Leave Your Stillettos At Home For Miami Beach's Contra Dance Nights

Jul 20, 2016

On any given night in South Florida you can find a place to dance salsa, merengue or bachata. But when you think about going out to dance in Miami, contra dance is not high on the list, if it’s on the list at all.

So a small group of contra-lovers is trying to make new inroads into the South Florida dance scene with this very old dance.

Cornbread plays old-time Americana tunes as dancers hop, twirl and slide around each other.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

On a  typically hot summer Thursday out at the North Beach Bandshell, the band Cornbread picks out old time Appalachian tunes with names like Jefferson’s reel while Anita Mason arranges couples into long lines.

As she calls out the steps, dancers move like geometric patterns in and out of each other.

“The engineers in the crowd are like “Yes! This I can do, I understand this concept,’” said Mason, a contra dance caller. She’s tasked with guiding people through the steps of the dance before and during the dance.

Contra means opposite; you’re supposed  stand opposite your partner or your neighbor. The whole idea is you and your partner move together, weaving in and out and around other couples across the dance floor. As you move through the steps of the dance, you dance with new neighbors and you begin the dance steps again.

“That's how it's like incredibly social and you get to meet so many people and everyone on the dance floor,” said Mason.

Contra is one of the oldest forms of dance in the U.S., a predecessor of the square dancing many were introduced to during elementary school gym class. The dance leapt over the pond from 18th and 19th century England, Ireland and Scotland and became popular in the Northeast and Appalachia.

And that’s part of the reason Laura Quinlan, executive director of the Rhythm Foundation, wanted to bring it to the North Beach Bandshell, which her organization programs. Usually there’s a dance night once a month -- with lots of different styles of dance: salsa, tango, swing. But this month, dance night is every Thursday and it’s all contra.

“Something truly exotic for Miami: folk dancing,” explains Quinlan. “We try to really give the full spectrum of social dance as part of the dance band night, so we can't leave off American music.”

Part of the appeal is the relative ease in picking up the dance.

“Actually, I have two left feet,” jokes Quinlan, “and I can contra dance. It's so easy and it’s really fun.”

And even though contra dance is for the most part geared towards people who just can’t quite get salsa, Elviza Howlett, a professional Middle Eastern belly dancer, was out having a great time at the first contra dance night this month.

She thinks contra is awesome, even if it’s just a way to get her friend Eddie Gresely out to dance.

“I would like to learn couples dancing. You know, I know how to dance by myself, great, but I’d like to be able to do it with somebody else,” Howlett explains.

And Gresely reluctantly admits he’s having a good time, despite the heat.

Elviza Howlett, right, a professional Middle Eastern belly dancer, and Eddie Gresely, a semi-reluctant companion at the contra dance.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“It’s a good workout,” said Gresely, “It’s funny. It’s entertaining for sure. I mean once you’re in it, you kind of let go of stuff.”

And while contra dance might seem a bit buttoned up compared to the kind of dance Miami’s known for, Mason says the history buffs love contra.

“We're like living history when we dance these dances and when the band plays the tunes from back in the day,” said Mason. “To me it makes all that history much more meaningful when you're able to be a participant in it.”

Even though some of the dances are centuries old, Mason says maybe the genre is ripe for some new South Florida moves.

“I might invent a new move: the palm tree, the flamingo, the bougainvillea. You never know!”

You can contra dance at the North Beach Bandshell every Thursday night in July. An introductory lesson kicks off at 7 p.m. and then the full dance night starts at 8 p.m. Click here for more information.