Last Thursday, the Carnegie Building’s Root Room was the site of an open band and menagerie of spirited folk dancers. After its hiatus due to COVID-19, the Contra Dance Club welcomed the community to its first dance of the year. The contra dance, often referred to as the New England folk dance, is easy to understand. the couples change periodically, the “caller” gives instructions for each successive set of moves, and in the end everyone has danced with everyone else. Although the contra form lends itself to learning on the spot, the event provided a half-hour lesson before the festivities got into full swing. Club leaders wanted to ensure the dance was a comfortable space for newcomers and facilitate the accessibility that defines counter-dancing communities across the country.
“One of the big hopes for the event is to find a lot of people who have never heard of contre-dancing before or people who have and haven’t [been able] to do it in a few years,” said Sam Brinkley, fourth-year dual-degree and co-leader of the Contra Dance Club. “Clubs and contra-dancing communities across the country like to have a beginner’s lesson right in advance. …I think counter dancing is about accessibility and making sure a lot of people can feel accepted and involved. That’s one of the beauties of it – it’s not something you have to take a course in.
Contra-dancing was an essential part of Brinkley’s Oberlin experience. Before entering college, he practiced contra-dancing at summer chamber festivals in New Hampshire, where he met Molly Tucker, OC ’20. Tucker served as the club’s frontman at the time and was instrumental in persuading Brinkley to attend Oberlin. When Tucker graduated, Brinkley and his current co-principal, College fourth-year Eliza Goodell, stepped in. Although the future seemed uncertain at first, the Contra Dance Club found ground fairly quickly.
“Sam got in touch with me and said, ‘Let’s see if we can make it happen,'” Goodell said. “One of the things that worried me before was that we kind of lost our network of people who helped with the dances. … A lot of them had graduated, and I didn’t know anyone younger who was interested. Just when we reactivated the organization and started thinking about making it happen, several people reached out and said, “Do you know anything about that? It was all in the same week. It was really fun.”
Many of the club’s current members are first and second years. Middle school freshmen Bizzy Seay and Rosalie Coleman helped organize both the dance and the open band. For Seay, who has been playing the violin and participating in counter-dances since the age of two, her freshman year of college came at just the right time. Now that the Contra Dance Club is back in full swing, she’s been able to bring her contra-dancing experience to the floors of the Oberlin campus. But it is not his seasoned knowledge that attracts him to counter dancing; it is the immersive and free nature of the discipline.
“It feels like a really open community to me,” Seay said. “It’s so easy to jump in and not really know what’s going on. In many contre-danses, they do English country dancing, which you see in Jane Austin films, for example. It’s much more subdued and appropriate – the counter dance is… much faster and more energetic, and people really have fun with it.