On a recent Sunday evening, in a murmur of small talk, strangers met strangers, made eye contact, clasped hands and formed circles of four on an open hardwood dance floor at Temple Beth El in Portland.

Then fiddle, guitar and cello players began to pluck and groove, opening the evening of contra dancing.

Soon the room started to buzz with the sound of shuffling and stomping feet and whoops of joy and laughter.

Samantha Dolan, of Portland, twirls with Rachel Thieme, of Portland, at a contra dance at Freeport’s Harraseeket Grange last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Young and old women wore flowing skirts that bloomed when they twirled. Men sported khaki shorts and shirts that grew damp after an hour of dancing in a crowded room.

Hannah Chamberlain, 33, called out instructions, smiling into her microphone.

Contra dancing, a social dance with English, Irish, Scottish and French influences, has been a part of Maine life since Colonial days, waxing and waning over the decades. During the 1970s, it experienced a revival. Folklorist and longtime contra dancer Jeff “Smokey” McKeen said that people wanted to connect with the local music and tradition in Maine.


But the scene came to an abrupt halt with COVID-19. Now, since the end of the pandemic, it’s been experiencing a gradual rebirth.

According to the Downeast Friends of the Folk Arts’ calendar – which one volunteer organizer, Alex Hennings, described as the “canonical, authoritative place for dance organizers to post their events” – more than 10 contra dances will be held around Maine in July. Pam Weeks, the president of DEFFA, said that contra dances are definitely coming back. The children of some longtime contra dancers are playing a leading role. And they’re eager to infuse the traditions with new energy and some modern twists.

Devon Bosworth, 10, of Waterboro joins with Andrew Mass, of Freeport, during a contra dance at Freeport’s Harraseeket Grange last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Dances “follow the energy,” popping up where there’s excitement about them, said Judy Hilton, a volunteer organizer and fifth-generation Mainer, who for 10 years was treasure of the Bangor Contradance, which faded out during the pandemic.

When she moved to Bath two and a half years ago, one of the first things she did was search for a contra dance in the area.

“You do kind of have to keep your ear to the ground,” she said, “if you want to know where the dances are.”


What she found was Common Floor Contra Dance, started three years ago by Dani Walczak and Samson Fowler on sheets of plywood laid across Fowler’s parents’ driveway. Hennings, Chamberlain and fellow contra enthusiast Jen Dryden regularly attended these dances and were inspired by them to help revive a monthly indoor dance in Portland. They’ve now been holding it at Temple Beth El for two years, every second Sunday, and they usually draw between 70 and 100 dancers a night.

These attendees, after swinging their partners, grasped hands in a long line that reached from the band to the opposite side of the room. Partners faced partners and beamed. To the beat of the music, people on both sides of the column took three stomps forward, nearly reaching one another in the middle. After the two lines pulled away from each other, groups of four came together once more. Neighbors rotated around each other, and dancers found new temporary twirling partners.

Organizers of long-running dances often help out newbies.

After Hilton went to the Portland dance at Temple Beth El a couple of times, she brokered a deal that transferred to it assets of Bangor Contradance, including its tax-exempt status. She said she plans to volunteer to help her new dance “however needed.”

“You might think that different dances are competing with each other,” Hennings said, “but really we’re all in the same community, and we would love for there to be more of it.”

Part of what makes contra dancing special, regulars say, is that it appeals to a wide age range.


Ed Kennedy has been going to contra dances in Maine since 1978, when he first tried it in college. Even though he lives in Wiscasset, he said he will go wherever there’s a “good dance.” He measures this by attendance, level of dancing, the caller and the band. These parameters have led him to Topsham, Belfast, Brooks and Portland. He noticed that there are a lot of youngsters at dances nowadays, and he said that was the case when he was young.

Many dances in the state are trying to accommodate wider audiences. One way is with gender-inclusive language. Historically, dances used the terms “gents” and “ladies” when calling out certain moves. But dancing roles do not have to correspond with gender. Instead, the partner on the left and right, respectively, now are sometimes called “lark” and “robin,” the old references gently giving way.

At a dance, the fiddle carves the melody as the other instruments support with warmth. Dancers stutter-step along with the swinging beat while they spin their partners. Instead of walking, some skip along to the music, the rhythm guiding their moves.

Dancers of all ages twirled across the floor in the Temple Beth El in Portland last month. The dance, hosted by Common Floor Contra Dance, happens on the second Sunday of the month. Dana Richie/Staff Writer


The Maine Country Dance Orchestra was founded by a fiery group of musical friends. Now their children are helping to keep the soundtrack of contra dancing alive.

For 25 years, the orchestra organized a regular dance in Bowdoinham on the first Saturday of each month.


While the orchestra members – like Ellen Gawler, who played fiddle – were “getting into serious antics on stage,” their children often kept dancing until they couldn’t keep their eyes open. 

Gawler’s daughter Molly remembers curling up in a sleeping bag behind the piano. “The boom-chuck boom-chuck that went on all night, that was our lullaby,” she said.

While Molly Gawler was growing up, Greg Boardman, who was part of the ’70s revival, had the idea to start a fiddle camp. What began as a weekend experiment in 1994 evolved over the years into three and a half weeks of music-making fiddle, piano, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cello, flute, whistle, banjo, bass and singing.

At Maine Fiddle Camp, Molly Gawler learned the distinct Maine or maritime style of fiddle, known for its blend of Scots-Irish, Indigenous, French-Canadian and Swedish traditions. With the support of instructors at camp, her sister Elsie experimented with folk music on the cello.

While the members of the Maine Country Dance Orchestra originally gave the Maine Fiddle Camp a “ready-made staff,” the next generation now has joined on as instructors. Molly Gawler teaches beginning fiddlers, and Elsie teaches cello. With their sister Edith, who plays banjo and fiddle, Molly and Elsie Gawler formed a band called the Gawler Sisters, occasionally joined on stage by their parents Ellen and John. They feel like traditional music is part of their heritage, learned from their parents and from soaking up the musical scene in the state.

“They have a place in this living, breathing social dance and music tradition,” Ellen Gawler, a musician and teacher in her 60s, said of her daughters. “They grew up here, they learned how to play and they’re turning around and playing.”


Many of the younger musicians say their work today builds upon the rich history that came before them.

“Maine is a musical state, and especially a fiddle-y state,” said Emily Troll, 36, who leads Rage Potatoes, which has been playing live music for contra dances since 2017.

String Equinox provides music for a contra dance at Freeport’s Harraseeket Grange last month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The band is open to all experience levels, abilities and instruments, and typically rehearses just once before playing a gig. It has 90 people on its email list, and there are usually 20 or 30 musicians at each gig, including two to five new faces. In the coming months, they have three band dates at three different contra dances: the Kennebunk Contra Dance on July 27, the Cumberland Contra Dance on Nov. 2 and the Common Floor Contra Dance on Jan. 2, 2025.

Troll, who lives in South Portland, describes herself as a teacher, conductor and cheerleader. She said the dances were her “favorite social world” when she went as a child, and the open bands were key to her growth as a musician. Motivated by her love of music, she also teaches music lessons and performs professionally.

When she conducts, she holds up signs for the musicians. Some are straightforward instructions like “crescendo” or “fiddles play.” Others, like “primal scream,” are more open to interpretation.



In the world of contra dancing, a lot of people do their part to keep elements of the tradition alive. Chamberlain has called gigs in every state in New England except Rhode Island – and this year she’s scheduled to call 17 dances. She’s been hired by Maine dances in Belfast, Brooks, Lewiston, Cumberland, Portland and Cherryfield.

In the middle of a dance at Temple Beth El, the floor was a tapestry of movements performed in imperfect unison. In changing groups of four, dancers do si do-ed around their partners, brushing right shoulders. “With your new neighbors, circle right,” Chamberlain called. Groups of four materialized out of the currents of people, reaching for hands. They walked in a ring.

In contra dancing, the caller is the master of ceremony, Chamberlain said. Callers do walk-throughs of the dances to teach them, cue the band and call out moves, all while making sure the gathering runs on time. They have their own styles. Chamberlain likes to plan ahead, while also adjusting the difficulty of the dance as she goes to match the dancers’ abilities.

With a background in dancing and performance, she said, calling “felt natural.” She eagerly attended weekend workshops, and now she’s a professional.

Chamberlain started going to contra dances when she was a child. When she moved to Maine in 2017, she knew just one person in the whole state. On a lonely Saturday night, she decided to go to a dance in Augusta, and she met more people, people she’s still friends with.

She’s even found love. She and Hennings, the dance organizer, met at a dance in 2011 and have been dating since 2017.

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