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ISSUE 120 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/9/2007

Building community through contra dance

By Anne Torkelson
Arts Editor

Friday, March 9, 2007

Music and dancing filled the Northfield Armory on Feb. 23 as approximately 240 people, including 30 St. Olaf students, faculty members and administrators, attended the first annual Northfield community contra dance, the Northfield Winter Stomp. Contratopia, one of the Midwest’s leading country bands, provided the music, while Robin Nelson, a veteran caller from the Twin Cities and favorite at Tapestry Folk Dance Center in Minneapolis, led the dancing from 7 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Admission was $6 for students, $9 for adults and $20 for families, and fun was as accessible to first-time dancers without a partner as it was to those with much experience.

Contra dance is a type of folk dancing similar to square dancing. A caller teaches each dance before it actually starts and then calls out the steps while the music plays. With a lesson offered by Nelson at 7 p.m., newcomers to community dancing easily caught on to the simple moves.

The event was a huge success. Natalie Hanson ’07 found the dance “to be one of the best community-builders I’ve experienced in my time at St. Olaf.” She said, “I often hear students complain that we are somewhat isolated on the Hill, and this was an amazing opportunity to address that complaint. Somewhere in those three hours of holding hands, spinning in circles and skipping around the room with complete strangers, a kind of adrenaline-induced, intimate connection formed between all the students, families, dance enthusiasts and musicians in the room.”

Even the musicians were impressed. “In more than 25 years of playing for folk dancing, I have been involved in only a few events with anywhere near the level of energy that I saw generated at the Northfield contra dance,” said Pat O’Loughlin, Contratopia’s band leader. “I can’t even remember how many years it’s been since it last happened.” O’Loughlin, like many others, hopes the Northfield Winter Stomp will act as “a springboard to an ongoing Northfield dance tradition.”

O’Loughlin may get his wish; the Northfield community has already taken a second leap. The Northfield Winter Stomp’s high turnout and positive feedback led to the creation of the Northfield Contra Dance Association, made up of a collaborative group from St. Olaf, Carleton and Northfield. The association will organize future contra dances in Northfield and encourage participation in the events by both campuses and Northfield community members.

Professor of Dance Ann Von Bibra helped prepare the St. Olaf community for the Northfield Winter Stomp by holding contra dance lessons during two sessions of Community Dance Hour prior to the event, and the Northfield Contra Dance Association also hopes to provide similar learning opportunities.

The Northfield community is ensuring that the event will not be the last of its kind. The second annual Northfield Winter Stomp is tentatively scheduled for next February, and Suzie Nakasian, Carleton professor of religion and self-proclaimed contra-dance enthusiast, hopes to see a Spring and Harvest Dance take place this year, possibly outside and under a tent.

“I would encourage everyone to attend any future contra dances, regardless of your dance experience,” Hanson said, “and I hope to see more St. Olaf students at the next dance.”

To learn more about contra dance opportunities or be added to the contra dance e-mail alias, contact Von Bibra in the Dance Department.

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