Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on June 26, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
Indy has a strange way of surprising me on a regular basis. Just when I think I have a clear notion of what our town is about, an unexplored facet of its personality surfaces. One such epiphany occurred at Fountain Square’s fairly new collaborative, creative space Grove Haus on a recent Tuesday evening, when I stumbled upon the tight-knit community that is Indy Contra.
Volunteers prepped for the arrival of dancers as I entered the renovated and repurposed church at the corner of Hosbrook and Grove avenues — one block east of Virginia Avenue. After greeted by friendly faces and extended handshakes, I steered toward the building’s main performance space. There Indy Contra President Dianna Davis was setting the stage for a performance by her three-piece band, Troika. (For details on how Grove Haus came to fruition, scope Seth Johnson’s feature for Sky Blue Window from earlier this spring.)
As I assumed my position like a fly on the wall, dancers of all ages, gender and dress trickled into Grove Haus, exchanging work shoes for something more comfortable. Boyfriends and girlfriends, older married couples and teenagers greeted each other warmly with hugs and how-are-yous. After Troika adjusted the sound according to its liking, the caller assembled those ready in a line near the front of the stage and began with the instructions for the first dance.
Face your neighbor on the side of the set. With your neighbor — gypsy. So, gypsy your neighbor and then swing your neighbor on the side of the set. Let’s swing in a circle. Circle left three places until you can swing your partner around the side of the set. Then swing facing across. Right and left through, across the set. Ladies chain back across, with a courtesy turn. Now take your hands in a ring. As you have your hands in a ring, look at the person in your right hand. Hopefully you’re looking at their ear, because they should be looking at your right hand. Now remember where their feet are. That’s where you want your feet to be in just a second …
After a few more instructions, the music begins. The dance is lively and energetic. The moves of the individual dancers appear straightforward and simple enough, though watching the entire group move together proves dizzying. Partners progress through the line together, trading constantly as if conversing in an unspoken language. By the end of the song every pair has danced with every other. The exchanges are occasionally punctuated with double high fives and resounding foot stomps.
“It’s tough to describe what Contra dancing is without showing it to people,” Davis says later in an interview. “It’s really hard to describe without having a visual.”
Jan Sims, who regularly drives down from Richmond with her husband to attend the Indy dance echoed Davis while chastising me for my position as wallflower, “You are diligently taking notes,” she said. “Are you learning to be a caller? You cannot just sit there and write it; you must dance it.”
Sims fell for Contra when she moved to Indy from Atlanta about 20 years ago, when her future husband introduced her to the dance. Over the years Sims has watched as interest in Contra has experienced waves of popularity. “Right now, it’s probably at a little bit of a low point, but this particular group is doing well,” she says. “Almost everybody you see here has been dancing for at least a couple of years. So the quality of dancing is pretty good and high. Indy has always been a really friendly, open group. So, I felt right at home when I first moved here.”
Ben Smith, a music professor at IUPUI underscored Sims’ description of Indy as a welcoming Contra group. He moved here from Cleveland less than a year ago. “I can’t say I was too excited about the scene in Cleveland,” he says. “They have three different groups that run dances on different nights of the week. I didn’t go very often. It was so big that I only knew a handful of people. Indy is more intimate.”
One unusual aspect of Contra is its use of a live band as accompaniment. Bands vary widely from group to group and region to region. “Every dance and every piece of music is exactly the same length,” Davis says. “In technical terms, it’s all 64 measures long. It’s about the same speed. You can vary it a little bit. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing an Irish tune, a gypsy Roma tune, a swing tune or an old-time tune.”
Davis is a classically trained clarinetist who received her undergrad degree at Millikin University before earning a masters degree from Indiana University. Contra dancing found her at a time when she confessed to having burnt out on classical music. She currently plays in two Contra bands, Troika and The Coffee Zombies. For her part, Davis views Contra’s tendency to adapt and transform multiple musical genres as a strength rather than a weakness. “I see folk dancing and folk music as two different things,” she says. “One has folk traditions that they’re preserving, and contra is the other side, where it’s evolving folk traditions. We don’t wear the funny costumes, and we’re not preserving the folk art. We’re creating the folk art. Contra is actually thriving because of that.”
As Indy Contra’s dance at Grove Haus rolled along, the seat next to mine became a rotating confessional booth for dancers looking to catch their breath. The news of a reporter’s presence had quickly dispersed throughout the dance. One such visitor was Dan Fisher, who spent decades as a square dancer before finding Contra later in life. “The thing I like about contra is what I like about square dancing in the rural areas, where you’ve got a wide range of ages and it’s multigenerational,” he says. “This is multigenerational. Now, square dancing in the cities is kind of like a senior citizens activity.”
The Minnichs, a family of Indy Contra regulars, serves as the living embodiment of Fisher’s observation. Parents, Tom and Rhonda Minnich, recently fell for Contra after three of their daughters began dancing a couple of years ago. Their 12-year-old daughter, Naomi, was the youngest attendee at Indy Contra on the night I visited. “This is fun,” Tom says. “It gives you the opportunity to laugh. It’s social. There’s humor. If you’re new and you make a mistake … [however] no matter who you are, you make a mistake, but there is always a hand to pull you in the right direction.”
“One of the things that has most impressed me about Contra is this amazing sense of community,” Rhonda says. “Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s like, ‘I don’t know you. Let’s dance.’ There’s no judging that goes on.”
“It’s such a joyous thing to be dancing,” Davis agrees. “No one goes to Contra to show off, to compete, to make money or to prove anything. It’s just about having fun, building a community, and to be somewhere you can be accepted and have a good time. There’s really no other point to being there.”
Written by Rob Peoni