Youth Flock To Contra Dancing

Contra dancing has been around since the 1700s. If you don't know it — it's kind of like square dancing but with long lines of dancers. The dance is having a renaissance around the country thanks to a thriving youth scene.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And we end this hour with another old form translated for the 21st century: contra dancing. It's sort of like square dancing, but with long lines of dancers. The music is high energy, and there's a caller giving instructions.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DAVID MILLSTONE (Contra Dance Caller): (Singing) Forward and back go swim and chain that inside track. Same women dance through the center, 84...

BLOCK: The band Wild Asparagus is from New England, where contra dancing came to life in the 1700s.

And as Marika Partridge reports, contra dance today is enjoying a renaissance, thanks to a flourishing youth scene.

(Soundbite of music)

MARIKA PARTRIDGE: Picture a human whirligig: people moving in patterns to live music. They circle, trade places, meet new partners. Tenth graders Alix Hamburger and Dylan Greer are enchanted by the experience of contra dance.

Ms. ALIX HAMBURGER: It's like a rhythmic swirl of awesomeness and dancing.

Mr. DYLAN GREER: Swirly awesomeness?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KATHLEEN FOWNES: You're just grooving, and it's awesome.

PARTRIDGE: At age 16, Kathleen Fownes considers herself more than qualified to describe contra dance. She's been doing it all her life.

Ms. FOWNES: You move up and down the line in sync with the music, which is in eight-beat phrases, and the caller tells you like, which moves to do and how to do them. It's just amazingly fun.

Ms. EMILY JAWADEKAR: Everyone is just so friendly, and I just love the eye contact.

PARTRIDGE: That's a new convert, Emily Jawadekar. She's 22. She discovered contra dance just a year ago.

Ms. JAWADEKAR: The music is incredible; that's what draws me to the dances. Contra dance has just opened my world.

PARTRIDGE: She says she's made a documentary film about contra dance, so she can encourage more young dancers to show up.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILLSTONE: (Singing) Ladies, do se do. Go once and a half, and swing with the opposite gent.

PARTRIDGE: When he was in college decades ago, David Millstone went to his first contra dance. Now he's 63, and he calls dances all over the country.

Mr. MILLSTONE: The dance seems to be on an upswing again, with lots more young people discovering it in the same way that we did back in the folk scare of the '60s, as an alternative to popular culture.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILLSTONE: (Singing) Ladies, change.

PARTRIDGE: The lines of people morph into new patterns - geometry in motion.

Ms. OLIVIA PADOVAN: There are certainly some dances that I would really love to be able to see from above because it's absolutely getting this order out of chaos.

PARTRIDGE: Olivia Padovan is 21. She was a toddler when she went to her first dance. Now, she's graduated from college with a degree in physics.

Ms. PADOVAN: You have a mass of people who are going one direction and all of a sudden, you're working with another group of people rotating in a completely different direction. And so it just it seems like the inside of a watch.

PARTRIDGE: Other people call it a kaleidoscope, a weaving, a quilting with humans.

(Soundbite of music)

PARTRIDGE: Then there's the music.

(Soundbite of music)

PARTRIDGE: Elixir is an innovative young band with a killer horn section. Their music is a draw for John Michael Seng Wheeler(ph). He's 21, a self-described contra gypsy.

Mr. JOHN MICHAEL SENG WHEELER: You get to really be energetic and be with people - and be with girls. That's kind of what most guys my age are probably here for.

PARTRIDGE: John Michael Seng Wheeler drove over a hundred miles and paid nine bucks to be with girls and to hear a favorite new band...

(Soundbite of music)

PARTRIDGE: ...Perpetual e-Motion. Their instruments are electronic. They use samples and loops. This is not traditional contra dance music yet David Millstone, the old-time caller, relishes the evolution.

Mr. MILLSTONE: Young people tattooed and pierced, and just from our old folks' point of view, looking like - who are these kids playing great old-time music? We're starting to see some young callers. So I think the future is in good shape.

(Soundbite of music)

PARTRIDGE: And it's a future that includes techno contra - and even raves.

For NPR News, I'm Marika Partridge.

(Soundbite of music)

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