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Contra dancing in Toronto is not just for squares

Posted by Alexandra Grigorescu / March 28, 2012

Contra Dancing TorontoContra dancing has its roots in the structured and mannered English and French court dances of way-back-when, and that's all I knew when I shuffled into St. Barnabas Church Hall on the Danforth. While contra dancing has fallen in and out of vogue throughout the U.S over the last century, it remains a staple in most university towns. In Toronto, however, there's only one group putting on regular contra dances: The Toronto Country Dancers.

So, what is it? Contra comes from the French contre, meaning against, and describes the two parallel lines of partners that face each other and interchange. Where square dancing sees 4 couples in a square formation, contra affords you the opportunity to experience a brief fling with everyone in your line. The music is always live and typically folk-based, and an on-stage "caller" teaches the dance before it formally begins and calls out reminders throughout; if your footwork fails you, they'll spot and correct it. Women are ladies, men are gents, but same-sex couples and ambiguous gender roles are fully embraced.

Contra DancingSaturday's event drew an unusually large and multi-generational crowd due to the three-piece band, Genticorum, whose Quebecois folk sounds drew hearty whoops from the crowd. There's a strong sense of community, and more than anything, it's what drew me in.

Shona, whose parents were among the first to bring contra dancing to the city, and has attended many of the Toronto Country Dancers' contras says that she loves "the strange mixture of people, as well as the adrenaline rush."

Over the course of the night, I met bakery owners, professors and musicians, but be forewarned: although there's usually a handful of twenty and thirty-somethings, the crowd does steer towards an older age range (50-60). Despite that, the atmosphere is refreshing for its utter lack of douche-baggery and the un-self-conscious nature of the dance. After just a few minutes, I could attest to the euphoria that comes from being spun around by strangers, as well as the sense of accomplishment from having mastered the sometimes intricate steps.

Contra DancingI brought a partner, but we were split within minutes--you should expect to be asked to dance, and experiencing so many partners taught me that I'm a natural at swinging, but hopelessly inept at remembering to promenade (in which the gent parades his partner in a circle).

I agonized a bit over what to wear, worried that my tank top and pleated skirt might be unseemly in a church setting, but there's no dress code in effect. The organizers do suggest that you bring a spare pair of shoes, and remind you that the event is unlicensed and alcohol-free.

Tickets are $10, but first-timers fill out a card with name and e-mail to claim their next class for free. The Toronto Country Dancers' events have been held at St. Barnabas since 2004, and the group's upcoming big event is the Toronto Spring Thaw, a weekend of contra and country dancing from April 13-15. Elsewhere in Ontario, the Hamilton Country Dancers and Peterborough English Country Dancers run regularly scheduled events.



TheVok / March 28, 2012 at 11:53 am
"...the crowd does steer towards an older age range (50-60). Despite that, the atmosphere is refreshing for its utter lack of douche-baggery..."

That wording implies 50- to 60-year-olds are usually douchebags.
Reader1 replying to a comment from TheVok / March 28, 2012 at 02:21 pm
Do you really think that's what was intended? Your comment implies that you better fit that category...
K / March 28, 2012 at 06:34 pm
Thanks for covering this! Fun times ahead.
TheVok / March 29, 2012 at 10:29 am
I'm an editor. Maybe we're all douches.
contrabre / March 29, 2012 at 11:15 am
This is a well-intentioned and well-written article. I like the way you describe "ambiguous gender roles". You describe the euphoria from dancing quite well and generally, the atmosphere of a dance is described well.

Contra is fun and very uncomplicated. If you can walk, you can do it.

BTW, the "douche bags" I have met at contras have mostly been under 50. LOL.
Morgan / March 29, 2012 at 10:50 pm
If the line was a problem maybe it should have been addressed before being posted to BlogTo where flame-wars and criticism erupt with such tedium as to eclipse the articles themselves. I don't know what the regular age of a BlogTO reader is but chances are it caps before the average age of the fine people who attend these dances. Perhaps age had to be spelled out before a clutch of kids looking for a new place to party assumed it was a good place to 'pick up'.

I was in attendance that night and salute Alexandra for her efforts. That an article was written at all, I expect, can be credit to Alexandra's eagerness to cover the regularly scheduled spectacle.
Les Francey / March 30, 2012 at 08:06 am
Contra comes from the French attempt to say the English wordy country. English country dances were extremely popular and migrated to France some time in the 17th century. To an English speaker, the French attempt to say the English word "country" sounded like contre. During the American revolution, things that were French were in vogue in the American colonies. So the Americans took to calling the country dances contre dances as the French said. But the English speakers attempt to imitate the French speakers attempt to say country, came out as contra.
hmmm / January 24, 2013 at 04:48 pm
hmm, when's the next event?
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