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Building community through contra dancing

Madison Mathews • Feb 27, 2012 at 10:23 AM

When David Wiley set out to bring contra dance to Tennessee’s oldest town, the goal was to create a sense of community.

After about six years of dancing in the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center, it’s safe to say Wiley has met that goal.

“I was trying to come up with a way to build community — something that I could create as a gift to the community. With all of the other art forms that are here, there was clearly a void in area of community dance,” he said.

Community dances like contra dances all but vanished from most communities several decades ago. Joining up with friends and family on a Saturday night at the neighborhood dance was something that was highly popular in the 1940s and ’50s.

“You’d have to go back to grandma to hear about going to community dances. Outside of work and the church, the community dance was the focal point for community socialization,” he said.

Historically, contra dance has its origins in English country dances popular several centuries ago. Contra dance then morphed out of those dances when the early settlers first came to the country.

Typically, the dancers separate into small groups as a leader, or caller, takes the dancers through each step. Once the steps have been learned, the music begins and the contra dance is under way. Each dance lasts about 15 minutes.

Wiley first tried contra dance in 2005 at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C. While volunteering at the music festival, he wandered to one of the tents where a dance floor was set up. “I was never much of a dancer. I was never taught social dance growing up … but the contra dance looked like a very unique way of bringing people together socially,” he said.

When he finished with the festival, Wiley kept thinking of how to bring such a fun, relaxed and social get-together to Jonesborough.

Wiley then began dancing regularly in Asheville, N.C., where he says he really learned the ins and outs of contra dancing.

It wasn’t long until the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society was formed and the first contra was held in 2006.

“I started booking callers and bands, our website was designed, we chartered our corporation and we just set sail for building community using traditional music and dance as the vehicle,” Wiley said.

The wonderful thing about contra dance is the sense of community that’s formed throughout the evening, Wiley said. Whether you’re a skilled dancer or a novice, the dance is geared to people of all experience levels and ages.

“The fact of the matter is the focus here is really on community. This is a dance for all ages,” he said. “A successful dance community will embrace the newcomers and welcome and help them along.”

Other than bringing more people together, the society was also responsible for a bit of a makeover to the Visitors Center.

For the first two years, the dancers danced on the concrete floor of the Visitors Center. Mullican Flooring donated hardwood flooring and a contractor out of Asheville volunteered his time to come in and install it.

The society spent some time raising money to cover the rest of the cost for the installation and about 30 people gathered in 2008 to lay the floor.

Since the dances started, they’ve quickly become one of the many things Jonesborough is known for, bringing in about 100 to 150 people for any given dance.

Wiley will be the first person to tell you that he had no idea it would end up becoming such a hit with people — both locally and regionally. “Once the floor was finished and dedicated in 2008, our life as a community folk dance changed dramatically. People heard about it, tried it and they enjoyed it. This really has become one of the flagship dance facilities in the region,” he said.

And there’s still room to grow.

About a year ago, Wiley started to incorporate family dance events into the Dance Society’s calendar. Those have become a hit with contra dance regulars.

“If you can walk and count to eight, you can do this,” he said. “If you’re looking for an entry-level dance, contra dance is the way to do it. You do not have to have a partner. Any person can walk in that door and dance with a number of people throughout the night,” he said.

The society hosts two dances a month and about 30 events a year. The next dance is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 in the Visitors Center, 117 Boone St., Jonesborough.

For more information, visit HistoricJonesboroughDance-Society.org.

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