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Swing Your Family, Promenade and Do-Si-Do


ANAHEIM — When Louis Dow and his wife go contra dancing, two's company, but three's a joy.

"When we waltz, we hold our daughter in our arms, and the three of us dance together," said Dow, a Northridge artist. "It's lovely."

Regulars at contra dances across Southern California, Dow, his wife, Debra Bright, and 4-month-old Rachel are carrying on a 200-year-old folk-dance tradition.

Rooted in the early folk dances of England and France, contra dancing has been consistently popular in New England. It's been gathering a following in Southern California, advanced by groups such as the Living Tradition, a 14-year-old nonprofit Orange County group that sponsors low-cost dances on the third Saturday of each month at Ball Junior High School in Anaheim.

The next dance is Saturday. As usual, it will begin with a half-hour of instruction at 7:30 p.m.; dancing continues until 11. No experience and no special shoes or clothing are required, and all ages are welcome (children are encouraged to bring games, books, pillows, etc. to fill any breaks on their dance cards). Visitors under 18 accompanied by an adult are admitted free.

Dow, who doubles as a professional contra-dance caller, admits that since Rachel's birth, he and his wife don't attend as many dances as they used to. But he says that taking her to contra dances points out how accessible and enjoyable the pastime can be for families.

"I spend a lot of time waiting for the other dancers to give her up and let me hold her," he said with a warm laugh. "She loves it all: the music and watching the dancers and the room going around.

"Contra dance is very loose," explained Dow, a self-described "klutzy guy" who says he fell in love with the style 20 years ago in Connecticut when he attended his first contra dance.

"We go to have a good time, to interact with other folks. You gear your dance style to the people you're dancing with . . . [and] if you get something wrong, there are always folks ready to help you out."

Carolyn Russell is one of those folks. Russell, founder of the Living Tradition, and a handful of fellow musicians started playing traditional American music, what she calls "old-time music," back in 1982 for friends at her Garden Grove home. It wasn't long before the casual get-togethers on her patio grew into monthly public dances complete with a potluck supper.

"It was a job of work getting ready for those dances," said Russell, a native of Crosby, N.D., who moved to the West Coast in 1949. "But I guess it satisfied some part of me that remembered my childhood.

"When I was a kid, we had a fiddler who'd come down from Canada," Russell recalled. "All the little kids and grandmas would be parked around the edge of the dance floor along with the overshoes and such, and the dancing would just go on and on. It was something."


In contra dancing, a line of men and a line of women face, responding to the caller's directions of "do-si-do," "sashay," "promenade" and so on, changing partners up and down the line.

When ladies outnumber the gents, Russell invites the extra women to grab a necktie from a rack she usually totes to events so they can dance the male parts.

Newcomers get their bearings during the instruction period; the caller also leads the dancers in a walk-through before the dances--reels mostly, with a few waltzes thrown in to help them catch their breath--are performed to live music.

Except for the overshoes, Russell's Garden Grove house parties were a lot like her childhood dances, with folks nibbling on home-baked goodies and sipping lemonade between numbers.

But they came to an end in 1987, when city officials shut them down on the grounds that she was operating a business in an improper facility. (She's still miffed about that: "If that was a business, it was a financial disaster!")

Because they always use live music (the house band is the Occasional String Band, which includes Russell on acoustic strings), the organization has had a tough time finding an affordable facility suitable for both musicians and dancers.

For a couple years, they floated between makeshift sites, keeping in touch with dancers through a chatty, informative newsletter (the summer issue includes a feature on 82-year-old Lakewood bass player Mel Durham). In 1989, they moved into the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, where they kicked up their heels until the facility was closed in 1992.


Russell still bemoans the loss of the Cultural Arts Center and its suspended hardwood floor ("it's so much better for your ankles than tile"), but she says she's grateful to the city for helping them find their current home in Ball Junior High's cafeteria. The city's art council also kicks in for newsletter costs.

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