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Meeting People And Making Friends Set To Music
Montana Senior News, February/March 2014
Say the word “contras” to most people and they envision Nicaraguan guerrilla forces toting rifles. Say it to Missoula’s Alan Boren and he hears Irish fiddle tunes and pictures dancers gracefully twirling, bowing, and linking hands. The difference occurs because “contras” to Alan means contra dances, lively gatherings he enjoys both as a musician and dancer.

Although unfamiliar to many, contra dancing is not new. Historically, it dates back to the end of the 17th century when the French melded English country dances with steps from French court dance. They called these hybrids contredanse or contra-dance and the name stuck. Eventually these dances migrated overseas to North America spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific with the Westward movement from Colonial days to ours.

For the past 10-plus years, Skippin’ A Groove, the trio formed by Alan, Roy Curet, and Laura Lundquist, has provided live music for contra dances around Montana. They play instruments ranging from guitars, banjos, and penny whistles to fiddles and flutes. The traditional Anglo-Celtic tunes they perform are often more than a century old and consist of jigs and reels from Ireland, Scotland, Britain, Canada, and Appalachia. Though at some events, the repertoire features an occasional waltz, schottisch, or polka.  

“If your spouse doesn’t like to dance, it’s a good outlet because you can attend alone and ask anyone to be your partner for a dance,” says Alan. “There are no strings attached and all are welcome.  It is also open to beginners and is a very freeing experience that is helpful for those who are shy in groups. It’s so inclusive.”

As far as what age is too young or too old to swing a partner, that can vary hugely. Alan knows one dedicated dancer approaching his 90th birthday as well as a 9-year-old, who are both as nimble on the dance floor as any member of the Millennial Generation. “If you can walk,” states Alan, “you can contra dance.”

While their day jobs pay the bills, playing for contras rewards Skippin’ A Groove’s members with something else—the joy of being part of a vibrant community gathering that brings together a diverse group of people who share a love of dance and music.

“The purpose of community is to be able to embrace the full circle of life and that’s what happens at every contra dance. Contra dancing attracts the most creative and fun-loving people in the world, who are unafraid to try new things,” remarks Alan. “It is both a network and a crossroads. In Missoula and Bozeman, you find people from the professional community, academics, and students dancing with folks from the retail environment as well as truckers who are passing through. The people who come have very different perspectives of the world but those differences are forgotten on the dance floor.”

Over the decades, the popularity of contras has waxed and waned but currently they are on the rise here and elsewhere. It’s not hard to understand why. Contras are fun, great exercise, and typically liquor-free. To some people, they are synonymous with meeting people and making new friends set to music.

Contras share some similarities with square dancing such as do-si-do’s, promenades, and callers. But the two differ in other realms.

“Square dancing has clothing expectations, that you dress a certain way. You bring your own partner, and dance only with people in your square,” explains Alan. “For contra dancing the only clothing requirement is soft-soled shoes so you don’t mark up wooden floors. And you dance with all the other dancers on the floor crossways and diagonally.”

Many dances include a potluck and instruction prior to the dance with a caller teaching the steps people will soon execute and warning newbies to maintain eye contact with their partners to prevent dizziness. Fortunately for novices, mistakes are considered part of the learning curve so no one feels intimidated.

Although contra season is September through May, on the third Saturday of June, July, and August, contra dance fans from across the state and nation head to Shy Bear Farm in Arlee for some special dance festivities.

“We usually eat a potluck dinner around 5:30 in this rural farm environment and then dance until 11 or later. It depends on the energy level of the dancers,” says Alan, who adds that participants can also camp there. “A make-up band provides the music. Whoever wants to play, can.”

So if an adventure outdoors under the stars—or indoors on a wooden dance floor—in the company of new friends sounds appealing, dust off those dancing shoes, choose a potluck dish to make, and simply show up. A good time is practically guaranteed.

For information about Missoula contra dances, visit For the Bozeman area, visit Check both sites for details about other contras scheduled in Montana. To learn more about Skippin’ A Groove, call Alan at 406-396-1286.