Star-Bulletin Features

Contra Corners
Contra Corners
Not country, not square, not folk—
this dance style comes from England,
Scotland and France, via New England

By Malia Rulon

Laughter and excitement mingle with the merry folk music from the live Celtic band, filling the hall as the dancers twirl, swing, grab hands and promenade around the room, sweeping across the wooden floor in grand processions.

The caller's voice is heard above the music: "Long lines go forward and back; allemande your shadow and swing your own; find a new neighbor and dos-a-dos."

More laughter rings out as the dancers swing around and breathlessly grab their partners' hands in time for the next step. The music continues and the caller's voice fades out as the dancers begin to move more confidently around each other.

Some women dance with other women, neckties loose around their necks; one man dancing with his son wears a shell lei. Some wear shorts; others dance in their bathing suits. A few are professors, one is in the Army, another is an economist and a couple are high school students.

By George F. Lee Star-Bulletin
A Celtic Band plays for the contra dancers at the
Ala Wai Golf Course club house on a recent Sunday.

Yet on this warm Sunday afternoon, the Contra Dancers of Hawaii are all dancing together, sharing in their common love of New England-style contra dancing.

This type of dance refers to a particular formation in which dancers line up in a parallel line facing their partners. Patterns change and neighbors change as the dancers move either up or down the line.

"What we call New England-style contra dancing today is what happened to English, Scottish and French dance when they got to North America and entered the mixing pot," said Jim Fownes, one of the club's founding members and a caller who plays in the band.

"It's been influenced by the American experience and has evolved somewhat of its own flavor," he said.

A cousin to what most Americans call "square dancing," contras are often confused with country line dancing or folk dancing.

"Even though it's called country dance, it's not what most Americans think of as country dancing or country music," Fownes said. "It has an Irish sound ... and a different formation."

Although the group mainly dances traditional contras, they also dance waltzes, squares, triplets and mixers. Members of this group of energetic dancers have been meeting ever since their first dance in the spring of 1987.

Now only a decade old, the group boasts about 200 members with 40 to 50 showing up at each dance. But they are always welcoming new dancers.

Like Lorraine Vann from Kauai. Visiting her daughter, Cheryl, she came to the Sunday dance not quite knowing what to expect. But by the end of her first dance, she was swinging and moving with the melody just like everyone else.

"I loved it," she said. "And it's not so difficult either. After the first three or so dances, you know what you're doing," Vann said.

Her daughter, and dance partner for the first dance, said she was drawn to the club by the sense of camaraderie and community support.

"Out of all the different activities I do on the island, this is the only one with a real community feeling," she said. "You don't have to know what you're doing to have a good time -- everyone has a great time."

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
A shortage of men is no problem in contra dancing
--some women just don neckties and take the men's roles.

Henry Bley-Vroman, a 14-year-old Punahou student has been swinging to the contras ever since he was 8.

"It's fun," he says, suddenly shy. But when the music starts up, he's anything but shy.

"Would you like to dance?" he says to Yona Chock, who was standing nearby when the caller announced the next dance.

"I thought you'd never ask," she coos demurely.

Chock remembers when she was his age and dancing the night away to contras, squares and folk dances. Growing up in Rockville, Md., she would go to summer dances with her family every Friday night.

"I don't even remember when I first started dancing," Chock said. "My parents took me when I was a baby and ever since then."

Chock continued to dance throughout her college years and even when she and her husband, Alvin Keali'i Chock, moved to Europe in 1976. She started a dancing club in Rome called Dances in Holland, performed with a troupe of Dutchmen and even writes her own dances.

"I like the dancing because it's social as well as exercise and mentally stimulating," Chock said. "You don't get bored with it because it's constantly changing."

Especially partners. In New England traditional style, it is customary to change partners after each dance. And a few dances are explicitly done as mixers, allowing dancers to change partners with every turn.

"You don't need (to bring) a partner, and you can expect to dance with many people before the evening or afternoon is through," Fownes said. "It's a nice way to interact with people."

Contra dancing is an activity for the whole family. Almost everyone who can walk "vigorously," listen to instructions in English and break a smile can do it, Fownes said.

"You don't have to be Irish or Scottish ... and it's not limited to people who have done it before," he said. "Anyone can do it."

And you don't have to dress up or wear a costume either.

"We're not trying to recreate colonial dances," Fownes said. "We're modern people living in 1997 just trying to have fun moving to the music with friends."

Contra Dancers of Hawaii

Kapiolani Community College chapel: Second Saturday of the month, 7:30 p.m., beginners' session at 7 p.m.
Ala Wai Golf Course club house: Last Sunday of the month, 1:30 p.m.
Cost: $5
Information: Mike Dale, 732-6491, or online at

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