Arrive early to the weekly Portland Intown Contra Dance for a lesson, before it gets up to full tempo. Photo courtesy of Robyn Nicole Film and Photo

If swing dance and square dance met in a bar, you’d get contra dance.

That’s how Dela Murphy, the 35-year-old president of Portland Intown Contra Dance, describes her favorite form of social dance. She founded the nonprofit three years ago with her husband, Dugan Murphy.

“Dugan and I fell in love in a week, and then I discovered that contra dance is a big part of his life,” she said. “I went to my first dance – he was calling that night – and I don’t think I’ve ever smiled like that in my life. You’re in a roomful of people who are just looking out for you and want to have a good time.”

Contra is a distinctively American style of social dance native to New England. Its roots are as old America’s – and, like America, contra is still evolving, with new dances being written, new musicians picking up their instruments, new callers being trained and new dancers joining in all the time.

Several contra communities in Maine have a monthly dance, and Portland Intown Contra Dance has one nearly every Thursday night at State Street Church, 159 State St., Portland. New folks will find it quite helpful to be there at 7 p.m. for a half-hour lesson before the dance speeds up to full tempo from 7:30-10 p.m.

“Everybody’s really friendly,” said Hannah Chamberlain of Westbrook. “On top of that, if you’re wearing one of the ‘I’m learning’ pins, people will ask you to dance.”

Chamberlain, who is 29, has been contra dancing since she was a little girl. “The change I’ve seen in my generation is more inclusive language,” she said. “It used to be ladies and gents, but now we use the non-gendered terms larks (on the left) and ravens (on the right).”

Dugan Murphy, who will be calling Nov. 21, emphasized that it’s not necessary to come with a partner.

“The traditional custom at a contra dance is that you get a new partner for every dance, and a new dance starts every 12 minutes or so,” he said. “But the choreography is such that you’re not just with your partner but moving down the line and interacting with everyone in your line.”

Dela Murphy put it a bit more poetically: “You meet a total stranger and within seconds are in this tenuous intimacy, feel total acceptance, accept them totally – and move on and do it again.”

Dancers walk patterns to the rhythm of the music following the caller’s instructions, such as “forward and back,” “circle,” “march and swing” or “long lines.” More experienced dancers not only lead the way for the less initiated but add more pep in their step, making it a more aerobic activity.

Once bitten by the contra bug, dancers have been known to crisscross the state to get to several dances a week, hitch rides with other dancers going to out-of-state festivals or even move to Portland to be close the weekly dance.

“I love the gathered energy,” said Tim Cason, 61, of Bowdoinham, who has been dancing multiple nights a week for 32 years. “It’s such high spirits. I can dance, have a good time and forget about everything for three hours. And this one draws a great crowd because it’s a weekly dance.”

Portland Intown Contra Dance is intergenerational, substance-free, old-fashioned fun. Admission is $10, or just pay what you can. Soft-soled dance shoes are recommended, but some folks wear bowling shoes, brush off their street shoes or go barefoot. Some dancers – and not just women – opt to wear something that moves with them, like flowy pants or a kilt. Wear something you feel comfortable sweating in, and bring a water bottle.

For more information, go to portlandintowncontradance.com. For more dances happening around the state,  DownEast Friends of the Folk Arts website (deffa.org) has a full calendar, including several monthly events: Belfast (first Friday), Topsham (second Saturday), Bowdoinham (third Saturday) and North Whitefield (fourth Friday).

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer from Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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