Contras have a line of fun

Contra dancing has been a popular multi-generational folk activity in the Valley for years.

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Members of the Wednesday Night Band, who perform at area contra dances are, from left, Trudy Ostby, Joe Corvino, Clark Colahan and Terri Trick.

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Young-at-hearts of all ages enjoy a contra dance held recently at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The dances are held regularly around the Valley, sponsored by Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music.

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Contra dance caller Howard Ostby.

Contra dancing, an entertainment staple in Walla Walla for decades, requires a few simple basics if you want to participate.

"You have to know your left from your right," said Howard Ostby, one of the regular callers for gatherings. "And be able to count to eight."

Apart from that, all you really need to know is that monthly contra dancing events are open to anyone who wants to give it a go in a multi-generational atmosphere of folk music and active fun. People like Ostby will be there to teach the rest.

Ostby said "contra" just means opposite or contrast, used in a comparison between contra dancing and square dancing. In square dancing, four couples dance in a square. Contra dancers are usually two couples facing each other in a line of many other couples.

"Contra is couples in lines as many couples as are there - whether there are four or eight or 800, said Ostby. "I once called a dance that had about 800 people, at the Folk Life Festival in Seattle. A quarter of a million people go to that; there are hundreds of musicians and dancers."

Contra dances are popular in North America and trace their origins back several hundred years to Europe, a blend of English country dances and French court dance steps. The dances in this country gained popularity in Appalachia and New England.

Locally, they were inspired by Larry Smith from La Grande, a former North Carolina man who would come to Walla Walla to teach a class in calling country dances.

The sponsoring organization, Friends of Acoustic Music was born in the mid-1980s, out of a love for folk music.

It was an opportunity to play music, said one of the organizers, Trudy Ostby, Howard's wife. Her parents held square dances and she was part of a bluegrass band playing for those. Her band practiced on Wednesday nights so they became known as the Wednesday Night Band.

"In the beginning we had concerts but the venues got harder to find and more expensive," she said.

As interest in contra dancing grew locally, the idea came up to form an organization to sponsor the dances so that putting one together wouldn't be the task of one or two people.

For dancers, experience is not required.

"We teach each dance before the musicians start," Howard Ostby said. "If for some reason it falls apart - and it usually doesn't - we can just stop and get started again."

The music is repetitious, with the dance in four sections. "If you mess up the third, it's repetitious so you just go on to the fourth; goof up one and you just do it over again. It flows. You just learn the pattern," Ostby said.

"We always start off with the easiest dances. So if you're new, come at the beginning. There a lot of jigs and reels, upbeat, toe-tapping music; no particular tune goes with a particular dance. A few are more hoe-downy."

The dance is colorful - women often wear swirly skirts - and lively, but you can go at your own pace.

"We enjoy it, there's lots of laughing going on," Ostby said. "It's somewhat aerobic so if you're 95 years old, if you have to sit down and rest every now and then that's OK."

It's also a good, nonthreatening place to meet people.

"We have groups and clubs come to the dances, the singles club came in," Ostby said. "The fun thing is learning all the dances, there are thousands of dances."

A contra dance can be a combination of new moves, original ones and those that have come down the generations. Centuries ago European social customs included not looking directly at each other. Women wore tight corsets and couldn't breathe easily, so they didn't want to be active. Indeed, a strenuous contra dance might kill a woman in a tight corset.

The culture and dance are now more free form. The dancers look at each other, laugh and talk. Ostby estimated that dances vary in attendance, by season with more in the winter, from two to four dozen - and one dance had about 110 participants.

"Plenty of young families participate," Ostby said. "I've seen them strap their babies on their backs and dance with them, it depends on the age of the kids."

Beginners and the dancing-challenged are welcome. "Bring a friend and try it. You're welcome to come and watch, but dive in and try it," Ostby said.

"It's cheaper than a movie, good exercise and local so you don't have to drive."

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com

If you go:

Contra dances are usually held the third Saturday of each month at Unity Church of Peace, 810 C St., near the Walla Walla Regional Airport. During the school year they are also held the first Wednesdays at Reid Campus Center, Whitman College. During the summer the first Wednesdays dances are held at the gazebo in Pioneer Park.

For more information call 541-938-7403 or visit fam.bmi.net for schedules and video of past dances.

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