Saturday-nigh swing: Contra dances a lively tradition in Sautee
**The following story is featured in the Fall 2017 edition of The Mountain Traveler magazine. Read more features by picking up your copy at select locations throughout the community or at the White County News office.**
It’s hard to explain a contra dance to a person who’s never attended one. The best description is probably, “It’s kind of like a square dance, but instead of dancing with one partner, you dance with everybody.”
But while describing a contra dance may be difficult, actually participating is easy. These family-friendly events draw enthusiasts from ages 7 to 70 and beyond.
Since 2002, contra dances have been held almost every month in the historic gym of the Sautee Nacoochee Center in White County. It’s become a beloved local tradition that draws enthusiasts from throughout the region.
“It’s just a wonderful activity,” said Walter Daves, a longtime volunteer who has served as both a musician and a dance caller. “The steps aren’t physically demanding, and the music is very danceable. It makes people want to pick up their feet.”
The dances are usually held at 8 p.m. on a Saturday. If you’re not familiar with the steps, no problem: There’s always a free lesson at 7:30 p.m., to teach you the basics. The footwork is not much different from normal walking, but your brain will get a workout as you concentrate on joining hands, weaving in and out among other couples, and switching partners.
“It’s rare that you’re not in physical contact with somebody,” said Daves.
The music is best described as “old-timey” – a blend of folk, traditional, and bluegrass styles, usually performed on acoustic instruments such as fiddle and stand-up bass.
Some of the bands chosen to play at the dances are so accomplished and so popular that people have been known to just sit and listen to the music, rather than getting out on the dance floor. But most attendees can’t keep their toes from tapping.
“I think what people enjoy is moving to the music,” said Daves.
“There’s structure, but people also have the opportunity to express themselves.”
Attendance generally ranges from 70 to 120 people, with some driving several hours to participate. The dances are organized entirely by a dedicated group of volunteers, but admission is charged to help compensate the musicians, caller, and sound technician for their time.
The usual cost is $9 for adults, $7 for SNCA members, $5 students, and free to children under 12. For more information, call 706-878-3300 or visit www.sauteecontra.com.