freelance journalist

Toronto contra dancing group attracts the young and old

Here's my radio story, followed by my article: 

A woman in a country dress calls out dance moves next to a fiddler and a banjo player. Below the stage, three lines of couples are dancing on a thumping wood floor, laughing and cheering. It's just like a barn dance, but it's happening two minutes from the subway.

“I love contra dancing,” said Kat Cosburn, a Torontonian in her twenties who discovered the dance while studying in North Carolina.

“It's really fun; it's kinda hippy-ish,” she laughs. “It's a fun alternative to going to the club.”

For 29 years, the Toronto Country Dancers have been meeting in church halls across the city. Their current home is St. Barnabas Anglican Church, on the Danforth at Chester Avenue where they meet every second, fourth and fifth Saturday from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.

“It's pretty fun,” said first-timer Kelsey Archambault, wiping the sweat off her brow.  “It's a little complicated but because it repeats so much by the time you get to the end you've done it a bunch of times so you get used to it.”

Contra dancing takes place 2-3 times a month in a church hall near the Toronto subway line.

Contra dancing is a form of folk dance that originated in New England and popularized between the two World Wars. It’s a mix between line and square dancing where partners start by facing each other in straight lines and form a quartet with another couple.

The two couples dance a routine by following 10 or less call-outs from the stage. The partners finish a sequence and rotate on to another couple in under a minute.

“It's not square dancing; it's a lot more flowing,” said Cosburn.

While the steps, twirls and swings remain the same the groups rotate. By the end, it’s almost guaranteed everyone has danced with everyone else in the room.

“It's very human. You look into each others' eyes so you don't get dizzy,” said 71-year-old Maryanne Ells. “Young and old people get together. You meet everyone.”

Some come in suits, others wear jeans, and a few strut barefoot in tie-dye T-shirts. Everyone wears a name badge. It’s a dance that welcomes amateurs and pros, from all walks of life.

“Contra dancing is simple, and it's a lot of fun,” said TCD President Richard Stafford. “There's kind of a fluid geometry to it.”

With rotating sets, everyone in the room dances with each other by the end of the night.

Around 70 to 90 people show up for each dance, with newcomers arriving half an hour early for training sessions.

“I saw it and fell in love,” said Leigh Godfrey, a contra dancer for four years who's helping organize the group's festival in mid-April. “It's a real workout and it brings you closer to people.”

She's not kidding. I have 30 seconds as a wallflower before I'm thrust onto the dancefloor.

“We’re all a little confused,” says a stranger with the name Diane as she grabs my hand and tugs me in line for the next number. “That’s part of the fun.”

This article was published in the East York Observer on March 23, 2012.