Contra dancing introduced in Alcona County

As a preview of what is to come at this fall’s second annual Alcona Arts Retreat, community members were recently introduced to Contra dancing.

This form of American folk dancing first became popular in the early 1800s in the northeast region of the country. Many of the basic moves of Contra dancing are similar to those in square dancing (swings and promenades), but involve a set of two parallel lines of dancers who stretch the length of the dance hall.

Harrisville Township Hall served as the scene of this first of two Contra dance workshops planned in Harrisville. The workshop drew more than 50 participants. A caller known as Dancer Sue of Midland, accompanied by the Swollen Fingers Band, put the dancers through their beginning paces.

“The workshop turned raw beginners, who knew little or nothing about Contra dancing, into folks at the end of the evening who could dance fairly well,” said Will St. John, a member of Inspiration Alcona, the active group behind the upcoming Alcona Arts Retreat.

Whereas a typical square dance set comprises only four couples, in a Contra dance, the number of couples is limited only by the length of the hall. Through a sequence of moves, couples progress one position up or down the set. As the sequence is repeated, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the set.

“Like other line and square dances, there’s a caller who tells you what to do next,” said St. John. “Many of the steps are identical with square dance moves, or at least they were similar enough to fool non-dancer me.”

For many Contra dancers, the live music is the great attraction. Traditional jibs, reels and hornpipes from the Scots-Irish tradition on both sides of the Atlantic form the basic repertoire. The fiddle is often the lead instrument.

A second workshop is slated for April 20, with both workshops planned as a lead up to a community-wide Contra dance on May 10. If the dance proves popular enough, it could be repeated again on a monthly basis.

Dance workshops are expected to be among the offerings at the Alcona Arts Retreat to be held on the weekend of Sept. 5-8 at Lost Lake Woods club, a private residential community that features a lodge, camping, dining room, 10,000 acres of woods, five small lakes and golf.

The retreat, inspired by the woods and water of Northeast Michigan, offers six hours of class time daily Friday through Sunday in such disciplines as painting, fiber arts, photography and music. Most classes are limited to about a dozen students so one-on-one contact with instructors is assured. Retreat registration begins April 1, at which time the various classes will be announced.

To see a clip on Contra dancing or the register for the retreat, go the Inspiration Alcona website at