Contra dance is a traditional New England-based dance accompanied by fiddle music. These days you can find it all across the country. It branched off from the same source as square dancing, so you hear things like “do-si-do” and “swing your partner,” which may be familiar from embarrassing gym classes.

When I first came out to Swan’s Island, I was excited to hear that there was a history of local music and dance.

Sonny Sprague scared the heck out of me during my job interview for this position, sitting quietly and looking like a selectman (not that I knew what that was at the time). As soon as I mentioned that I played a little music and was hoping to organize dances, his ears perked up and I thought maybe he might not push me off the ferry dock after all.

Sonny liked his dancing. He told me about a time he missed one:

“I still hold it against Mom and Dad. I was in the army in Virginia and I came home on a three-day pass for the Fourth of July picnic and the dance. I pulled up in my little red Volkswagen, exhausted, worked on the picnic, and I was so tired I fell asleep and they never woke me up. I spent it over there sleeping, with the Merry Mariners playing up at the Odd Fellows Hall.”

The dances Sonny remembers were at the Odd Fellows Hall, though there also used to be dancing at the Redman’s Hall and other island venues.

“When you went to the dance, you went to the dance,” he said. “You dressed up in your Sunday best. Kids dressed up. It was a family time.”

There was a general formula to the evening. Sonny explained:

“Dance probably started 8, 9 o’clock at night. There’d be someone taking tickets at the door on the second floor. Rebekahs,” which is the Odd Fellows’ sister organization, “would be there with Kool-Aid and tuna fish sandwiches or cookies or something at intermission. They’d play for half an hour or an hour, then it’d be about a 15 minute break. There’d be dances, Virginia reel type stuff—we called ’em contra dances—probably four or five times a night.”

The musicians were often local. Sonny remembers Bob and Dick Holmes, Ray Stinson, Maxine or Merrill Orcutt and a few other folks. 

“It was swing music,” he said. “Foxtrot. You know, the ‘Missouri Waltz’ and ‘Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.'” Later in the evening, Sonny said, someone would get up on stage “and do clogging, soft-shoe stuff.”

A single event had a variety of different dancing styles, unlike the contemporary contra dance.

At one point, the island had two or three dances a week. Visitors would come in off their yachts to join in. It was just one more thing that brought people together.

The dances Sonny remembers were in the 1960s and early 1970s. Things changed over the years with new music and dance styles. The contra dance died out.

These days, the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall fills up again with friends, family and neighbors spinning and tripping and laughing together. Not many mainland dances have kept that true community spirit, where your partners are the folks you’ve known your whole life.

There are babies bouncing along in laps and teenagers dancing with 80-year-olds. It’s a wonderful thing to experience.

Island dances may have changed and they may not survive, but if the past two years have taught me anything, it’s that people out here have still got it in ’em!

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow on Swan’s Island through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute. She works with the Swan’s Island Historical Society.