Wood: Laurel dance night partners newbies, pros

Contra dancers at the Laurel Theater.

Contra dancers at the Laurel Theater.

Laurel Theater

  • Address: 1538 Laurel Ave.
  • Phone: 865-522-5851

The Laurel Theater sometimes flies under the radar. It doesn't go overlooked - there is an avid following of Jubilee Community Arts, the nonprofit that runs the historic church-turned-venue. They have events nearly every single night.

But when thinking in terms of nightlife, the Laurel Theater is an untapped resource.

At least two nights a week (it varies on occasion) the theater hosts dancing, which is open to the public. Sunday nights are Cajun dancing nights and Monday nights are Contra dancing nights, both of which involve live music - a key element of the nightlife experience.

And these days dance thrives, and in a big way. Shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" fill an "American Idol"-esque void in many while showing the appreciation many thought dancing already deserved. It combines athleticism, style and entertainment.

It's a hot thing to do. Even though I'm not into dancing, I am up for new nightlife experiences, so I opted to head down on a recent Monday night for some Contra dancing.

The event begins at 7:30 with a dance instructor leading newbies through the routine, much similar to the salsa dancing at Fairbanks setup. Without this kind of tutoring, well, a dance evening may as well not be open to the public.

Contra dancers at the Laurel Theater.

Contra dancers at the Laurel Theater.

I have to admit that before showing up I was not enthused with the concept of contra dancing. I don't really like dancing, overly friendly people, or paying $7 to dance amongst overly friendly people. At a place where they serve no alcohol, no less.

All ages were represented, and I mean that quite literally. There were people born in the 20s and people born this decade present. It's a family-friendly environment, with a noticeable lack of the 20-somethings (peculiar for most nightlife experiences).

Right away my girlfriend and I were thrown to the wolves. As soon as we walked in the dance classes had already begun, hosted by Nick Boulet (referred to in this setting as a "caller"), who narrated everything we were supposed to do. With an abrupt start, we were both more than a little confused.

Yet the caller emphasized the importance that newcomers dance with experienced partners, and said it would cut down on the learning curve. We were tossed around, partner to partner, attempting to learn the steps as the emcee spouted off commands. He got right in with the lot of us, dancing with microphone in hand a la Mick Jagger.

At first, it's a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, at least half the people were newcomers as well so it put us all on equal footing, so to speak. It's not only awkward to learn a dance so quickly but meeting a variety of new people ages 8 to 80 and spending only a few seconds before switching partners is also unsettling. But there's plenty of laughter and jovial spirits, which makes it easier.

It's easy to tell when you're with a seasoned expert, though most people dance the exact same way. It doesn't require professional moves. The fact that I dance more like David Byrne than Justin Timberlake went unnoticed (I think).

The steps are all in patterns of eight and centered on switching partners on the correct counts. It looks (and feels) similar to line dancing, but I believe dancers would scoff at me for using that term. Either way, that's the general idea.

The Wild Goose Ceili Band provided the music for the evening, which sounded somewhere in between polka and Irish, with accordions, fiddle and flute prominent. The entire event felt like an elongated version of the dancing scene from the film "Titanic," sans turn-of-the-century clothing.

It's important to keep in mind that after these dances you will almost certainly feel dizzy. I wouldn't recommend eating beforehand or showing up intoxicated. You will almost certainly regret it.

Also, it's quite a workout.

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