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An Insight to the Life of Contra Dance

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Down the long corridors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lies a small-knit community upholding a rich tradition of New England contra dancing. Ann Cowan of Cambridge and Art Anger of Concord co-coordinate a contra dance every other week for everyone from the MIT community to the Back Bay to take part in. One would never guess that the weather outside was frightfully brewing a snowstorm, when indoors the congregation of regular contra dancers and curious beginners twirled around one another in all smiles and laughter.

The contra dance is one of the three dances held a week by the MIT international folk dance student organization. Cowan and Anger have been holding their dance for around fifteen years, organizing the live music with the help of friends. The musicians for the night were a collective rounded together by the organizer’s longtime colleague Jonah Sidman, who each played their instrument simply by ear. With the modern resurgence of American folk music, Cowan and Anger’s contra dance attract many Berklee students studying the accompanying music style. Although they only rely on donations and their small entry fee of $6, they pay the musicians a feasible amount to compensate for their time and travels.

Cowan and Anger also use a different live caller each time to enhance the variety of voices and style of the dance. A caller’s job in the contra dance is to call out the positions that the dancers are supposed to follow, in order to orchestrate the fluid movement. The night’s caller was feature player Chris Lahey, who also partakes in the maintenance of the dancehall’s setup.

“The dance form is all about community,” said Chris Lahey, the caller of the night’s dance. “So the other dancers are there to help new people learn the steps.”

The dance is very similar to square dancing, although according to Cowan, the steps are easier to join along. Everyone is advised to wear soft-soled shoes in order to execute the fluid twirls and motions comfortably. The particular signature of the dance has a knack for enacting dizziness, which many experienced contra dancers disregard by maintaining solid eye contact with their partners.

“It’s fun, it’s easy and everyone’s included,” said Cowan. “This is a good dance for beginners, they learn by doing.”

Longtime contra dancer Dana “Always” Fine has been dancing for over four years, and has since seen some health benefits to contra dancing, losing a total of fifty pounds. The combination of the healthy movement and the pure amusement lured Fine into the contra lifestyle, and is what inspires her to continue coming back week after week to join Cowan and Anger’s troupe.

According to one of the more experienced dancers, although the summer is the best time for outdoor folk dancing, contra dance is a New England tradition best served in the winter. It began in the small villages of New England and Appalachia, where it remained only a community event until certain people like took the folk tradition into the city. By using MIT as the dance hall from week to week, Cowan and Anger have introduced the hidden tradition to fast paced city slickers and short-attention spanned college students.

“It’s a passion for people in the area, and it brings people together,” said Julia Whiteneck, a regular contra dancer who travels from the outskirts of Boston to dance in Cowan and Anger’s crowd.

Sara Zhang, a Boston University freshman from China, found out about the dance through MIT’s calendar. Her curiosity for the American folk culture inspired her to try out the dance and so far has found it very welcoming to newcomers.

“I love trying new things and everyone is really friendly,” said Zhang. Zhang found herself embedded in the community during break time, when she got to talk to the other dance members.

For only $6 for the general public, Cowan and Anger’s contra dance will make you experience one of the best traditional treasures New England has to offer.


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