When the coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on mingling in groups other than immediate people in a household, Walla Walla contra dance callers/enthusiasts thought on their toes to find a safe step-around for gatherings.
As a dancer myself, imaging my surprise and delight when they responded by developing new compositions tailored to pandemic restrictions. With the New Year, Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music is sponsoring a series of Pandemic Contra Dances.
The format is intended to be safe, said creator, proponent and caller Dan Clark. It limits dancers to three couples who follow Phase I and II rules for outdoor sports and fitness and outdoor dance, limiting social gatherings and requiring physical distance to no more than five people other than members of a household.
They consulted with Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Healthy Washington — Roadmap to Recovery” to conform, Dan said.
“In the PC (Pandemic Contra) format, partners are either from the same household or in an intimate relationship, and all dancers wear masks and gloves,” he said. “Dances are held in the open air in a space large enough to allow social distancing between all dancers other than your partner.”
Most normal contra dance moves with a partner can be performed, however the steps when dancing with a neighbor usually require 16 beats rather than the normal eight beats because of added distancing. Partners can swing normally, while swings with a neighbor are done while holding opposite ends of a 6-foot sash, Dan said.
“It’s really Dan’s project,” wife Barbara Clark said. “He can’t stand not to dance. It’s like air for him, and so he wanted to figure out if there is a way to do it. He had to think about all the requirements — masks and gloves, being outside, that 6-foot distance, the timing.”
Also a dance caller, she wrote and helped simplify some of the dance steps so everyone could do them without a fancy caller.
The pandemic dances require that people come in pairs but they have to be from their immediate “pod” (members of a household), Barbara said.
Dan first floated the idea and started planning the dances in late summer. “I had been scratching my head about how to do this — say on Zoom or another platform. But that was very unsatisfying.”
Rena Coon, a musician along with husband Roger Muad, got involved. She offers a weekly masked meditation in the Pioneer Park gazebo and leads Dances of Universal Peace.
“Rena helped to inspire this, the swinging part with a partner,” Dan said. “She mentioned the sash for swinging, so you can really interact with neighbor and partner. Dancers can do all the regular moves with their partner, but what’s different is you can swing your neighbor, too.”
Barbara said they’ve employed a 6-foot rope to keep that distance when swinging one’s neighbor, the person not from your pod.
“We had fun. The most fun is swinging — this way you can lean out and do a buzz step or walk around,” she said. “Everyone has their own style. With the rope you get some of the exhilaration and it adds technical complexity.”
To see how it works, Dan wrote such dances as “Pandemic Circle #1,” “Contra for Christmas, PC,” “Make Hey, PC,” “Swing from a Star, PC” and Pandemic Circle #2.”
Timing was thought out very carefully, as spacing and timing are different when mixed with physical distancing, he said. They started with Howard and Trudy Ostby in the Pioneer Park gazebo, but there wasn’t enough room.
They added Arielle Cooley and husband Paul Whetstone, with Arielle also expanding the Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music pool for callers. Every time the originating group dances they improve the process.
Dwight Steffansen, a longtime contra dancer and newer caller, videoed the dances for YouTube. They were filmed on Wildwood Park’s new basketball court, which has a non-concrete surface that’s kind to knees. It allowed for enough space for the Clarks, Ostbys and Cooley and Whetstone.
Hosted by WWFAM, contra dances in Walla Walla typically feature live music by the Wednesday Night Band. For the pandemic contras, they do the next best thing with the group’s CD recording.
Musicians play traditional Irish, Scottish and French airs, jigs, reels and waltzes on such instruments as keyboard, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, penny whistle and flute.
I’m here to report we had great fun. Husband Dan Eveland and I recently joined the Clarks and Judy Hundis and husband Ian Laurie for a lively dance in Wildwood Park on a recent Saturday.
“The weather for the next couple of months looks promising, with many potential days for enjoyable outside dancing,” Dan Clark said.
“The main thing is this has allowed us to do vigorous social dancing and get back to the camaraderie and zest that we’re used to. Zesty moves and zesty music,” he said. “Seems like a very useful change to our current isolation.”