By Chelsea Dill, Contributing Writer
Driving down Church Street in Northborough, you may happen to notice a small white sign advertising a dance at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. However, it’s not your typical ballroom or country line dancing. Every third Saturday of the month, the popular contra dance is held at the Northborough church. The hall will be filled with lively folk music as coupled dancers in long lines spin, bow, and rotate around one another in intricate geometric patterns, almost like mechanisms in a machine.
Ken Bennett, organizer of the Northborough Contra Dance, is a seasoned dancer, which includes years of square dancing. He first became involved with contra dancing when he saw a similar sign advertising the Berlin dance and was curious to check it out.
“[Contra dancing] is much more fun than square dancing. It’s easier [and] friendlier,” he said.
The Northborough Contra Dance began in the 1990s by Jon Weinberg, who led it for 14 years before it was later taken over by Lucy and Gary Philips. Bennett, alongside his wife, Deb, has been organizing the Northborough Contra Dance for the last seven years. Northborough isn’t the only Contra Dance in this area. Many churches and halls around central Mass. and Metrowest hold Contra dances on a regular basis, including Worcester, Berlin, Concord and Westford. There are loyal followers who have been dancing for decades and some like to call themselves “dance gypsies,” who follow weekly dances in different locations.
The dances are set to traditional folk tunes played by local bands that use instruments such as fiddle, mandolin, guitar, dulcimer and accordion. Bands that frequent the contra dancing circuit include the Free Raisins, Wild Card, Jumpstart, and Full Tilt. The steps are led by dance callers, such as Bill Fischer, Dan Perl, Don Veino and Dandy Lafleur. The callers guide the group of dancers who are paired off in long lines. By nature, contra dancing is a social dance, with origins from country dances by early New Englanders. The varied steps and styles are easy to learn and let dancers often mix partners. Whether someone shows up single or comes with a group of friends, everyone is welcomed.
“The best thing for newcomers is to dance with […] an experienced dancer,” Bennett recommends. If “allemande left,” “right-hand star,” and “do-si-do” sound more like cookies than dance steps, experienced contra dancers are always eager to help newcomers. One of the popular dances is the “spiral” dance that winds the dancers in a long snakelike formation which twists around itself without getting tangled.
Contra’s social nature can take credit for the lasting friendships made by dance attendees.
“You develop a lot of friends,” Bennett said. “It’s similar to a church function. Everybody likes each other and you get to meet a lot of different people and you make new friends all the time.”
With increasing popularity also brings growing numbers.
“Usually we will have 35 or more,” Bennett said. “We were pretty much at capacity at our last dance,” when the number was in the 60s – impressive for the small dance. The average attendee count is relative to size of the hall hosting the dance.
“[In] the next to the last dance, we still had three lines,” he noted. “We still had a lot of people left over, which doesn’t happen. Usually we’re down to a line or less.” He added that numbers usually dwindle later in the evening. Hours after the 8 p.m. start, Bennett was pleasantly surprised to see a nearly full group toward the end.
For more information, visit https://northborocontra.com/. The next Northborough Contra Dance will be held Saturday, April 15, at the First Parish UU church, 40 Church St. Admission is $10; $5 for students; and $20 for a family.