Mike Cottle has had a lot of hobbies over the past 20 years, but contra dancing is one of the few that stuck.
Cottle, a professor of music technology at the University of Utah, took up contra dancing about 15 years ago in Illinois, where contra dancing is bigger than it is in Utah. He was a new person in a new town, he said, and he figured taking up a new hobby was a great way to meet people. Already a dancer (he had done swing and ballroom dance), he decided contra dancing could be that new hobby.
"I was immediately hooked," he said.
The same is true for Cara Lingstuyl. She said when she moved to Utah from New York in 1997, her boss invited her to a contra dance.
"I have not stopped dancing since," she said.
And for Brenda Goodwin, the president of Wasatch Contras and organizer of the dance held every third Saturday at the Columbus Community Center in Salt Lake, the story is much the same. She said she played Renaissance and Medieval instruments, and went to a festival in 1993 where she was going to be playing these instruments. But there was contra dancing going on, she said, so she tried it. She put the instruments under a chair and there they stayed for the rest of the festival. She continued attending this festival for several years, each year bringing the instruments, but she said she never played them. Eventually, she just stopped bringing them altogether.
Almost everyone who tries contra dancing immediately falls in love with it, Cottle said or they immediately don't like it. He said people like contra or don't like it for pretty much the same reasons. One, it is customary to change partners every dance, something he likes but might not be what a young married couple is looking for. Additionally, contra dancing is pretty friendly. While dancing, partners look each other in the eye. There's a lot of flirtation meaningless flirtation but flirtation nonetheless. Some people don't like that.
Still, Cottle said the best part about contra dancing is that things that matter in real life age, size, skill just aren't factors on a dance floor. He said some of his favorite people to dance with are in their 70s, but children can also learn to dance and enjoy it.
Even for those who love to contra dance and do so often, it's a little hard to describe what exactly contra dancing is. Cottle and others who regularly contra dance compare it to square dancing but say that doesn't quite capture it. The two are very similar, but contra is more energetic and lacks the costumes and many of the rules tied to square dancing.
"If square dancing were a marching band, contra dancing would be a jazz band," he said.
Contra dancing is even more similar to English country dancing but a little less sedate, Cottle said. Simply put, he said, it's like the dancing done in the 2005 version of the movie "Pride and Prejudice" but a little more jazzed up.
"It's Pride and Prejudice with maybe a Gap commercial," he said.
Basically, in contra dancing, couples line up facing each other. There is a caller who calls out each step before it is performed by the couples. For the uninitiated, listening to the caller is almost like listening to a foreign language. Their talk is sprinkled with words and phrases such as "half hey" a move constructed of a series of passes and turns, and "moments," when couples pass close together and have an instant of eye contact.
However, Cottle is quick to point out, it's not as difficult as these unfamiliar phrases can make it sound.
"A complete beginner can walk on and have a great time," he said. "You basically just have to know how to walk and occasionally know right from left."
People who are just learning the ropes of contra are always in contact with someone else, and everyone helps each other through the dance, Cottle said. Making a mistake is just part of the fun.
He said he believes this is because in the world today, there is no formalized method for people, particularly young people, to meet and interact with each other. Contra dancing fills that void in a very nonthreatening, comfortable way. Dancers make eye contact, they hold hands, they talk to each other and then they move on to another partner.
It may be a little 19th century, but Cottle said he thinks many of the problems of society could be solved if people just danced more.
Plus, it's fun. Almost everyone smiles all the time. Charlene Weir of Salt Lake City, who has been dancing about six years, said she goes because she laughs all the time.
Cottle and Lingstuyl along with about a dozen other people in Salt Lake call themselves "dance gypsies" people who travel around the country, attending contra dances and dance weekends. Loosely defined, Cottle said, anyone who spends more time traveling to a dance than actually dancing at the dance, is a dance gypsy.
These 'dance gypsies' typically try to go to one out of town, weekend dance every month, traveling to Santa Barbara, Calif.; Chicago; Louisville, Ky.; and other locations throughout the country. This takes some dedication and a love of dance, but Lingstuyl and Cottle agree that there isn't much else they would rather do with their time and money.
For those who really grow to love contra dancing, it becomes a huge part of their lives. Cottle said said he probably knows more people throughout the United States who are his "contra friends" than he knows in Utah.
"They become your family," he said.
Lingstuyl was even married on a contra dance floor a few years ago at a dance weekend in Pasadena, Calif., called "The Fiddlin Frog." She said she and her fiance had attended the Fiddlin Frog together a few times, and when the Leda Shapiro, the organizer of the dance, found out they were going to get married, she offered the dance floor to them for the wedding. Actually, Lingstuyl said, Shapiro took care of all the details of the weddings, and all she and her fiance, Rob, had to do was show up.
It was wonderful to be married surrounded by contra friends, and be able to dance the night away afterward, she said.
In addition to good friends and fun, contra dance also offers live music, something most contra dancers enjoy. Additionally, Cottle said, contra dancing is a tradition that has been around for many hundreds of years. Mozart and Beethoven wrote contra dances, he said, making dancing even more meaningful.
"I'm doing something that has been done for more than 400 years," Cottle said. "How many things can you say that about?"