Contra Dance Meets the Culture Wars
Beth Molaro was reeling from a divorce when a friend suggested she give contra dancing a try back in December 1990. It only took a couple visits to the Thursday night dance in Charleston, South Carolina before she was hooked.
When another friend invited Molaro to join her divorce support group, Molaro asked what they did.
“We talk about our failed marriages,” her friend said.
“You should come to my divorce support group,” Molaro responded. “We smile, we move to music, and we have a lot of fun.”
A descendant of English and French country dancing, contra is a community folk dance consisting of long lines of couples engaging in high-energy figures like allemandes, twirls, and swings. Traditionally, live bands with some combination of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin provide the musical backdrop.
Contra dancing flourished in New England in the late 18th century before spreading south along the Appalachian Mountains. It nearly went extinct until a renaissance in the late 1970s, and is now considered the preeminent American folk dance. That’s thanks in large part because it is beginner-friendly, with fewer than 20 basic dance figures. Every dance event begins with a lesson from the caller, who guides dancers throughout the evening with timely instructions.
Molaro soon recognized Charleston needed callers that didn’t fit an older, white, male mold. “They called because somebody had to so we could dance,” she said at an East Asheville coffee shop in August. “There was nobody that was passionate about calling. I thought, ‘I can do better than that.’”
She attended a workshop in West Virginia. She was too intimidated to try calling that week, but she did memorize a dance.
When she returned to Charleston, she approached that night’s caller, Dr. Robert Anderson. “Let me call one tonight,” she asked, “or I might never do it.”
Her debut impressed him. “Someday you’ll be going to dance weekends with this lady calling for you,” he told the roomful of dancers.
His words were prophetic. Molaro called the Palmetto Bug Stomp, her first dance weekend, just two years later. A dance weekend is a big step up from calling at a local dance, offering better pay and more prestige. It helped turn calling from a hobby into a career for Molaro, who moved to Asheville in 1996. She’s now called dances in nearly every state as well as Canada and Denmark—as many as 130 in a single year. Even when she was pregnant, she called 80 in nine months.
Callers juggle many responsibilities: creating the programming, choosing which dances to call in what order, communicating with the band, and ensuring dancers with a wide range of experience levels have fun.
“The caller is the glue that holds everything together,” Molaro said. “We’re like the emcee of a big event.”
Calling has never been an easy job, but dancers typically forgive inexperienced callers’ mistakes. The atmosphere at most dances is joyful and relaxed, but those positive feelings would be severely tested when contra got embroiled in the country’s culture wars.
A Hot-Button Issue
As a folk tradition, contra dance is constantly evolving, forcing callers to keep up or fall behind. One of the oldest and most vibrant contra dance communities in the state, the Old Farmer’s Ball at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, has dealt with radical changes from the outset.
Professor Phil Jamison is one of the country’s leading scholars of traditional Appalachian dance. He was also one of the callers on the first night of the Old Farmer’s Ball in 1982. “When the dance started, it was specifically and intentionally not called a contra dance,” he said. “It was just a community dance. On a typical night, there would be contras, but there’d also be squares and circles.”
Like many other community dances, the Old Farmer’s Ball got taken over by an unstoppable force in the 1980s as contra replaced square dancing. “Contra dances were like the kudzu of the dance world,” Jamison explained, “an exotic invasive species that is very beautiful but it chokes out traditional dances.”
As established as contra dancing became at the Old Farmer’s Ball, it experienced an existential challenge of its own in the early 2010s when a flood of young dancers began treating the weekly dance like a nightclub. Instead of switching partners after every dance, many only wanted to dance with each other and refused to mix with the older dancers.
“Techno contra”—the assimilation of electronic music and DJ lighting into the dance—was another point of contention. This variation of contra dancing is said to have been born in 2008 at the Whipperstompers Weekend in South Carolina, which was created by and for young contra dancers. Organizers of techno contra in Asheville hosted a series of successful one-off events, but when they lobbied for it to be featured at the Old Farmer’s Ball, the dance’s organizers objected.
“Some of us pushed back,” said Diane Silver, a nationally known caller who was on the board of directors at the time. “We said, ‘No, this is a contra dance with traditional contra dance music, and you’re not invited to take it over. If you want to do techno contra, feel free to have your own event.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”
The younger dancers challenged other traditions, such as the terminology callers used and the roles dancers adopted. “We need young people because otherwise the dance will die, but it has brought in this politically correct stuff,” said Kathryn Liss, an Asheville resident who has been dancing there since 1998. “Things have gotten kind of woke. They’re trying to get rid of certain words.”
One of those terms was “gypsy,” a figure that involves two dancers walking around each other while maintaining eye contact. Callers had been using the termsince 1909, if not longer, but starting in 2016 many dancers argued that the word was offensive, thanks to the long history of discrimination against Romani people.
The heated debate that ensued was quickly followed by another, even more contentious one.
The origins of the gender-free dance movement in North Carolina can be traced to 1980 when Carl Wittman brought it from Oregon to Durham. It flourished within the community Wittman started with his partner, Allan Troxler, the Sun Assembly English Country Dancers. But it didn’t have much of an impact on other contra dance communities until about five years ago.
Terms like “gents” and “ladies,” which had been traditionally used, were outdated, critics said. Why should gender determine who danced in which position? And what did the use of such terms mean for dancers who didn’t identify with the gender binary?
Activists like Wittman lobbied for alternatives: “Larks” (the “l” stood for “left,” where men traditionally stood) and “ravens” (the “r” stood for “right,” where women traditionally stood) became the preferred role terminology. Then a small but vocal faction argued that “ravens” should be avoided because it’s a clan name in the Tlingit culture. From this argument, “larks” and “robins” emerged as the most popular terms for the roles in gender-free dancing.
“Some people love it because it’s very egalitarian,” Silver said. “Other people don’t love it because they can’t remember which is which. And other people are like, ‘I’m not a damn bird!’”
It’s also forced callers to take a stance on a hot-button issue. After all, they have to call dancers something.
Everybody Can Dance With Everybody
In September, I drove to the Harvest Moon Folk Society’s contra dance at River Falls Lodge in Marietta, South Carolina to find out how David Winston, a caller from Asheville, handled the matter.
A popular dance hall in the 1950s, the building fell into disrepair for many years before a group of contra dancers revived it in 1995. It continues to project a charmingly ramshackle vibe. Its hardwood floor is a splinter factory, and whimsical bric-a-brac and twinkling Christmas lights cling to the rafters.
A senior technical staff member at IBM for the past 27 years, Winston is determined to optimize his performance as a caller in hopes of getting invited to call at dance weekends. For now, he remains stuck in a Catch-22: organizers don’t want to hire him because he’s not a nationally known caller, but he’ll never become a nationally known caller unless he starts getting hired.
To promote himself, he put together a tour in early 2020 with Lagomorph, an up-and-coming contra band from Durham. He felt like his calling career was about to take off after calling for six dance communities in three states in a single week. Then COVID hit.
One of the hardest aspects of calling is getting newcomers up to speed, so when 40 students from Furman University showed up that night at River Falls Lodge, it made Winston’s job exponentially more difficult. When he asked how many people had never been contra dancing, more than half the hands in the room shot up. I watched as he turned it into a teaching moment, explaining that energy was one of “the three keys to contra dancing.”
I was eager to see how he addressed the role terminology issue.
“I didn’t buy into it right away,” he’d told me several days before, “but I’ve adapted to the changing terminology, and I think it’s important. There are some callers that are like, ‘I’m not doing that. It’ll take me too long to retrain my brain.’ I’m like, ‘Just try.’”
Winston believes callers, not dancers, should assume the onus of adjusting to the new terms. “I feel like it’s my job to adapt to the terms and teach them so that dancers are thinking, ‘I’m a robin,’ or, ‘I’m a lark.’ You’ve got to teach it.”
One of the ways he does this is giving dancers a gentle reminder: “If your left hand is free, you’re a lark. If your right hand is free, you’re a robin.” Another is adding a slight pause after using the terms to give dancers a chance to remember which ones they are.
The closest contra dance has to a governing body is the Country Dance & Song Society, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that promotes contra dance, but it has little authority in deciding which role terms callers should use. Because of that, preferred nomenclature changes from one dance community to the next. While the Old Farmer’s Ball allows callers to use whichever terms they want, the Harvest Moon Folk Society still asks callers to use “gents” and “ladies.”
Winston didn’t object to using the traditional terms. “I understand I’m being hired by the community,” he’d said. “I’m not going to make a political statement and say, ‘I think your community is wrong, you should be doing this, and I’m not going to call for you unless you do.’”
At River Falls Lodge, he also made it clear that the terms were merely positions on the dance floor, not identities. “Tonight I will be using the traditional roles ‘ladies’ and ‘gents,’” he told the crowd, “but everybody can dance with everybody and everybody can dance anybody’s role.”
'They're Just Role Names'
I also visited the Old Farmer’s Ball that month to observe Stephanie Marie, a long-time caller from Concord, North Carolina. Her stance on role terminology particularly interested me, as she is the only caller I talked to who lived outside of Asheville and she is a transgender woman.
She requested we not use her last name out of fear for her safety. A desire for safety is also what led her to contra. While attending a Civil War reenactment in 2009, she found that “it wasn’t the most welcoming place,” but she did make a friend—a woman from Raleigh who invited her to a Triangle Country Dancers event. Taking advantage of how cheap gas prices were at the time, Stephanie Marie regularly made the two-hour drive to Durham until she discovered the contra dance at Charlotte’s Chantilly Hall.
Her comfort dancing both roles quickly became an asset. “I started dancing as a ‘lady’ and a good friend said, ‘You probably want to try to dance as a ‘gent.’ You’ll find more welcoming partners that way.’ After a while, I became the go-to person as someone who danced both roles reasonably well.”
In 2011, Silver and Louie Cromartie, a caller from Chapel Hill, invited Stephanie Marie to a caller’s workshop in South Carolina. Stephanie Marie called an entire night of dancing by herself for the first time in Waynesville two years later. Like Winston, she has yet to be invited to call at a dance weekend but has become a regular at a slew of local dances throughout the Southeast, including the Old Farmer’s Ball.
She was introduced to gender-free terminology at a ContraFolk event at Virginia Tech in 2016. “Even being who I am, I really didn’t have a very good picture of what that would mean,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to use these different terms and I’ll see what happens.’ Which is oftentimes what happens at a dance anyway. You get the dance going and the dancers run with it.”
She loved how the alternative terms made gender identity a nonfactor, but still prefers the terminology she learned when she first started calling: “I still use traditional terms the vast majority of the time because that’s what most people want.”
When I stepped inside Bryson Gym, I understood why it’s considered one of the best venues in the state. With a raised stage and numerous acoustic panels lining its walls, the building seemed perfectly designed for dancing. The deeply scuffed hardwood floor corroborated that notion.
Stephanie Marie walked to the center of the room, wearing a matching navy blue dress and wedge sandals, to start the beginner’s lesson. I was curious to hear what she’d say about the role terminology issue. A former member of the Country Dance & Song Society’s Community Equality Advisory Group, she’s been vocal about the necessity of attracting a wider range of people and ensuring other marginalized folks feel as supported as she does. During our conversation, she had been quick to remind me aboutthe recent spate of anti-trans laws passed in North Carolina.
It soon became clear that she didn’t feel like a dance floor was the proper place to have that conversation.
“Quick reminder,” she said in her deep Southern drawl. “We’re using ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ tonight. All that means is the ‘lady’ is on the right and the ‘gent’ is on the left, however you want to determine that. They’re just role names. You might see women dancing the gents’ role and you might see men dancing the ladies’ role. It’s not an issue. It’s not a problem.”
She quickly moved on to the more pressing business of teaching beginners how to dance.
Some Middle Ground
When the role terminology debate first arose, Molaro sympathized with the argument for discontinuing “gents” and “ladies.” Whenever she was asked to use them, she tried to undercut any offense by explaining their purpose: “It’s a role. It’s not a gender designation. Dance with whoever you want to dance with.”
But she’d never been a big fan of the bird names, either. “It didn’t feel authentic to me to pick random words to use in place of traditional words,” she said.
For her, the absurdity of the debate peaked in the spring of 2019. She had just called at a dance weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota using traditional language and was preparing for another weekend dance in Berea, Kentucky, when its organizers announced that, moving forward, callers there would need to use “larks” and “robins.”
Molaro wanted to find some middle ground. “What do I have in my dance repertoire that I can call at a dance like that, where I never have to say ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ and I never have to say ‘larks’ and ‘robins’?” she asked herself.
She compiled a list of dances that fit those criteria and called the entire dance weekend without using any of those terms. According to Molaro, only one person even noticed.
Ever since, Molaro has been using what has come to be known as “positional calling,” which relies on descriptions of where dancers are in relation to each other rather than labels.
When I saw Molaro call at the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center in eastern Tennessee on August 26, she made frequent references to “right-side dancers,” or simply “the rights,” and “left-side dancers,” or “the lefts.”
Doing this requires callers to use precise language and maintain adequate pacing, two skills Molaro acquired while teaching Kaiut yoga on the side. She credits this form of yoga, which focuses on mobilizing the body’s joints rather than stretching its muscles, with alleviating the chronic pain she’s suffered from her entire life. She says she feels better at 62 than she did in her 30s.
In addition to her use of positional calling, Molaro differs from most callers in another way: Rather than using her speaking voice, she sings her calls in a bluesy tone that forces her to walk a slick tightrope. “I’m always looking in the music for a place to put my voice so I’m audible to the dancers but not stepping on the music,” she said.
Even more striking to me were the moments Molaro seemingly disappeared. Four songs in, I watched her “drop out”—delivering no instructions to the dancers once she was sure they had the progression of figures down and allowing the music to come to the fore. It reminded me of when a lead singer goes silent at live shows and allows the audience to sing the lyrics of a popular song.
It felt like a particularly canny choice that evening because the band, ContraForce, is every bit as popular as Molaro. Unlike most contra bands, which rely on acoustic instruments and traditional songs, ContraForce uses electric instruments to produce trance-like tempos and surprising cover songs. Toward the end of the evening they played a medley of Talking Heads’ covers.
“ContraForce started as a big ‘Fuck you’ to the traditionalist look [of contra dance], the idea of holding onto a genre that can’t change and evolve with the population,” the band’s drummer Joey Dorwart told me afterward. “Our first couple of years were punk rock compared to what we’re doing now. We were working Metallica covers into contra dance music.”
Like Molaro, Dorwart loves how contra dancing fosters a communal spirit and sense of well-being, if only for a few hours. “I haven’t found a scenario anywhere else where three generations of people can be in each other’s personal space and get physical exercise together in complete safety,” he said. “Not even church. It’s the closest thing to a community I’ve ever seen.”
It was clear that he was passionate about contra dancing, so I was curious what he thought about Molaro’s response to the role terminology issue.
“The best way to include folks that don’t subscribe to gender roles is not to just re-label the gender roles,” he said. “It’s to do it in such a way that they’re not necessary, and Beth’s achieved that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the names Joey Dorwart and Louie Cromartie.