Even from outside under the street lights, I felt the thrill. I could hear music and, through the windows, could see a big crowd of dancers already well into it. The old timbered building couldn't contain all that energy and rhythm. Melodies rooted in the traditions of the British Isles, French Canada, New England, and Appalachia, beckoned.
Wells Hall, part of Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma, held a whole new experience for me. I couldn't wait to get inside. Some ancient, cultural memory stirred me as long lines of dancers stomped their feet in unison and swung their partners in a dizzying blur. I'd come to hear a band called Joyride, with caller Laura Me' Smith that night and to get my first peek at the world of contra dancing.
Joyride lives up to its name. This quartet from Portland, Oregon, excellent musicians who are also great friends, had the whole roomful of people caught up in the kind of excitement that happens when the band members are having as much fun as the dancers.
"The name is apt," says talented pianist Susan Songer. "We love to travel together. Sometimes the road trips are as good as the gigs themselves. We're a very compatible bunch, all easy going with lively senses of humor. But we are quite serious about the pursuit of musical excellence and particularly about playing well for contra dances--really taking into consideration what music and musical approach will work best to give the dancers a good time."
I could hear it in their tight ensemble work and interesting, well-done arrangements. Kathleen Towers' expert fiddle playing launched intricate ribbons of melody notes into flight, woven through with those of Erik Weberg, master of the flute, harmonica, and bombarde. Behind them, a solid base of rhythm from Jeff Kerssen-Griep, amazing on guitar and djembe, and Susan Songer's confident piano playing, gave the tunes a forward propulsion that never once faltered.
"I really just came to hear the band," I lied to myself. But I wanted to try dancing. I couldn't arrive in time for the half hour of instruction that precedes most, if not all, contra dances. But that didn't stop me from diving right in after some pointers from my sister-in-law Diane Brown, who'd invited me. A sense of rhythm helps, and an appreciation for the mathematical aspects make it fascinating. Everyone welcomes and encourages beginners.
"It's great to see new people come back time after time and watch their progress," Diane said. She's a veteran of this and other folk dance styles and has danced in the U.K. and former Soviet Union as well as many places in the United States and Canada. With her help, I found myself out on the floor doing my best not to step on feet or bump into people. Although I have a long way to go, it didn't take too long to catch on. A little dizziness at first went away when I learned to look into my partners eyes, a total stranger. If you think it's a place to make new friends you'd better make them quickly because within seconds you're in someone else's arms. In the end, everyone dances with everyone else.
On a break I headed for the stage to compliment Joyride. There is enough talent in this group to fill a much larger band. Sometimes Sue steps away from the piano to add her own fiddle to the mix, and the two volumes of The Portland Collection which she researched and published with Clyde Curley, "are used widely throughout the United States and the British Isles," she told me. Beyond his role as musician, Erik Weberg is also an outstanding caller. The two of them work together on another, larger musical entity.
"Erik and I organize the Portland Megaband contra dance every year," said Songer. "It is a unique event and draws dancers from all over the Northwest and even a few from across the States. The band is an all-volunteer orchestra or more than 75 musicians at all levels of musical experience and ability. That will happen on March 14th this year."
Contra dancing goes beyond fun. It brings an exhilarating sense of freedom and release. As you give all of your mind and body to it all there is no time for worrisome thoughts. You will see a mix of people of all ages, many of whom don't know each other, sharing what people have shared since the earliest humans first made music and compulsively learned to dance: PURE JOY.
To learn more about the world of contra dancing, the history of country dancing, where it's happening, and the band Joyride, please click on the links within this post as well as those below. Then go out and celebrate life.
Tacoma Contra Dance
Portland Country Dance
Portland Megaband Contra Dance
Saturday, March 8th, 2008
8:00 pm (newcomers' workshop at 7:30)
1825 SW Broadway
$15 general public;/$12 PCDC and PFS Members and members of other dance organizations/$9 students with student ID and seniors (65 and over)
Erik Weberg calling
Important note to my readers...
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I would like to leave this message for the reader who asked about Jimmy and his Vietnamese restaurant on South Tacoma Way which I wrote about last spring. Jimmy decided to let the restaurant go and return to the east coast and the home he had kept there. My husband and I had become good friends with him and it was sad to say goodbye. I regret that more people in Tacoma didn't give his place a try. They missed out on some great food and the chance to know a wonderful man. We wish him the best.