Contra has its distinct version of waltzing, as a couple-oriented change of pace to the social mixing along contra lines. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas- Dancers from Asheville to Hendersonville to Upstate South Carolina provided a Thanksgiving treat to one of their favorite contra dances — at River Falls Lodge — by rallying to support it in an online fund drive that quickly raised over $5,000 within a week to cover rent and other basic expenses.
Harvest Moon Folk Society (HMFS) puts on the dance, with the next one this Saturday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. River Falls Lodge is in Jones Gap State Park, near Gap Creek Road off U.S. 25 South in Marietta, S.C. by the N.C.-S.C. border.
HMFS reached its Go Fund Me online fundraising goal of $5,000 in six days — by Monday before Thanksgiving — thanks to an anonymous donation of $1,088, noted Carl Hart who handles the group’s website. Donations were up to $5,340 from 78 people in 11 days, as of Monday.
Hart said other larger donations included $250 and $200, and several were at $50. “Some people paid extra (beyond the $8) such as giving a twenty, and saying ‘keep the change,’” noted Hart, who often helps handle admissions.
June Glenn has been active with HMFS for years. Here dressed as a police officer at a Halloween dance at River Falls, she playfully detains Glenn Nevoret. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Tamara McGovern initiated the fund drive on gofundme.com, and donated her calling Nov. 18 when there was a strong turnout. She put the fund drive online Nov. 15. The site lists specific donations. She wrote on gofundme.com that “I am overwhelmed but not surprised by the outpouring of love for this dance.”
McGovern, who books the dance’s bands, explained on the fundraising site “we are working to get our heads back above water financially. In the meantime, we are seeking help to replace broken sound equipment and to pay the rent for a few months to give our new recruitment strategies time to work.”
Several generations do contra dancing in the River Falls Lodge by the S.C. border. This is from a costumed Halloween dance there. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
A newer move is admitting youth 14 or younger for free if supervised by a paying person that age or elder. Some dancers started in contra as teens. Many now are in their twenties and forties. The dance has a “wholesome, family atmosphere with no drinking or drugs,” Hart emphasized. People drink much water, to stay hydrated.
A contra lesson for beginners starts at 7:30 p.m. The three-hour dances are generally gender-balanced, and are social mixers of various generations providing camaraderie and fun workouts.
Saturday is an outstanding time to check out the vibrant contra dance and rustic lodge, with creative trio Contra Force of Charleston, S.C. playing Celtic and Middle Eastern vibes. The band has the standard fiddle and acoustic guitar for contra yet adds electric guitar, drums and saxophone for edgier energy. Contra Force calls its sound a “hurricane of wild, energetic, kick-in-the mouth contra music.” The caller is Emily Abel.
A week later, on Dec. 9, veteran caller Jennie Wakefield calls and Groove Contraption plays. Sizzling young fiddler Rob Zisette teams with George Paul on Jan. 13.
A live band is a prime facet of these dances, and acts play in this area from across the Eastern U.S. Contra musicians and dancers say they feed off of each other’s energy. HMFS co-founder Chris Bueker recalled when first seeing a contra dance “sweaty, smiling people all moving in some mysterious and complex dance to some great acoustic music.”
Those who do swing and ballroom dancing generally regard contra as much simpler — less precise in moves and more forgiving. There is time to “catch up” between major moves of swinging with one’s partner, and another person in the foursome.
Many watch first. They say they are energized simply by the up-tempo old-time tunes and enjoy seeing synchronization of dancers. Occasional fancy “flourishes” for many help make this area the world’s contra epicenter.
“Magical” is the most common description about this at dance community and venue. Page Rogers of Landrum, S.C. joyously used the term. She donated to the cause. Rogers has contra danced for the past 15 years, made many “friends for life” including close friend Joe Rockenstein of Sylva.
Versatile-styled bassist Jeff Hersk of Asheville calls River Falls Lodge a “treasure.” New Zealand native Shelley Myers danced there while a Clemson grad student, and cherishes the “community” and welcoming atmosphere.
Wakefield, who has compiled history of the greater River Falls area, dubs the dance lodge as an “alternate universe.” One of her daughters married in the lodge.
Barbara Groh of Asheville, another veteran caller, married mandolinist John Culp of Dancing Bears in the lodge 18 years ago. “It needs to carry on for generations to come!,” she wrote on gofundme.com.
The current dance began three decades ago in 1989, and moved to the lodge in 1995. Its inaugural contra dance was called by Beth Molaro and featured still-vital musicians Laurie Fisher, Karen Gaughan, Beth Magill and Julia Weatherford.
The lodge was built by the Fifties, and housed square dancing. Dancers early on jacked up the floor, to make it much more level. The many nicknacks include speeding and dog crossing signs.
The dance draws experienced dancers from artsier-natured Asheville, also Hendersonville and the Greenville, S.C. area. They mix in with students of Clemson, Furman and other area colleges.
Clemson won a national football title a year ago, and this Saturday plays for the ACC crown and a chance to repeat. A fun bonus is when Clemson students and fans chat during the break about the team.
Contra uses square-dance moves, in a fast-paced sequence during a song lasting nearly 10 minutes. A couple dances together and with another couple at a time, between progressing up or down the set’s line. Partners start on opposite sides of the line, facing each other. Hence one theory is “contra” comes from the French contraire (contrary). Another is the dance name stems from country, as in its roots of centuries-old country dancing.
Square dance moves were incorporated in the Fifties, then by the Seventies younger people made it a more creative, joyful group event.
A “walk-through is done for each dance song. Contra waltzing slow couple dancing is during the break, and at the end of the contra dancing.
Contra dancing is also popular at LEAF festivals. The Old Farmers Ball dances are Thursdays in the Warren Wilson College Bryson Gym, and Mondays now in the Center for Art and Spirit at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Asheville. Contra dances are on campus at Clemson, and now UNC-Asheville. There are old English country dances. And techno contras dance contra to modern techno music, including late nights at LEAF festivals.
HMFS also runs a monthly Friday dance at Landmark Hall in Taylors, S.C., and Moondance in Table Rock (S.C.) State Park which was Sept. 8-10.
HMFS is non-profit, with its affiliated Country Song & Dance Society, Inc.
How far and frequently the influx of money sustains the dances hinges largely on turnout this winter, board members indicated. The dance was on most Saturdays, less often now, but after raising the money three dances are set for January.
Ironically, winters tend to have strong turnouts. The rustic River Falls Lodge cabin warms up with body heat of dancers. There is some heating, and fans in warmer months.
Upcoming upgrades include heating the bathrooms, which are accessed by going out the lodge. Dancers a decade ago teamed to substantially improve the lodge’s air circulation and thus comfort level, by opening up various sides and adding vents when redoing the roof. Insulating plastic wrap helps in winter.
Hart is known for swinging partners at a brisk pace, and his busy red beard. He has volunteered setup and cleanup at area dances for most of the new Millennium. He has contra danced for the last 15 years, since living in Asheville. He oversees sound, and said system upgrades are eyed.
David Killinger coordinates volunteers. They get in for free and a coupon for another dance for helping set up or close, or two coupons for doing both. Sound engineers are Weogo Reed and Mike Compton. HMFS board officers are Pres. Freddy Sons, V.P. Joseph Ryea, Treas. Wayne Richard, Sec’y J. Robert Joseph.
Check harvestmoonfolk.org or call the 1-864-836-2986 hotline for more on contra dancing in River Falls Lodge, and directions. The fund drive is via https://www.gofundme.com/river-falls-contra-dance.