Santa Cruz County might be a magnet for art-seekers and various aesthetic types, yet few in our mountain valleys are likely aware of a local pastime that is widespread across North America and has its roots in New England and Europe.
Under the umbrella of country dance is the much loved New England contra dance.
But the name is misleading — no rebel Nicaraguan “contras” to be found here.
According to the Country Dance and Song Society, the origin of the term is a source of speculation.
The first possibility is the Latin word “contra,” meaning “against,” in reference to two lines of dancers facing one another.
A second theory suggests that the French term “contre-danse” — used in France to refer to English country dances — was later translated back into English as “contra dance,” or simply “contra.”
Perhaps the vital thing to know about contra dance is that it’s what happens at 7:40 p.m. the first and third Fridays of each month in Felton Community Hall, 6191 Highway 9.
The beginner-friendly open dances are accompanied by a live band that strikes up following a brief walk-through of basic steps. Admission is $10, with a small discount for members and students. Even the uninitiated will recognize do-si-dos and arm swings once learned in grammar school square-dance lessons
I visited recently when instructor Robin Steen taught each dance and then called each one, as she has done for four years.
The band Whoots performed, with Jim Oakden on keyboard and Michelle Ledy and Lee Anne Welch playing fiddles. Welch was subbing for Ben Schreiber, who was out with pneumonia.
On this particular evening, Luke Abbott served as sound engineer for the Traditional Dancers of Santa Cruz collective, which sponsors these dance events. A jack-of-all-trades, Abbott began as a musician early on and with experience became proficient at sound production and as a dancer.
Paul Franklin, the president of the group’s board of directors, emphasizes that the dances offer a smoke-free and (hopefully) drug-free environment. Alcohol is not served in the hall.
English country dancing — slightly different from the New England contra — is marked by a more sedate style of movement and music.
Your chance to try this tradition is at the First Congregational Church, 900 High St., in Santa Cruz. The dance is usually at 7 p.m. the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.
Line dancing also takes place regularly at the Boulder Creek Recreation Hall, 13333 Middleton Ave., in Boulder Creek. It costs $5 to attend Thursday shindigs or $3 for drop-in supplemental teaching on Tuesdays. For information, visit www.dancebecauseyoucan.com.
Out of them all, my personal preference for recreational folk dance is international ethnic dance — especially dances of southeastern Europe, such as Greece — which can be found every week on Fridays.
Down on the Cabrillo College campus in Aptos is a group that’s informally open to all, without the need for preregistration. The gathering is not connected to a traditional dance society.
To enjoy these evenings of casual — if proper — revelry, visitors should wear comfortable, non-marking shoes to protect both their feet and the dance floors.
Loose-fitting, lightweight clothing is typically most comfortable.
And please, in the spirit of neighborliness, exercise courtesy in choosing a parking space. The last time I danced, there were complaints from a late-night shop next door that some of the dancers had illegally parked in front of the establishment.
For information: www.santacruzdance.org.
- Ren Tawil, a Scotts Valley resident, has been involved in folk dancing since 1975.