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Contra dance twirls its way into the WNC tradition

Virginia Taylor
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As evening sets outside Bryson Gym at Warren Wilson College, people begin to twirl, swirl and swing together in step, keeping a celebrated Southern Appalachian tradition alive week after week.  
The Old Farmer’s Ball is a nonprofit organization hosting dances around the Asheville area. Founded in 1982, the organization has hosted a variety of dances. Perhaps their most well-known dance is a weekly Thursday night contra dance at Warren Wilson College.
“I’d like it to be a place where people are open to developing themselves as dancers because I think dance is a really powerful and self-empowering thing for a person to do,” said Able Allen, president of the Old Farmer’s Ball.
Phil Jamison, music director of the traditional music program at Warren Wilson College, along with some other long-time dancers, brought the Old Farmer’s Ball to life almost 40 years ago.
“It’s great to see people dancing to live music, which is rare these days. This kind of dancing brings people together and it’s great,” Jamison said. When the dance first began, dancers practiced many different styles.

The Old Farmer’s Ball, a nonprofit organization in Asheville, hopes to keep traditional dance and music alive while fostering a sense of community. Photo by Virginia Taylor.

“When I first started dancing, we didn’t do a whole evening of contra dance,” said Bob Thompson, a long-time dancer and fellow Old Farmer’s Ball founder. “It was a contra dance and then a square dance and then an English dance and then probably a couples dance.”
Partnered with the Country Dance and Song Society, a nonprofit organization supporting traditional dance and music, the Old Farmer’s Ball aims to keep the history of traditional dance alive.
“There’s a constant evolution just like any tradition,” Thompson said. “English country dances were popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries and they actually got so popular that French people were doing English country dances. The term ‘contra’ in French means “across or opposite,” so that’s where they got the name contra dance.”
Around the time of the development of the Old Farmer’s Ball, contra dancing was beginning to work its way into more southern tradition, where square dancing still remained the prominent form of dance.
“At that time contra dancing was limited to New England,” Jamison said, “Contras were popular in the English colonies and in New England and became sort of reintroduced in the 1970s and 1980s and spread across the country.”
Before the dance moved to Warren Wilson, the Old Farmer’s Ball was held at their own location, still off Warren Wilson Road.
“Past the little church (on Warren Wilson Road) there’s a building on the right hand side and that’s the Old Farmer’s Ball. It was built by some families who lived there during the 1930s and in 1982 I and a few other local callers organized the Thursday night dance there,” Jamison said. “In 1993 there was a big blizzard and the roof collapsed, so Warren Wilson allowed us to use the gym. We’ve been there ever since.”
According to Allen, Bryson Gym is an incredible venue and one of the most perfect dance halls in the country.
As the Old Farmer’s Ball has grown, it has also become a popular dance spot for both Asheville locals and visitors alike.
“Asheville kind of gained a reputation as being a bit ‘fast and loose with the tradition’ because we’d put in swing moves or blues moves,” Allen said.
It’s a very sustainable folk tradition, Allen said he finds it very exciting when he meets people who travel here to dance.
“Folklore would like us to think tradition was a certain thing at a certain time, but it’s always evolving so it’s certainly not static,” Thompson said.
From couples who have been dancing since the very beginning of the ball to students who have just moved to Asheville, the Old Farmer’s Ball gives everyone the opportunity to take part in traditional dance.
“I loved the old-timey feel of it,” said Jake Aschenbrenner, a senior religious studies student at UNC Asheville. “It was fun to partner dance. I feel like partner dancing is almost a lost art in a way.”
The Old Farmer’s Ball also helps to formulate connections within the Asheville community.
“I’ve realized I really thrive on connections with people and contra gives me that ability to connect with so many, whether it’s a full conversation or just meaningful eye contact and a quick swing,” said Katie Houston, a senior environmental studies student at UNCA. “I’m just so genuinely and wholly happy when I’m dancing.”
Ultimately, the Old Farmer’s Ball hopes to not only establish a community maintaining traditional dance and music, but also provides a source of kinship for those who attend. Allen said he wants it be a place where dancers can be comfortable and develop their skills.
“It’s physical, social, and spiritual and I think we’re all healthier when we have a balance,” Thompson said. “It’s been important to me and I want to be involved because I see the next generation of dancers and musicians coming up and I want to make sure that world is still there for them.”

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