A New Revolution: Contra Dancing in Central Colorado
Story and photos by Mike Rosso
No, it’s not a camouflaged gang of South American rebels celebrating their latest victory against the imperialist dogs. That joke is as well worn as a hundred-year-old dance floor. What is known about contra dancing is that is upbeat, easy and fun for folks of all ages.
Derived from old English country dancing, contra has seen a popular resurgence in the United States over the past twenty years as well as right here in Central Colorado.
Fashionable in the U.S. until the mid-19th century when it was supplanted by square dancing, contra dancing refers to a style of folk dancing involving two lines of couples in opposition (or counter to one another, thus one explanation of the term contra). The dances involve long lines, circles and quadrilles; figure styles which are popular in most European folk dance. The current revival took root in New England and has found its way West.
Locally, the dances were introduced in Buena Vista in 1998 by Randy and Carole Barnes and John Vakaritis when fifteen curious folks showed up at Avery Parsons Elementary school to be given a step-by-step walk-through on the dances featuring live music accompaniment.
Randy, a music teacher in Buena Vista, was calling squares and contra dances at the early age of 14 while growing up in Colorado Springs with a musical family. He and his wife Carole, also a teacher in Buena Vista, had been trying for some time to organize a community of contra and international folk dancers but couldn’t find enough locals interested in organized dances.
However, over the past eleven years, interest has grown and word has gotten out to the point where monthly dances are now successfully held throughout the winter and into the summer in Buena Vista and Salida, and catching on quickly in Leadville as well. Fairplay also hosts a contra dance in conjunction with its annual Burro Days celebration in July.
Musicians from throughout the region provide live, organic, old-time melodies and rhythms for the dances on fiddles, recorders, banjos, mandolins, guitars, bass and hammered dulcimer.
At the Buena Vista dances, Barnes’ young music students often join in, getting their chops up to speed playing with the more seasoned musicians and guaranteeing a new generation of players to keep the dance tradition alive.
A jolt of new energy arrived on the Chaffee County contra dance scene with the arrival of Eleanor Fahrney from Virginia in 2002. A graduate of William and Mary College, Fahrney discovered contra dancing in Norge, Virginia in 1997, a town outside of Williamsburg with a long tradition of dance. She had spent summers working at Adventure Unlimited youth camp near Buena Vista as a counselor and guide where she first called a family dance featuring the Barnes’ performing the music.
After moving to the Central Colorado region full-time, she and her husband Andrew became actively involved with the local dance community, eventually forming the non-profit group, Arkansas Valley Music and Dance Association (AVMAP), for the purpose of providing and expanding traditional music and dance opportunities in the area.
The high level of positive regional response led to the formation of a popular dance and music camp dubbed, “Stellar Days and Nights,” held every year at Adventures Unlimited in Buena Vista which feature workshops, food, recreational activities and, of course, contra dancing, which draws participants from all around the country.
In addition to her gigs in the region, Fahrney also calls an annual dance in Lyons and calls at least one dance a month statewide. In 2004 she was offered an opportunity to put on a monthly dance at Bongo’s Salida Cafe for three months, long enough to allow the locals in that community to catch the contra bug. Soon after, she was approached by the Salida Recreation Department about sponsorship of additional dances. They decided on the Salida Scout Hut as the venue for the events and, though they initially struggled with low attendance figures, the dances quickly caught on to the degree that they were voted “Best Community Event” of 2006 and 2007 in the local newspaper.
Fahrney has also been tapping musical talent beyond the Upper Arkansas Valley, bringing in seasoned contra style bands from the Front Range and other parts of Colorado. She says the region has seen a recent influx of younger dance enthusiasts as well as new musicians and callers, steadily increasing the turnouts for the dances, which are kept intentionally affordable – $5.00 and under for admission – helping to provide inexpensive, lively, good times for area community members of all ages who just want to dance and smile.
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