Conjuring Contra

This Saturday night Cape Fear Contra Dancers will feature the exotic Charleston-based trio ContraForce. A wild, energetic and kickin’ contra dance band, the three musketeers rock out a sound that is Celtic-based. With an intoxicating addition of Middle Eastern and heavy metal music, their sound takes on a  psychedelic feel.


WILD & KICKIN’: ContraForce will bring a night of dance to 5th Avenue United Methodis Church thanks to the Cape Fear Contra Dancers. Courtesy photo.

Since 1995 the Cape Fear Contra Dancers have been putting on events centered around the art form locally. The volunteer-based group offer energy-filled, high-stepping extravaganzas the second and fourth Tuesday of each month and one Saturday per month. The open-to-the-public dances, which are usually held at 5th Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Wilmington, are open to all ages, and beginners are always welcome. Cool clothing and soft- or leather-soled shoes are encouraged. As well, the organization encourages a $20 donation for a one-year membership ($10 for the first year). 

What originated as a formal dance (based on English, Irish and Scottish country dancing) in the 1700s, contra changed during the ‘50s to resemble square dancing—then, it changed more when the hippies made it their own and loosened it up. A caller leads the charge in contra and demonstrates the easy-to-learn steps (which are called “figures”), before calling them out throughout the couple- and group-based dance. Participants switch partners throughout, which also creates a social atmosphere. 

“Contra dancing is an amusement-park ride we make for ourselves,” Cape Fear Contra Dancers board member and caller Linda Thomas says of her favorite sport. “The best way to learn (especially with ContraForce playing) is, of course to do it!”

Comprising drummer/saxophonist Joey Dorwart, fiddler Andrae Raffield, and guitarist Jimi “Two Nails” Periano, ContraForce aim to “jam and rock the hell out” of a dance they all love. Dorwart and Raffield have played together for years, each young man steeped in his own contra community. Periano joined in as a wild card and the whole band clicked. In three years, ContraForce has produced three albums of music, “The Rise of the Folk Organism,” “This,” and “Mongrel Vibrations.” Dorwart calls it a mix of classical, video-game, alternative rock, and eclectic world music—and it works. 

Booking shows up and down the East Coast, ContraForce thrives on connecting with the good-natured contra communities. There’s a certain spiritual experience to be had when seeing folks get lost dancing to the music the band creates. 

“At a Hanukkah festival, I was meditating while I was playing,” Dorwart said. “I looked up and saw a dozen kids in front of the stage doing this interpretive dance. My whole life is steeped in these kinds of moments with the contra-dance community.”

   “In a culture that doesn’t always produce low-pressure social situations, it’s nice to have a community as friendly and open-minded as the dance community is,” Raffield adds. “Our music is definitely a mix of everything we have come in contact with and loved.” 

They’re music encompasses a sense of immersion; it’s almost cinematic. One of their influences is Ennio Morricone, who wrote and composed the theme for the classic Western, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” 

   “ContraForce brings a fresh new take on contra music for dancing,” Asheville-based master dancer, caller and teacher Charley Harvey says. “These young men are innovative musicians who represent what is new and fresh in an ever evolving dance, and bring a new world beat and contemporary sound to what was once called a ‘traditional folk dance.’” 

   Admission is $10 at the door, $7 for Cape Fear Contra Dance members and $5 for students. The night begins with a beginners workshop at 7:30 p.m., and things get into full swing at 8 p.m. 

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