Folk Festival contra dance connects folks with folk dancing

Attendees of the 31st annual Anchorage Folk Festival enjoyed a night of contra dancing in the UAA South Cafeteria in the Student Union. Free dance lessons were provided right before the event. Students enjoyed free entrance courtesy of the UAA Concert Board.

The dance included participants not only from Anchorage, but from across the U.S. Bethany Masters, an Ohio resident on her Mennonite Mission, is in town for 10 months. She tried out contra dancing for the first time during the festival event on Jan. 23.

The Pig Runners, a folk band from Girdwood, provided the music for the contra dance event in UAA’s Student Union on Jan. 23. Photo by Jennifer Lincoln.

“I’ve only been to square dances and never to a contra dance before. I really like this kind of music, so I’m just really excited to learn something new,” Masters said.

Contra dance is a type of folk dance that consists of long lines of couples opposite their partners, similar to square dancing. Contra and square dancing also share similar musical styles and dance moves, such as allemande, do-si-do and swing, according to an article from January of this year in The Leader called “Contra dance, square dance – what’s the difference?

The dance style originates from post-Renaissance Europe. Contra dance enabled guests to arrive at social gatherings without having to come with a partner. It became very popular in 17th century England and Scotland, eventually making its way to early America when settlers arrived, according to Dance Facts.

The Pig Runners, a folk band from Girdwood, headlined the event. The band was made up of fiddles, guitars, banjos and an upright bass, which set the music to a manageable but lively rhythm.

Brian DeMarcus was the “caller” for the Contra Dance. The caller calls out dance moves right before they are done, so the dancers know what to do. They lead the dance in a rhythmic voice that goes along with the music.

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DeMarcus has been involved in music and dance since 1971. He originally started his musical career in North Carolina and traveled all over the U.S, South America and Europe. He has been calling worldwide and currently is active in the music scene in Alaska.

Lynn Ammu, a Palmer resident who has been dancing contra for 15 years, attended the dance to see the Pig Runners and hear DeMarcus call.

“I went through the Folk Festival listings and I saw that [the Pig Runners] were playing and that Brian [DeMarcus] was calling. I had to go. It’s also a lot of fun and a good atmosphere,” Ammu said.

Right after the dance started, students started filtering in, filling up the cafeteria. Lily Turley, a senior kinesiology major, had not yet tried contra dancing, but liked the social aspect of the event.

“It has a fun social aspect to it because you’re dancing with a bunch of different partners,” Turley said.

An hour before the dance ended, the cafeteria was nearly full of people. The band was in full swing and the sound of laughter, music and dancing feet had grown in intensity.

Clint Sengmany, a sophomore English major, had also never danced contra before the event, but shared Turley’s excitement about the atmosphere.

“I just like to dance. I’ve tried many different styles and this just looks like a lot of fun,” Sengmany said.

Those who missed out on the Contra Dance event can enjoy the dance style year-round, thanks to the Dancing Bears, a local dancing community founded in 1981.

The Dancing Bears offer opportunities for social dancing like contra and square dances. A full schedule of upcoming dance events can be found on their website, thedancingbears.com, on their Facebook page or by giving them a call at (907) 566-2327.