ryebuck Bush Band (playing for contras as Pastrami on Ryebuck) has just turned 30.

Contra in Sydney

For The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, South Eastern Section

Granville Town Hall, Carlton St

(not far from the station)

Saturday 26th July, 8pm-midnight

with Australia’s first contra dance band, Pastrami on Ryebuck, and caller Julie Biishop.

All dances will be taught and called; experienced dancers can help newcomers; there’s always a good crowd, and a good supper

All of this for only $17, $14 concession

(And afterwards, many of us wander down the street for coffee and baklavas)

Enq: John (02) 9623 7551 or Leila (02) 9896 8992

This is Sydney's only contra dance, held each winter.

There is another annual contra at East Gosford (13th December, this year) - also with Pastrami on Ryebuck and Julie Bishop. Details at the CCBDMA web site.

* NOTE. A Time to Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash, Richard Nevell (1977, St. Martin’s Press, New York) is out of print, but used copies are available very cheaply online.
See also Rebecca Jones’s Contra Conversations and this web page.

For Canberra contras: Colin Towns, (02) 6232 9231, (0417) 020 615

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RFDS Contra Dance
Fun at the 2005 RFDS Contra
(Photo by Bob Trinklein of Massachusetts)