Dancing has always been a part of Peter Contrastano’s life.
Growing up in New England, it was customary for students to learn some form of dance in elementary school — much like how many schools in the Pacific Northwest offer students the opportunity to learn square dancing in fifth or sixth grade.
For Contrastano, who now lives in Kirkland, it wasn’t square dancing — it was contra dancing.
Contra dancing has roots from English country dance, Scottish country dance and French dance styles from the 17th Century.
The dances generally start in a “contra line” or “longways set,” rather than a four-couple square formation — although dances in squares or other formations are included at times as well.
A contra line is a set of couples lined up, one behind the other as they face the stage. The dances are designed so partners will dance with every other couple in the line. A caller teaches each dance sequence.
“It’s a social magnet. It’s joyful and people feel comfortable,” Contrastano said. “It’s a traditional folk dance that’s fun and engaging.”
Contrastano’s love of contra dancing continued long after elementary school. So much so that when he moved to the West Coast more than a decade ago he wanted to find other contra dance groups.
There are a few groups in Seattle, he said, but they’re typically for advanced dancers. He quickly realized there were no contra dancing groups on the Eastside.
“I wanted to bring it here,” he said. “There was nothing on the Eastside.”
He reached out to a Seattle area contra dance caller, Laura Me’ Smith, who also lives in Kirkland, with the proposition of starting a contra dance group on the Eastside.
Not long after, Folk Horizons was formed. Folk Horizons is an educational nonprofit organization focused on improving access to, and encouraging the expression of, traditional folk performing arts.
Because of Folk Horizons, there’s a home for contra dancing at the Juanita Community Club Hall in Kirkland every second Saturday of the month.
Folk Horizons is celebrating its 10th year. There’s live, traditional music at every dance — performed by local musicians.
“I think folk is just natural…It’s how you interact with a community,” Contrastano said. “Dancing, singing unifies us. I think it’s something we’re drifting away from in today’s world.”
For longtime contra dancers, Rich Rall and Melissa Jones-Goetz of Redmond, having a place to dance on the Eastside makes a difference.
“We like that it’s all ages and all skill levels,” Jones-Goetz said. “It’s so much fun. You’ll never laugh this much at any other dance.”
“We’re glad it’s here. It’s like this great hidden gem on the Eastside,” Rall added. “We wish it happened more often, but it’s such a great community. It’s super accepting. You’ll have fun, mess up but you won’t care.”
For Contrastano and Smith, they’re glad it’s been going on for this long.
“The best part is seeing the lights come on in their eyes when they get it,” Smith said. “I hope we can keep it going for many years.”
To learn more about Folk Horizons, visit folkhorizons.weebly.com.