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Contra fever

Monday, April 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:06 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

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More than 150 people dance the night away Saturday at the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers’ annual Spring Breakdown at the Tiger Ballroom. Contra dancing is a traditional folk dance similar to square dancing. (SKY GILABR/ Missourian)

Soft shoe leather slaps the floor, hands clasp for an instant and, like a well-oiled machine, the line of dancers spin to the old-time music.

Contra dancing, a hybrid of 18th-century English country dancing and 20th-century swing, was the central feature of the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers’ Spring Breakdown, held at the Tiger Ballroom over the weekend.

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Nat Hewitt, left, and Sam Bartlett of the The Reckless Ramblers play a song at the event, which mixes Scottish, Irish and American folk music. The fiddle is the lead instrument in many contra songs. (SKY GILBAR/ Missourian)

Previously held in Jefferson City, the event was attended by more than 150 dancers from around the country, including couples who journeyed from Idaho and Pennsylvania. They come to dance, to learn and to see old friends at workshops.

“This is what hippies do when they get old,” said Bob Green, from St. Louis, who has been dancing since 1957.

Green usually dances in leather shoes. But for weekend-long events like the Spring Breakdown, he wears sneakers with leather pasted to the soles.

“I like the music. It’s very energetic,” said Barb Hubbell, another dancer from St. Louis, “You just dance and have fun and meet new people.”

Small groups of four dancers formed two lines running the length of the room. From the stage, caller Beth Molaro led them through the moves, and once she was confident that the audience understood the dance, ­ the Reckless Ramblers band began to play, first fiddle and then drums, guitar and banjo.

“The best part is when it’s like one big machine,” said Paula McFarling, who has been the coordinator of the Spring Breakdown for the last two years. “When the music, the dancers and the callers get it together, it’s like magic.”

Like a puppet master, Molaro led them through the songs from beginning to end. Molaro, who traveled to the event from her home in Asheville, N.C., has carved out a 12-year career by calling at dances around the country.

“I started dancing and thought, well, I could call,” Molaro said. “I found my music when I found calling.”

One of the most popular features of contra dancing is the chance to mingle.

“Its a very social dance. It’s ten seconds with each person in the line,” said Kat DiFoxfire, of Columbia.

The Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers always bring in live bands for these events, McFarling said. This year, the four-piece Reckless Ramblers, who hail from four different states, kept the dancers moving.

The Ramblers’ music is heavy on traditional Irish and Scottish sounds, and at the end of each dance the room filled with applause. But as quickly as the clapping ceased, the music started up again.

Contra dancing appeals to both the young and old, Green said. Some of the dancers at this weekend’s spring breakdown have been a part of the dancing community for decades.

“My brother grabbed me when I was too young to know better,” Green said.

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