Greenfield ‘a mecca’ for contra dance enthusiasts

  • Partners dance at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • People dance at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • Partners dance at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • Attendees of a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield fill the dance floor Saturday October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • Tiffany Kozash, of Hatfield, dances with a partner at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield, Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • Tina Olsen, 73, of Brattleboro, dances with David Cantieni, Master of the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield during a contra dance Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • Partners bow to each other at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

  • Partners dance at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield Saturday, October 8. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt—Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 10/19/2016 10:23:43 AM

On a warm fall Saturday night, the young, the old and everyone in between gathered in Guiding Star Grange’s dance hall, and as musicians on stage rapidly strummed a fiddle, guitar and banjo, more than 50 people on the dance floor twirled in unison.

The excited dancers hooted and squealed to signal their joy and approval of the music, waiting every few moments for caller Lisa Greenleaf to softly offer instructions from her place alongside the band.

The floor reverberated as the dancers stomped their feet and strode from one end of the wooden dance floor to the other, following Greenleaf’s signals. The room was filled with smiles and seemingly endless energy.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tiffany Kozash’s floral skirt was one of many that whirled across the dance floor during a contra dance at the grange. To Kozash, who has been contra dancing for 10 years, going out contra dancing is not only a way to stay in shape, but an uncomparable way to connect with others.

“Contra has really become like a second family,” said Kozash, of Hatfield. “This is home for me.”

Devorah Rosenberg, 63, of Greenfield loves contra dancing for its eye contact, non-sexual physical contact with both men and women, live music and joyous atmosphere.

“I am convinced that if everyone did this once a week, they’d be in such a great place of connection,” Rosenberg said.

What is contra dancing?

Contra dances are frequently held Friday and Saturday nights at Guiding Star Grange, 401 Chapman St. The dance, which originated in the late 17th century, was largely influenced by Irish and Scottish dancing styles.

“It was a combination of various couples’ dances,” said David Cantieni, master of Guiding Star Grange. The dance, he said, has thrived in New England and throughout the Appalachian Mountain region.

Each contra dance is made up of long lines of couples that move in different ways, depending on the caller’s instructions — spinning, stomping, marching hand in hand, and sometimes bowing to each other at the end of a dance. Each couple dances in sets of four, working their way up the line of dancers so that they always stay with their partner.

“If swing dance met square dance in a bar, you’d have contra dancing,” said Suzanne Patnaude, outreach committee chairwoman for the Friends of Greenfield Dance. “I’ve also heard it described as speed dating because every dance is 15 minutes and you change partners every dance.”

The dance form is very lively and highly aerobic. Throughout the evening, men and women both regularly change clothes at the end of a dance and work to stay hydrated.

“It’s so much more fun than going to the gym,” Patnaude, a contra dancer herself, said.

It is also quite unique, because dancers don’t need to come to a dance with a partner and it is non-gender binary. Callers can guide the dancers by calling out instructions for ladies and gentlemen — or for jets (the person on the left) and rubies (the person on the right).

“You can ask anyone to dance,” Patnaude said. “People will dance other gender roles if there’s an imbalance. You will see men dancing with men, women dancing with women.”

A dancing destination

According to Patnaude, there’s quite a high demand for contra dancing in Greenfield. In fact, she describes Greenfield as “the” contra dance destination in the United States.

“It’s the mecca,” Patnaude said. “Everyone knows Greenfield. You meet people in other countries and they’re like, ‘Oh! You’re from Greenfield!’”

“People do know about Greenfield all over the country,” said David Balke, treasurer of the Friends of Greenfield Dance. “There might be more dancing here more often than anywhere else.”

Patnaude claims to have met people from California, Alaska and even Australia, who have traveled to Greenfield specifically to dance at the grange. College students have picked their schools based on where the contra dancing is. Others, she said, even move to the area because of the dancing.

“It’s like everybody’s dream dance community,” she said. “It’s where you want to go.”

A life devoted to dance

Patnaude knows very well just how important contra dance can be to members of the dance community. She first tried contra dancing in October 2008, while living in New Jersey.

“I was dragged kicking and screaming by a coworker who assured me I’d love it,” she said. Despite her initial feelings, Patnaude connected with contra dancing right away.

“It gets to be very addictive,” she said.

Patnaude traveled from New Jersey to as far as North Carolina, Maryland, Vermont and, of course, Greenfield for contra dances. She found that contra dance musicians are drawn to the Greenfield area, as well.

“It was becoming more and more difficult to find musicians in the area,” she said. “When I was looking for a place to retire, I wanted to be close to contra dancing. It was either Greenfield or Asheville, N.C.”

Callers, she said, are also attracted to Greenfield.

“In Greenfield, basically everyone you get is a nationally renowned caller,” Patnaude said.

Patnaude moved in November 2014. She said it’s possible to find contra dances happening five nights a week within two hours of Franklin County, as opposed to driving for hours to find a dance one night a week.

The city of dance

So why is Greenfield the contra dance capital? Patnaude and Cantieni said they feel the grange has something to do with Greenfield’s acclaim.

The grange’s connection to contra dance goes back decades. The first grange in Massachusetts, it was established in 1873, according to Martin D.L. Driggs, a lecturer at the grange.

“It was the first national platform for farmers and rural populations to organize,” Driggs said.

Dancing became a grange activity in the 1950s, according to Driggs and Patnaude.

“A lot of the folks from the dance community had joined the grange,” Patnaude said. She described the addition of dance as contributing to breathing new life into the grange.

Contra dance also experienced a revival in the 1960s, coupled with the more modern existence of a caller, who often writes the dances.

A finely tuned machine

Cantieni said many of the people who grew up in the dance tradition later started contra dance bands. Cantieni himself, aside from coordinating the grange’s activities as master for the past 12 years, has been involved in several bands. Such bands feature string instruments like the fiddle, guitar, banjo and cello, and occasionally a saxophone, drums and accordion.

Greenleaf, who has been a caller for 30 years, works to prepare a program for each dance and is constantly writing new dance music. She said it’s necessary to consider who the dancers are, and she bases her programs on whether she’ll be calling for beginners or experienced dancers. She said being a contra dancer herself helps her to know what dance movements work to what music.

“I don’t trust callers who don’t dance,” Greenleaf said. “I think you need to keep dancing so you know who your community is.”

The contra dance community is widespread and diverse. Greenleaf said she has called for 10-year-old dancers up to 80-year-old dancers. Drawing such a large cross-section of the community together is something that dancers greatly appreciate about contra dancing.

“You could kind of say it’s a melting pot of life,” said Jonathan Sandstrom, 50, of Bloomfield, Conn., who attends dances at Guiding Star Grange. “People show up here from all walks of life, but once you walk into a dance hall, you’re all part of the same community.”

For the love of dance

Seventy-three-year-old Tina Olsen of Brattleboro, Vt. started contra dancing in 1996 and regularly attends dances in Brattleboro and Greenfield. She echoed the sentiments of many of the grange’s dancers, saying, “I love to come contra dancing. It’s my favorite thing to do.”

“If I’d have known about it, I would have been doing it since I was 3 years old, because I love it so much,” Olsen said.

Olsen said she loves contra dancing in part because it is non-gender binary.

“It transcends all the stupid things that culture tells you to do,” she said. Plus, the dance brings people of all ages together. “I think it’s very American because everybody can do it.”

Robin Barbour, 18, of South Brunswick, N.J., agrees with Olsen. Barbour has been contra dancing for as long as she can remember, getting involved with her parents and two sisters, and has traveled to Guiding Star Grange for dancing on more than one occasion.

“My favorite part is the social aspect,” Barbour said. “You’re able to talk to a bunch of people of different ages and from different places. I’ve made a lot of friends doing it.”

Despite attending high school in Berlin, 16-year-old Josh Overton still makes time to attend two contra dances each week.

“I was kind of overwhelmed at the start, but once you get into it, it’s really fun,” Overton said.

For Sandstrom and Kozash, contra dancing is a time to let their troubles go.

“If I’m having problems at home, I know I can count on my contra people to be supportive,” Kozash said.

Attending contra dances regularly, Balke believes, gives dancers a sense of place.

“I think having such a positive experience with other people regularly just makes people feel better about their community and where they are in it, what they can do in it,” Balke said.

For a list of contra dances at Guiding Star Grange, visit: www.guidingstargrange.org/events




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