Bates Folk Festival and the contra community
A pack of people milled in the lounge outside Bates College’s Chase Hall, talking and laughing. Ranging in age from their early 20s to late 60s, they had patchwork coats and friendly smiles. The women were wearing long, flowing skirts; a couple of the men were as well. When the music started up in the other room, the entire group moved in the direction of fiddles.
The weekend of Feb. 10-11 marked the second annual Bates Folk Festival in Lewiston. The event, sponsored by the Freewill Folk Society (a student organization at Bates College), featured concerts, music workshops and contra dancing.
“I think the really intense crowd just arrived,” Jack Lewis ’12 said during the second half of Friday night’s contra dance, eyeing the patchwork coats with curiosity and trepidation. “They have knee braces, water bottles and headbands,” he said.
For Lewis, who was part of a group of about a dozen Colby students who attended the festival, this was his first introduction to contra dance, a type of patterned folk dance in which couples dance in two lines to jigs and reels from Scotland and Ireland, which are performed by a live band.
There are countless combinations of patterns for contra dancing, and no pattern is ever repeated in one evening. Instead, a leader (or “caller”) will teach each dance before the music begins. During this introductory walk-through, participants learn the steps and formations by following the caller’s instructions. When the band starts to play, they start dancing, knowing that if they get confused, other dancers will be there to help.
“Contra dancing is a community that includes every type of person,” Susie Hufstader ’12 said, explaining that the events welcome all participants, regardless of their age or ability. “There are actually people who go to dances with babies strapped to their chests,” she said, “and it’s really fun to see an old woman dancing with a little boy, [next to] college students picking up the steps,” she said.
Hufstader went to her first contra dance on the Hill two years ago and fell in love with the movements, the music and the people. Now, she makes frequent trips to Belfast to partake in their monthly dances, and she attends events like the Bates Folk Festival whenever possible.
“It’s so much fun to be in such a high-energy group of people,” Hufstader said. “When the energy of a song starts to build, people start screaming and stomping.”
As she has continued to contra dance, Hufstader has become acquainted with an enthusiastic contingent of dancers that made up what Lewis described as the “knee band crowd” present at the Bates Folk Festival.
While this highly skilled contingent of dancers could be intimidating or exclusive, the welcoming atmosphere of the event eliminates even the possibility for fear. After each dance, partners split up to find new people to dance with, and often people who’ve never met before—or even danced before—will wind up twirling arm in arm.
“Who’s that guy over there?” one girl asked Hufstader, pointing to a cute, scruffy-looking younger man in cropped pants. “Oh him–he’s a contra catch,” Hufstader replied. “Everyone wants to dance with him.” And the beautiful part about contra dancing is that everyone can.