Contra dancing at Dewey Hall in Sheffield. Photo: Alice Maggio

Social dancing is alive (and growing!) in the Berkshires

Contra dance is what is known as a social dance; you do not need to bring a partner with you and you do not need to take lessons—you can just show up.

Sheffield — Contra dancing has been an important part of this town’s social life for over 40 years, reliably livening up many Saturday nights with the sound of a live band, a caller and many happy feet.

Contra dancing is like square dancing, but takes place in long lines instead of squares. It’s like the dancing you might have seen in film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” but much more energetic!

Contra dance is what is known as a social dance; you do not need to bring a partner with you and you do not need to take lessons—you can just show up. “If you can put one foot in front of another and smile, you can contra dance,” said Sheffield Contra Dance Committee member Neal Chamberlain. Each dance is taught by the caller, who stands up on the stage with the band. The caller continues to “call the dance” even after the music has begun.

The music is a big attraction; contra dances always have live bands. Bands’ repertoires draw primarily from Celtic, old-time, and Québécois traditions. However, in true American fashion, contra dance bands also often incorporate the influences of rock, jazz, blues and reggae.

In Sheffield, Joe Baker and the Mountain Laurel Band hosted a monthly dance for 35 years. In late 2012, when the Mountain Laurel Band decided to retire from this duty, a small group of dancers determined to carry on the tradition. Since then, this loosely organized committee has put on a quarterly dance at Dewey Hall on Main Street, focusing its efforts on September, December, March and June dances.

This year, however, the Sheffield Contra Dance Committee has decided to expand the dance calendar to include a total of eight dances. This expansion has been inspired by a very exciting development: the emergence of a whole bunch of new contra dance callers.

“We’re really proud to say that all of our dances in 2019 are going to be called by homegrown callers,” says Chris Wiltshire, another member of the Sheffield Contra Dance Committee and the new Contra Callers Collective.

At the beginning of 2018, Jon Greene of Great Barrington began organizing regular practice sessions for dancers who want to learn how to call. The group, with members ranging in age from 15 to 60, has met at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Housatonic on the second Sunday of the spring and fall months.

“One of the main responsibilities of the Sheffield Contra Dance committee is to book bands and callers,” said Elizabeth Orenstein. “Sometimes it can be difficult to book callers who live a few hours away. At a certain point last fall, we were looking at the 2019 calendar and we realized we had this fabulous resource right here: all of these new contra dance callers who have been honing their craft. It’s time to put them to work!”

The Sheffield Contra Dances are held at Dewey Hall. Dances take place from 8 to 11 p.m., with lessons for beginners at 7:30 p.m. There is a suggested donation at the door of $10–$15 per adult and $8 per student, with a maximum of $25 for a family. All are welcome, regardless of age or ability. No partner is necessary.

The dance calendar is as follows:

  • Saturday, March 23: CoinciDance with Karyn Dornemann calling
  • Saturday, April 27: Russet Trio with Lisa Marchetti calling
  • Saturday, May 25: Polaris with Hannah Chamberlain calling
  • Saturday, June 22: Cedar Stanistreet and Donal Sheets, with Jon Greene calling
  • Saturday, Sept. 28: Wildcat Creek with Ted Randolph calling
  • Saturday, Oct. 26: Mountain Laurel with Chris Wiltshire calling
  • Saturday, Nov. 23: Cake Jam with Maggie McRae calling
  • Saturday, Dec. 28: to be determined