A beginner’s account of Louisville’s contra dancing scene
By Mariah Kline
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
On a hot and humid Monday evening, I paid a visit to the Highlands Community Campus to meet with members of Louisville Country Dancers. Each week, dozens of people gather in the facility’s gym for contra dancing, something I’d never done before but had been dying to try.
I should preface this by saying that I have a background in jazz and hip hop dance since I was a member of my middle and high school dance teams. However, it’s been close to a decade since I learned any kind of choreographed routine, and if I’m being honest, my technique was never stellar. (I realized by 10th grade that my dream of being a Louisville Ladybird would have to remain a dream). So, I embarked on this journey in the position of a beginner.
Contra is a type of country dancing done in pairs and led by a caller – who tells everyone what to do – and musicians who play upbeat, folksy tunes. Though it’s performed in couples, anyone can attend contra with or without a partner since it’s customary for partners to change throughout the dance. Right now, you may be having flashbacks of square dancing in an elementary school gym class with terrible music blasting from a boombox, but believe me, this is different.
When I arrived at the center, I was introduced to Ted Sims and Allison Jones, board members for Louisville Country Dancers. Both were sincerely welcoming and happy to answer my many questions about what to expect. Allison walked me through a brief lesson, showing me some of the basic steps the caller might give out. I learned that each couple has a “lady” and “gent,” but these just refer to roles – like leader and follower – and not gender. Allison served as the gent and taught me how to dance in the lady’s role. While it’s all done at a pretty fast pace, it’s easy enough to fall into the rhythm.
By 8 o’clock, a crowd of nearly 100 people had made their way into the gym. More than 20 of these individuals had come from the basement, where a free lesson is given before each dance. Taking part in the lesson won’t make you an expert but it is a great place to get started. The large group was incredibly diverse in every manner of the word.
“We have people from all kinds of backgrounds doing this,” Ted told me. “We have people of all ages, people who are non-binary, people who have disabilties. We really mean it when we say everyone is welcome here.”
“I’m from Morocco, and I grew up doing a completely different dancing style,” said Rachid Tagoulla, who started coming to contra in the summer of 2017 and has hardly missed a Monday night since. “But when I first started dancing here in Louisville, I felt at home. The people are so welcoming and friendly, no matter what age you are or what level of dance you can perform. It’s magical how music can gather and unite people.”
Once everyone partnered up and took their places on the gym floor, the caller walked us through the steps we would be doing before the music began. When the music started, everything became a beautiful blur. The soundtrack of guitars, banjos, fiddles and other instruments led the way as I passed from my partner to my neighbor and back again. I danced with both ladies and gents. I got the hang of the allemande, the dosey doe and the swing and grinned the entire time.
After two sets, I was exhausted and ready to take a break, so I downed three cups of water and put my feet up. Since I don’t practice much cardio in my everyday routine, I was only able to dance a couple more sets before I had to call it a night.
The following Monday, I returned to the center to give it another go, hoping I’d have more endurance this time. I also wanted to attend the official pre-dance lesson, where I learned many of the basic steps with some fellow beginners. While the instructors, board members and experienced dancers want you to learn and are excited to teach, there’s no pressure to succeed the first few times around.
“Sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something,” said Logan Zimmerman, a New Albany native who has been dancing off and on for 11 years. “Keep coming out and you will get better.”
This time, I was able to dance for an hour straight before I had to take a break. As I observed the crowd, I saw dozens of people smiling, singing, flirting and laughing with one another. This community of dancers is brought together by their shared love of contra, but it’s apparent that their bonds go further than that. Many of them have been doing this together for years, met their spouses through dancing and have brought more and more people into their group with open arms.
Contra dancing offers a lot – whether you’re looking for a new hobby, a new form of exercise or a new group of acquaintances. I’m looking forward to returning in the coming weeks, though I know I have a long way to go before I can dosey doe with the best of them. V
Where to Dance in Louisville
Times and dances may vary depending on the month. Contact each group for further information.
9321 New La Grange Road
Argentine Tango Beginners Class on Mondays
Argentine Tango Intermediate and Advanced Class on Wednesdays
Visit blairsballroom.com, call 502.425.7355 or follow on Facebook @blairsballroom
Got 2 Dance
107 S. Hurstbourne Pkwy.
Lessons and classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
Visit got2dancelouisville.com, call 502.440.2237 or follow on Facebook @Got2DanceLouisville
Dancing on Broadway
Hotel Louisville, 120 W. Broadway
Lessons and dances on Mondays and Friday nights and dances on Saturday nights
Visit dancingonbroadway.com or follow on Facebook
Louisville Country Dancers
Highland Community Campus, 1228 E. Breckinridge St.
Monday nights and every third Saturday of the month
Visit louisvillecountrydancers.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Facebook @louisvillecountrydancers
The Loyal Order of Moose
Moose Lodge 5,
4615 Fegenbush Lane
Two Step and West Coast Swing Lessons on Wednesday nights and Singles Dance on Sunday nights
Visit mooselodge5.com or call 502.499.8875