Contra dancers square off at this weekend's Midwinter Meltdown

Contra dance: don’t confuse it with square. Contra came first, emerging in England as early as the 1600s, as Jerome Grisanti could tell you.

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Contra dancing is about 400 years old. Some liken it to speed dating.

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Contra dance: The Lawrence Barn Dance Association's Pilgrim's Procession

Grisanti has a special connection to contra dance: he’s a dancer and a caller. Contra enthusiasts say it breeds a deeper connection between dancers than other genres. And that’s something to which Grisanti can testify.

“I met the woman who became my wife at a dance,” said Grisanti, a Maryville, Mo., resident who’s been dancing contra since 1999. He regularly calls dances in Lawrence and Kansas City.

This weekend, Grisanti will be dancing and calling at Midwinter Meltdown, one of the region’s largest contra events, at the Lawrence Senior Dance Center, 745 Vt. It kicks off tonight at 7:30 and lasts through Sunday afternoon.

Contra dancing is an interactive dance that propels strangers together - at least a moment. It is often confused with square dancing; both dances have a caller, or a person who instructs dancers what to do. But in square dance, dancers are assembled, as the name suggests, in squares, while contra dancing is done with two lines of dancers facing each other.

Contra dance has been around for about 400 years (it’s similar to the formal dances seen in movies and television ranging from “Romeo & Juliet” to “The Tudors”) but has become popular again in the United States in the past few decades.

“In the seventies there was a huge contra (dancing) resurgence in this country in a lot of major cities and college towns,” says Susan Reiger, a professional dancer and Midwinter Meltdown organizer. “So there are all these people who know how to contra dance now, and ...(the dance) is done to fun, live music.”

Contra dancing is usually performed to traditional fiddle-driven songs that sometimes include a guitar, a keyboard and a bass. All age ranges are represented at dances but baby boomers make up the bulk of participants, says Reiger.

The weekend-long gathering marks Midwinter Meltdown’s third year, and includes lessons, workshops and potlucks. Organizers expect up to 100 people from Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and beyond to attend.

Contra dancing requires an adventurous spirit, if only because dancers are forced to partner with many differnet people during each dance. A contra starts with a principle partner, but as the caller belts out instructions, you end up dancing with every other couple in the line.

Susan Rieger, an event organizer, likens it to speed dating. “You make eye contact with people who are total strangers and then are partnering with them and move on to the next person,” she says.

“I wanted to put some energy into it myself because it’s got a great community building aspect,” says Rieger, a professional dancer for more than 20 years. “The beginning of the evening starts with more simple dances and they get more and more complex as the night goes on.

“When there’s a mixture of experienced dancers and new comers it works really well,” she says.

Before each of the major dances on Friday and Saturday nights, there will be a session for beginners to learn the basics of contra. The lesson on Friday launches at 7:10 p.m. And Saturday’s is at 6:45 p.m., just a few minutes before the main dances begin.

“It is all a newcomer would need to have a great time at the dance,” says Rieger. “But it is really important for beginners to attend the lesson.”

There will be several live bands playing at each of the dances, with music ranging from traditional fiddle-driven songs to rock and swing.

Most of the dances at Midwinter Meltdown will stick to the fiddle tradition. But one dance at 2 p.m. on Saturday called “Rock Your Blues Away!” will feature classic rock, pop and swing.

“There are lots of experiments with doing (contra) to different kinds of music,” says Rieger. “Normally the music is led by a fiddle ... (but) there’s a whole techno scene on the East Coast.”

Lawrence has an active dance community. Rotating as hosts, the Lawrence Barn Dance Association and Uptown Hoedown, hold a dance each week that draws 40 to 50 people. But organizers hope to attract more than their regular devotees to Midwinter Meltdown.

“It’s rare that there’s dance that is so accessible,” says Rieger. “For people to walk in off the street who have never danced before to learn a little bit and participate. It’s really fun and lively and you can choose at what level you want to participate: bystander, or dancing a little or dancing a lot.”

But Rieger has some advice for those who plan to come and watch only.

“Wear comfortable shoes because even if you think that you’re just going to watch, you’ll probably get drawn into the dance.”

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