Living tradition: Contra dance a staple in Sylva
Temperatures boiled above 90 degrees as the dancers grabbed their partners and lined up on the floor. The caller patiently explained the moves for the first contra dance of the afternoon as members of a volunteer pickup band plucked notes on dulcimers, fiddles and guitars.
Music filled the pavilion. Skirt hems whirled around dancers’ ankles. And shoes clapped against the wooden dance floor as the dancers dosey-doed and swung their partners.
“Thank your partner, get a drink and get back out there on the floor,” the caller said through the microphone as the music ended.
Such contra dances are a regular occurrence in downtown Sylva on the second Sunday of every month. Ron Arps typically organizes each dance and calls the steps. On the day of the August dance, he turned 65.
Arps began contra dancing in the late ‘70s when his wife was invited to play her fiddle at the Odd Ball — a contra dance that used to be held in Jackson County on the odd Friday every month.
Arps said he loved it right away, but that it took him about two years before he finally got the hang of it.
“I’m one of those people with two left feet,” Arps said. “In contra dancing, you don’t have to worry about that. It’s just dancing.”
The dance now hosted at the concert pavilion is a continuation of the Odd Ball held years ago. Though the contra dance has been held at different venues and hosted by different folks throughout the decades, someone has always had the passion to keep it going.
About a year ago, Arps began hosting the dances on the second Sunday of every month at the pavilion or an indoor location when the weather is too cold. The dances are free, but Arps asks for donations to help cover the $50 cost of renting the space.
When the pavilion was still in the planning stages, Arps instructed its architect to make the floor at least 28 by 36 feet so it would be big enough for dances.
The only problem is that the floor is concrete, which is hard on the dancers’ knees and shins. Arps’ solution was to make a portable wooden floor.
The floor cost $1,000 to build, and Arps raised the money within a few weeks from customers at his farmers market booth and area dancers.
“Some didn’t know what contra dancing was [at the farmers market], but they were giving so I could build a dance floor anyway,” Arps said.
The floor has 64 panels and weighs 2,400 pounds.
The wooden floor reduces friction, allowing dancers to slide. It also creates more noise as all the shoes hit it in unison — a sound that energizes the band, caller and dancers.
Andrea Woodall from Florida called the August contra dance so Arps could dance on his birthday. It was her first time calling, both in North Carolina and at an outdoor venue.
“I love inviting people in and helping them enjoy what I love so much,” she said.
Woodall has a box filled with more than 150 note cards, containing dances she’s participated in throughout the years. She said 150 is a small number compared to most callers.
She chooses dances based on the variety of moves, the group’s experience and how smoothly different parts of the dance flow into each other.
“I figure if the dancers don’t know what’s going on, it’s my responsibility,” she said.
At contra dances, beginners are warmly welcomed. Often times, experienced dancers will pick them as partners and show them the ropes.
“Of course you’ve heard of no child left behind,” Kim Lippy said. “They’re like that with their dancers. They take them all with them.”
Lippy has been contra dancing for more than 10 years. Her favorite part of the dance is its flirtatious nature. The dance strongly emphasizes eye contact and breaks down personal space bubbles that are apart of today’s culture, she said.
“You have to look your partner in the eye or else you get dizzy,” Marsha Crites said.
Crites has been contra dancing for more than 30 years, but during that time she had a stroke that she said could have killed her.
“I wanted to run really bad when I was disabled,” Crites said. “Dancing wasn’t a goal until later.”
It took Crites three years to rebuild her muscle coordination to the point she could dance again. During her recovery, she remembers a time when she fell during a dance, bringing a few others to the floor with her.
She said that the experience wasn’t embarrassing, but it was instead a good laugh for everyone in the room. All the dancers were supportive as she tried to get her footing back.
Crites is still dyslexic as a result of the stroke, but it doesn’t slow her step.
“Pretty much all you’ve got to know is to know your right from your left,” she said.
The next contra dance will be 3:30 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12, at the outdoor Bridge Park Pavilion in downtown Sylva with a potluck dinner to follow.