Last Friday night, young couples stood along the walls of a hallway, laughing and chatting over the loud music coming from the gymnasium entrance at the seventh annual Northfield Harvest Stomp, a contra dance.
Out of the Carleton bubble, past the townhouses, The Cow, Willie’s Shoe Repair, and just beyond the Veterans of Foreign Wars lodge, the stomp began in the Northfield Armory at 7 p.m.
Robin Nelson, a petite woman with long gray hair and a headset microphone, kicked off the event with a dance lesson for first-time contra dancers.
“[Contra dancing] is a form of American folk dancing, with roots in English, Scottish, and Irish dancing,” she explained. “To contra dance, partners line up in facing lines, dance with the couple across from them, then shift down the line to a new couple. It’s a lot like square dancing, but with more moving around,” she said.
The first lesson was in timing. Following Nelson’s instructions, Carleton students joined hands with St. Olaf students, Northfield High School (NHS) students, and other members of the community to form a large circle.
At the far end of the gym, Contratopia, a band that specializes in contra dance music, began to play a lively folk tune.
The dancers stepped right for eight beats. Then left. They took four steps into the circle, then eight steps back. Two young men in cowboy shirts and vests walked into the room. A smiling, tow-headed boy clung to his father’s leg.
Next, the dancers learned a few basic contra dancing steps: do-si-do, swing, and promenade. Swinging, which involves holding your partner in a ballroom position while spinning in circles, resulted in the most chaos.
Pairs of giggling high school girls spun wildly. The stomp of work boots, Converse All-Stars, bare feet and Birkenstock sandals echoed through the gym.
According to a sign-in sheet at the entrance, of the approximately 150 people who attended the dance, 76 were Carleton students and 36 were St. Olaf students. An NHS student guessed that 30 of her classmates were there too.
Nelson and the band members agreed that the youthfulness of the dancers made for a special kind of contra dance.
“These dances are really fun for us because the energy level of the dancers is off the charts,” Nelson said. “I mean, you go to a dance at say a Tapestry Folk Dance Center, and there’s energy there, but it’s nothing like here. You could bottle the stuff in this room.”
When the real dancing began, Nelson took the role of Caller, reminding the dancers what moves to make. “Face your neighbor, do-si-do. And swing your neighbor round and round. And circle left, and circle right,” she chanted from the front of the gym.
At the end of each line of dancers couples stood bent over, panting to catch their breath and balance. Groups of students began to gather around the pitchers of apple juice and water in the corner.
“It’s exhausting,” said Caley Shannon ’14, a first-time contra dancer who came with many of her Farm House housemates. “Having live music, having a fiddle is a whole different thing than having a DJ,” she added. “And you get to dance with a lot of people. It’s physical and fun, but it’s not creepy.”
Halfway through the dance, there was a short intermission. More clusters formed around the apple juice table. Two flannel and skinny jean-clad high school boys moved between clusters. “I like contra dancing; it’s fun,” one said. Why? “The swinging, the girls, the cookies.” He doesn’t notice the college students, though. “But that’s mostly just because I’m trying to hit on girls,” he said.
After another set of contra dances, the night ended at 10:30 with a last waltz.
The history of contra dancing goes back far beyond the first Harvest Stomp, or even the first contra dance in Northfield. According to Erik Sessions, Contratopia’s fiddler, contra dancing grew from dance styles that came to New England during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“There are still folks in the Northeast who are doing dances they did 200 years ago,” he said. But the popularity of contra dancing has not been constant. It faded and then got a boost from the folk revival in the 1960s and spread around the country.
After studying classical music for all of his youth, Sessions got his first taste of contra dance music in Iowa when he was seventeen years old. “Tom Moore, this guy from Carleton, was trying to put together a little folk band,” he said. “And so I said, ‘Oh sure, why not?’”
After playing with several other contra bands, Sessions started playing with Patrice Pakiz, Pat O’Laughlin, and John Goodin. In 1999 they decided to form Contratopia.
“Lots of musicians, I think in the last fifteen years in particular, have come to appreciate the energy and the roots of the music and the dance, but have found ways to twist it a bit,” Sessions said.
Some add jazz riffs. Others add elements of bluegrass or classical music. Pakiz, Contratopia’s pianist, mentioned Techno Contras, where dancers wear glow-in-the-dark necklaces and dance to techno music.
“It’s a very open community,” Goodin said. “It’s not uncommon at a contra dance to see at least one guy in a skirt. There’s always the skirt guy.”
Suzie Nakasian, a Northfield city council member, fell in love with contra dancing while in graduate school on the East Coast. “I simply decided in that moment to look for chances to contra dance wherever I would go,” she said.
She ended up in Northfield, where, in February 2007, she organized the first Northfield Winter Stomp. Even with a blizzard outside, the house was packed, she said. Since 2007, Nakasian has organized 16 dances. Friday’s Harvest Stomp was the latest.
Nakasian attributes some of the contra dances’ success to the Carleton Student Association. Thanks to funding from the CSA, admission to the Harvest Stomp was free for Carleton students.
According to CSA treasurer Cooper Buss, the CSA believed the event would be meaningful and beneficial to Carleton students, and will continue to sponsor contra dances as long as the high attendance of Carleton students makes the benefit outweigh the cost.
Nakasian’s next contra dance, the 7th Annual Northfield Winter Stomp, will be on February 22nd at the Northfield Armory.