Chico Contra Dances have brought locals together for more than 20 years
It was appropriate that the biggest, brightest moon of the year shone down on the old Chico Grange Saturday night (Jan. 10). The celestial glow added just one more element to the harmonious fusion at the monthly Chico Contra Dance. Here, dozens of folk dancers whose beaming smiles matched the brightness of their outfits stepped lightly to the sounds of talented Celtic music minstrels and the phrasings of a well-versed dance caller.
On Saturday, a steady stream of eager dancers shed their coats and began to mingle around a table of potluck goodies—much as they have every month for more than 20 years of Chico Contra Dances—and the January chill of the Grange’s great room quickly melted away. Soon, with Contra Dance mainstay Mark Goodwin calling such numbers as “The Big Easy,” “North Shore Mixer” and “United We Dance,” and six members of Chico’s beloved Pub Scouts (who call themselves the Stars of Munster for this monthly gig) setting the musical backdrop, locals from 6 to 60-plus (and a small contingent all the way from Redding) created their own joyful three-hour amusement-park ride of soft steps and promenades.
“Look around, everyone is smiling,” said Eileen Morris during the intermission, describing the Contra’s appeal. “I love the exercise and the social experience; I’ve made a lot of good friends here.”
The scene somewhat resembled a square dance but attendees were more bohemian and hedonistic in nature, diverse personalities were particularly embraced and those with no experience easily fell into step. Strangers asked each other to dance, and everyone seemed to welcome being thrown into the arms of new partners. Couples made up the bulk of the party, but many singles also converged on the Grange, which has housed the Contra Dances for the past year following a 20-year run at the Chico Women’s Club. The atmosphere was all-inclusive, family-friendly and alcohol-free.
“The basic [Contra] form started in England at country dances,” said Goodwin, a Chico State University tree trimmer by day. “They were adopted by nobility and developed further between the English and French royalty. The French renamed it ‘Contredanse,’ which means ‘opposite’s dance.’ … It was eventually brought into the New World, in particular the English colonies before the revolution.”
Most dances began with two lines of dancers facing each other, with partners standing across from each other. Before each dance, Goodwin offered a brief walk-through of that dance’s step pattern, which never included a lot of fancy footwork. Once the live dances progressed, the Contra dancers became remarkably in sync as they swirled and interacted with other dancers, carrying out California twirls, allemandes and promenades. The end of each dance was met with applause all around—for the band, the caller and each other.
Onstage before each dance, Goodwin communicated with fiddler Vita Segalla, who then prompted the band to play lively Irish jigs for bouncy dances, and reels for the softer steps. Segalla, along with Michael Cannon (accordion), CN&R writer Christine LaPado (stand-up bass), Conor O’Bryan (Irish flute), Pierce Marines (guitar) and Preston Howard (uilleann pipes), seemed to have as much fun as the grinning, spinning dancers.
“It is a lot of fun dancing to live music and it’s great that there’s so much interaction,” said Goodwin, who’s been calling at Chico Contra Dances for seven years. “Not everyone’s expected to be perfect and be judged. You’ll get better over time and that will be appreciated but when it gets down to it, it works because everyone’s doing their best. And it’s fun; it’s very active and aerobic and there’s quite a bit of energy spent.”
Previous proficiency is not required at these dance parties, and in fact part of the Chico Contra Dance’s charm is how those already in the know eagerly help the neophytes. And when a misstep occurs, dancers are urged not to look back but to move on to the next step.
“Better never than late,” Goodwin said.