Contra Dance (on the sweetness of Mormon life)

March 3, 2008 | 27 comments

You remember that PBS special, where Givens kept talking about Mormons and dancing? The dancing bits got to my wife and me. We felt we were missing out on some good fun and our heritage.

I’m no dancer. I’ve flunked a dance class, even. Like my wife, though, I have fond memories of social dance at BYU. And since the dancing we did on the handcart trek last summer– the something johnny, it was called, a big ring we formed through which we wove up and down, a real hoot–I’ve been brooding on a way to recreate the experience.

My wife clipped an announcement from the paper about a monthly something called a “contra dance.” She found out that a couple in the next ward over go regular and recommend it. So I did a little research online. Then I bit the bullet and said I’d go. Her eyes sparkled on the drive up–I’d made the right call.

We had a blast. *I* had a blast. They start off here with a ring dance of some kind, like the one we did at the handcart trek. Its usually new to most everyone, so the caller walks us through it. Then, when the dance starts, the caller calls the moves so you can’t forget. Since we’re repeating the same pattern of moves as we advance around the ring, by the last half of the dance we’re all comfortable with what we’re doing and enjoying ourselves.

Then they do several “contra dances,” which as far as I can tell are halfway between English country dancing (think Jane Austen) and square dancing. We line up, men facing the women, and form into little groups of four. The caller then walks us through the four or five moves of the dance a few times, which are designed to move the bottom couple of the four up the line and the top couple down the line into new foursomes. Once we’re done with the walkthroughs, the fiddle strikes up (did I mention the live fiddling?), the caller starts calling out the moves, and off we go. You’ll mess up if you’re me but by the time you get to the fourth or fifth foursome you’ll have the hang of it.

You have all ages present. As you move up and down the line you dance with every woman present so I danced with an eight-year old girl and a pair of grandmothers. Forewarned is forearmed: not only do you and your wife dance with other folks, your first dance or two you are encouraged to partner with more experienced dancers. Contra dance is group dancing, so even an Othello couldn’t get jealous, but if you’re worse than Othello I’ve warned you. The regulars are eager to help, but each dance is new to everyone so the experience gap is less than might be.

They also have a couple of waltzes, about which the less said, maybe, the better.

Anyway, that was January. We went back this Saturday and had just as good a time. Funny thing, last week I was driving with a partner from the firm out to a hearing in Grants, a small town west of here, and I mentioned the contra dancing. He perked up and really started talking. Back in the day when people danced he and his band had been a hot commodity, it seems. And then he started talking about the “Mormon dances” over in Bluewater (Deseret’s tiny eastmost outpost here in New Mexico). He loved them.

On Sunday I brought up the dancing with my Grandma and she perked up too. At first I think the idea of me dancing gave her the giggles. But then she started talking and told me quite a bit of our family’s history I didn’t know about it. Her dad was widowed early on (which I knew) so he went to all the dances religiously (which I didn’t), and took her along even when she was kid. He wasnt’ very religious otherwise so dancing was most of her early contact with the Church. By the time she was a teenager she had a real taste for it, she said. She told some happy memories of long rides in the dark to reach a dance somewhere, or even of overnight trips. Apparently she went to dances at Bluewater too even though its at least 40 miles from the ranchhouse she grew up in. I’ll have to ask the partner for the name of his band. Maybe she’ll remember it.

I proselyted the contra dancing in priesthood yesterday. Several of the brethren came up to get details from me afterwards. If we get enough of us doing it, maybe we can hold our own dance in the chapel, little kids spilling around and saints from 8 to 80 mixing and dancing, just like old times.

They do contra dancing around the country. Why don’t you give it a try? Its the only form of family history that gives you good music and exercise.

Find a contra dance near you at this comprehensive collection of links. The site also includes links for relaxed, dabbler-friendly waltzing and square dances.
I noticed on our ward bulletin board today that BYU offers dance camps at,including ballroom dance for adults.


27 Responses to Contra Dance (on the sweetness of Mormon life)

  1. William Morris on March 3, 2008 at 11:11 am

    One of my favorite ward activities ever was line dancing with my wife and (then) three-year-old daughter.

  2. paula on March 3, 2008 at 11:12 am

    My husband and I used to have contra dancing in our ward in Madison when I was Activities chair. They were great. I wish there was a chance of getting a group together in our SoCal ward, but I doubt that will happen. I’m pretty jealous of yours.

  3. Jettboy on March 3, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I read a short quarter page Newsweek article recently that talked about how Mormons are winning the television dance competitions. As someone who really hated the dance segment of the PBS Mormons, I must admit this did reinforce that Mormons love to dance. I can hear it now, “aren’t Mormons that religion with poligamy . . . and they love to dance?”

  4. z on March 3, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Aww, looks like we have something in common, Adam. As you note, it’s also a very healthful activity, as evidenced by the number of elderly people vigorously participating.

  5. Ray on March 3, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    I love to dance, and I wish the adults in the Church danced as much as the teenagers. What you found sounds wonderful.

  6. Cassie on March 3, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    When you hold ward dances (not youth dances), do husbands and wives dance only with each other? or is there mixing? My ward loves dances but wives won\’t let their husbands dance with anybody else so we single women (there are no active single men except one college boy and two very old widowers who don\’t come to activities) never get to dance. They always expect us to serve as waitresses. Some party.

  7. Adam Greenwood on March 3, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    See the update.

  8. Kevin Barney on March 3, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Adam, when I saw your title “Contra Dance” I came here looking for a fight, because I love to dance, I appreciate our historic connections with dance and I couldn’t imagine why you would want to pen an essay “against” dance. I was glad to see you’re not an anti! Sounds like terrific fun. I’ve always wanted to do some of that Jane Austen stuff; this sounds like a reasonable facsimile.

  9. Ray on March 3, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks for the link in the update. There is a group that meets about 20 miles from my house. I will be talking with my wife about it tonight.

  10. Kaimi Wenger on March 3, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Bluewater, New Mexico? Now there’s a name one doesn’t hear too often.

    My father-in-law was born there, and my wife is related to the entire town. Her grandpa was invited to leave town for being a troublemaker. (He did things like holding a barbeque and inviting the neighbor with whom he had been feuding — and then serving that neighbor’s chickens at the barbeque.)

  11. John Buffington on March 3, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    My wife keeps asking me to take dance lessons (desperately needed I might add) and I always find a good reason not to. Maybe I need to repent…

    When I saw the title, I immediately was remined of two items relating to dance and religion.

    The first is a joke my Baptist buddy told me:

    “Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?” “Because it might lead to dancing!”

    the second is a scene from Cheers. Rebecca was complaining about men

    “Why can’t more men be sensitive?”

    Woody misheard her and replies

    “Mormons can’t be sensitive either? I always knew they weren’t allowed to dance!”

  12. Mark Hansen on March 3, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    I recently read a book on the history of music in the church. Fascinating book. One of the threads I noticed throughout the book was that each generation of leaders decried the morality of the current dances and encouraged the saints to avoid them. Waltzing, for example was hideously evil, until the age of the jitterbug, when it was encouraged.


  13. Adam Greenwood on March 3, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    Heh. I don’t think that can hold up, though. As dance trends asymptotically approach public sex, we’ll stick to our guns.

  14. Sarah on March 3, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Agreed with Adam’s #13. The limit was reached even in YSA dances by mid-2002 or so. I mean, heck, these days public schools are banning prom night.

    I’ve always thought contra dance was pretty silly, but that’s only because I was trained in the (highly) competitive world of Irish step dance, where the (still really competitive) ceili dances (relatively close to contra dance in format) are the “fun” part of the feis. One of my friends has been trying to get me to do the closest thing in Irish dance to a proper contra event, but Catholics don’t have quite the same attitude towards the Sabbath that Mormons do — it starts on Sunday afternoons, just as my ward gets out.

    Bearing in mind, half of why I personally make fun of contra dancing is that my dad and stepmother took it up when I was a teenager, which puts it in the “we have to drink a few swallows of wine for our hearts” and “I’ve found a new brand of low-sodium soup” range in terms of coolness. The fact that Irish dancers snort and mutter words like “derivative” under their breaths at it (we do the same thing with cloggers) is secondary.

    But I think everyone should dance more, so yay Adam.

  15. Blain on March 3, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    I tell people that contradance is the most fun thing I know how to do with clothes on.

    6 — In contra, you dance with everybody, and it’s recommended that you change partners every dance. In fact, I recommend that beginner couples not be partners until the end of the night, because they can’t support each other when neither knows what to do with them. I put together a pamphleet for this and other counterproductive things beginners frequently do.

  16. Blain on March 3, 2008 at 7:45 pm


  17. Jonovitch on March 3, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    I just youtube’d “contra dance” to see what this is all about. While it seems to be a bit livelier than I imagined, I’m sure all husbands of Jane Austen-loving wives (pity us) would do well to surprise our better halves to an evening of old-time dancing.

    In case I chicken out, don’t tell my wife I was thinking about it. We can watch Sense & Sensibility instead. ;)


  18. z on March 3, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Hilarious that people call it “derivative,” Sarah. I’m sure they don’t really mean it, or they’d have to write off American English as “derivative” of British English too. Contra dancing has a long history of development in the new world– it’s obviously much more than a derivative of Irish dance.

    Cassie, in contra dance everyone has a partner, but also has passing interactions with others, always returning to the main partner in between. It might shake your group out of their exclusive partnering pattern. Or it might just be way to salicious for them, all that well-ordered mingling can get pretty exciting.

  19. Bill MacKinnon on March 3, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    So, Adam, was Iran-Contra really about, uh, Ollie North “dancing” around the truth of the matter, or am I confused again?

  20. Derek on March 3, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    There happens to be some Contra Dancing upcoming at the Mt. Vernon Stake Center (Wash-DC area) on March 15:

  21. aloysiusmiller on March 3, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Somewhere in church history is the story of Brigham Young doing ordinance work in the Nauvoo Temple until quite late then having fiddles brought out and they danced before the Lord. I am certain this is the kind of dancing that is done before the Lord.

  22. Blain on March 4, 2008 at 1:40 am

    18 — Contradance is definitely derivative of ECD, with variations introduced along the East Coast, and an almost redefinition with the Folk movement of the 1960s. ECD is fun — I’d like to find descriptions of the dances in Pride and Prejudice (the Keira Knightly version) — but it doesn’t mean the same thing if it ain’t got that swing.

    20 — Interesting. 20 Jun I’ll be at a dance in the DC area (NW of the Beltway) with Wild Asparagus playing, and I’m inviting anybody I have contact with that might go to go. I haven’t yet decided if I’m taking my traditional kilt to dance in (which I already own) or the sports kilt I’m planning on getting which is lighter but might not have enough mass to twirl well. The sports kilt is apt to be less grueling in the heat I expect to find. Hopefully there will be time to work that into your schedule.

    For those not in the know, Wild Asparagus is one of the biggest name contradance bands there is, and the caller that usually travels with them is quite good. He describes contra to teenagers as being “like a rave for grown-ups, where the drug of choice is ibuprofen.”

  23. Mark IV on March 4, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Has anybody here attended a fais do-do in south Louisiana? If you haven’t, you don’t know what you are missing. People bring the whole family, including children as young as 5 or 6, and the grandparents, too. Everybody dances with everybody else, and it is not uncommon to see a young man dancing with his girlfriend in a manner the bishop would frown upon, and then, during the next song, you’ll see him dancing with somebody’s grandma, all polite and dignified, while his girlfriend dances with an 10 year old boy. Once we remove dancing from the dating and pairing up milieu, the pressure is off, the petty jealousies go away, and dancing becomes fun.

    If you are ever driving through Louisiana on I-10 on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, do yourself a favor. Get off the interstate, buy a newspaper, and find out where a dance is being held that night. Then go. I guarantee you will have fun, and be physically exhausted when it is over.

    This video clip of Mary Chapin Carpenter singing Down at the Twist and Shout gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. “Out in the middle of a big dance floor, when I hear that fiddle, wanna beg for more. . .” Yes, indeed.

  24. Mark IV on March 4, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Oops, forgot the clip Here you go:

  25. Blain on March 4, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    23 — That happens at contras also, although you do find folks clinging to their beginner partners enough that it takes a bit of effort to grab them away when you’re an experienced dancer (although the fact of being an experienced dancer helps build the experience necessary to do so). It’s social dance, versus couple dance, and It builds connections with people where you may not know their names or jobs, but you understand something about them that’s a bit hard to explain. Some you like, and some you don’t, and some are just there.

    Occasionally, it’s magical.

    And now I’m committing to go to the contradance this Friday. I haven’t gone to many since the season started in September. It’s time I did.

  26. Maren on March 4, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Wow- I looked at the \”comprehensive collection of links\”, and it turns out there is a contra dance every 4th Saturday of the month in the town just north of here in Vermont. I wonder if I can get my non-dancing husband to go…. Thanks for the stories and the links!

  27. Lori Forsyth on March 7, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    There are lots of contra dances in our part of Massachusetts, and I’ve always enjoyed them when I’ve gone. I think they would be a great idea for Mormon dances, for several reasons. First, they can be very family friendly, as relatively young children can be involved, too. You could even do an enormous circle of the quite small kids that just marked gamely around the rest of the action. Second, they help out with the exclusive couples challenge mentioned above. The awkwardness factor of married couples splitting up to go gather in singles (“what’s up with them, I wonder?” or “oh, aren’t they being charitable”–either way, bad news) is usually enough to keep it to a minimum. With a contra dance, though, it is part of the expectation that everyone gets involved and rotates around, and there’s so much going on (but always with enough help that you don’t get very lost!) that there aren’t the awkward “now what do I talk about while I’m girating next to someone I’m not married to?” kinds of questions.

    Let me add that calling a simple contra dance isn’t that difficult, and that typical contra dance music is, in my opinion, a real step up from your typical square dance fare. I’m all in favor of us going out to find local dances near us, and when we are converted, we ought to be strengthening our brethren–let’s bring it home to the cultural hall. As much as we might love doing the twist or the electric slide, contras are a great way to to bring the ward together.


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