By: Adrianna Grace, Staff Writer
“Contra is my drug,” said fourth-year Warren Wilson student Eva Westheimer when asked what contra means to her. “It makes me feel good and I look forward to dancing every week.”
Contra dance is one of the many unique aspects of the Wilson community, and many students look forward The Old Farmer’s Ball contra dance at Wilson every week. Although the Old Farmer’s Ball is identified by most as being a “contra dance” event, you shouldn’t be surprised if you dance a couple square dances from time to time as well. Contra dancing and square dancing share many of the same basic steps, including swings, promenades, do-si-do’s, and allemandes. However, a square dance comprises four couples to a set, unless the caller is doing a gimmick set with six or eight couples. Another difference between the two is the musical rhythm. In contra dance, everything is tied to an eight beat musical phrase unless it is a waltz contra. In contra, the figures are also danced with the music. In square dancing, many people rush through the figures and it begins on the off beat. However, square dance can be more forgiving if you miss a step, whereas many people say they feel scared of contra dance because they know they will mess up the line. Contra dance style differs regionally, as well. As Abel Allen, head of the Old Farmer’s Ball said, “the difference between southern and northern contra dance is that the northerners can keep time, and the southerners have a good time.”
Students have appreciated contra dance at Wilson for some time now, but the first Old Farmer’s Ball originated in the 1980’s. The Old Farmer’s Ball was started as an attempt to revive the original Farmer’s Ball which began in the 1930’s. The original Farmer’s Ball was started by Raymond Peake and his father-in-law George Watkins who built a small dance hall for family get-togethers on a property right off of Warren Wilson college road. They called it the “Farmer’s Ball,” because they were all farm families. It soon grew from being a couple of families, to dozens of families. It became so popular that it was opened up as a public dance and admission was charged. However, the Farmer’s Ball faded around the 1950’s with the influence of Western culture, and, unfortunately, with the advent of television. In the fall of 1982, almost 50 years after Raymond Peake had built his dance hall, Fred Park initiated a new community square dance in the old building. Peter Gott, Bob Thompson, Dudly Cup, and Phil Jamison were some of the callers. Because the dance required new callers every night, the style varied but also included squares, contras, Southern Appalachian Big Sets, mixers, and waltzes. The music varied as well from southern old-time fiddling to New England contra music. Originally, it was held in the barn on Warren Wilson College, until, according to Wilson Professor Phil Jamison’s The Old Farmer’s Ball, “the blizzard of the century” hit North Carolina in 1993, collapsing the roof of the old dance hall. The dance moved to Bryson gym, where it has been ever since. In recent years, contra has gotten more and more popular at Wilson.
“This year, there have been more Wilson students dancing than ever before which is very exciting. In the last year, there were 3-5 Wilson students who would go dancing [each night], now that number is much higher. It’s an amazing opportunity and I am frankly surprised more people don’t take advantage of it,” Westheimer commented. For many people, the community contra dance creates is the most beloved aspect of the dance.
“It is powerful to dance together and to move with the music, it’s like an art form,” said fourth year student Hannah McMerriman. “I see people there from when I started going to Old Farmer’s Ball four years ago, kids that have grown into teenagers… it’s like a big family.”
For more information on the Old Farmer’s Ball, go to the website www.Oldfarmersball.com. Students can attend contra every Thursday night in Bryson gym.