“Dance and swing. Turn your partner round and round! Chain across. Face your neighbor and do-si-do,” says John Alden over a microphone at Wellfleet Preservation Hall. “Looking good!”
Alden is accompanied by fiddler Rose Clancy and guitarist Max Cohen. A dozen masked people in dresses, jeans, cowboy boots, and Santa hats follow his commands.
“Until you stumble into it, you don’t know that it’s happening,” says Alden, who has been calling contra dances across New England for over 40 years when he’s not working as a contractor and cranberry farmer. “Then, suddenly, it’s all over the place. It’s all over the country. Then you say, ‘How did I not know this kind of thing was happening?’ ”
“Contra dancing is the original New England bar dance,” says organizer Patricia Nash. “It comes from Irish, English, and even French dances involving partners standing across from one another. Perhaps you have seen Pride and Prejudice?”
The dances are characterized by long lines of couples. But it doesn’t matter if you show up alone, as partners switch throughout the night. There are no rehearsals — rather, callers guide dancers through a series of steps on the spot.
“There is a sense of community that happens when you’re dancing to live music with other people up and down the hall,” says Nash. “You see the smiles, the laughing. It’s a piece of Nirvana.”
Capt. Karen Arnold, who has Texas roots, was pulled into the contra dance scene while working at Mass Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. She has since been to every contra dance on the Cape, she says.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re dancing with a woman or a man, gay, straight, or trans,” says Arnold. “There’s just no judgment. It’s about beautiful, uplifting music.”
Outermost Contra started in Wellfleet in 2014 when another dance in Chatham petered out. “We put new energy into the dance,” says Nash. “We’d been dancing from December 2014 through March 2020, when the pandemic hit.”
Dances are held monthly, with a rotating schedule of callers and musicians. The group ranges from 6 to 30 people. The total expense is $300 a night — $75 for the space at Preservation Hall, $75 for each musician and the caller. “We pay the hall by door proceeds, and if we don’t bring it in, we’re pulling it out of our pockets,” says Nash.
Callers must read the room in curating dances. “Not all the dances you know are ones that people can do,” explains Alden. “Back when everyone was young and crazy, the dances were young and crazy. As folks have gotten older, the dancing has slowed down.”
Outermost Contra Dance is one of the first of its kind to return since the pandemic, attracting people from all over — up Cape, even Rhode Island. All participants must be fully vaccinated and wear masks.
“It’s a great way to get the mind, body, and spirit moving,” says Jill Putnam of Wellfleet.
Elton Kennedy, an oyster farmer from Hyannis, started contra dancing in college 15 years ago and was instantly hooked. “As someone who’s autistic, it’s the ultimate form of stimming for me,” Kennedy says. “All the spinning and pulling each other around. There’s a quote I love: ‘Contra dance is a rollercoaster ride we create for ourselves.’ That’s how it feels for me.”
“Before the pandemic, I would dance two to three times a week,” says Cathy Smith of Falmouth. Before Covid, there was a contra dance happening every weekend on the Cape. That’s not the case anymore.
Dancing has been integral to Smith’s life for more than 45 years. It’s how she met her friends and husband. Without it, “all the joy was sucked out of my body in one fell swoop,” she says. “As soon as I heard that one was happening in Wellfleet, I had to try it.”
Over the years, Alden says he has seen the first moments of great friendships, even marriages. But Outermost Contra is trying to attract more young people.
Miriam May and her boyfriend, Matt Schipps, who drove down from Dennis, both started contra dancing in college. This is the first time they’ve returned to it since graduating in 2020. “It’s a wonderful time to get out in the community,” says May.
Alden says that, while contra has hit peaks and valleys, it’s not going away. “It’s not a universal art,” he says, “but it’s in pretty good hands.”
The event: Outermost Contra Dance
The time: Third Friday of every month, 7 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: $15 regular admission; $10 for under-30s; $5 for students