Contra Dancing

Regularly-Scheduled Contra Dance Series

BACDS operates regularly-scheduled contra dance series on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. If you live in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, one of our regular contra dances is close to you.

Berkeley Wednesdays / San Francisco / Palo Alto / South Bay Contra Dance (San Jose)

Berkeley Contra Dance (1st/3rd/5th Wednesdays)

This dance began its life in or around 1984, after Kirston’s dance moved from Wednesday nights to Fridays. Numerous programmers, including current San Diego area dance leader Harry Brauser, Palo Alto series programmer Eric Black, and current Ashland, Oregon caller Ruth Lowengart, have contributed to high-caliber mid-week contra dancing in Berkeley throughout the years.

Since his bay area arrival in 1994, highly-regarded caller and dance author Erik Hoffman has been the programmer for this odd-Wednesday-evening series. Music is provided on most evenings by an open band led by groups whose genres range from old-time to New England to electric. Open caller evenings on most fifth Wednesdays complete this dance’s reputation as an incubator for up-and-coming musical and calling talent.

San Francisco Contra Dance (1st/3rd Saturdays, 4th Friday)

The San Francisco contra dance began life in 1981 as a Thursday night dance run by the San Francisco Folk Music Club’s Plowshares Cafe. This early series featured English country dances, old-time squares, New England contras, and open mic dances. It became a BACDS series in October 1982, and added the fourth Friday dances in October 1986, absorbing an early Marin County series.

Charlie Fenton was the programmer of this series for more than 30 years. The current programmer is Chris Knepper,` This dance also plays host to both regional and visiting callers and musicians.

Palo Alto Contra Dance (2nd/4th/5th Saturdays)

The Palo Alto contra dance, originally the Stanford contra dance, is the oldest continuous contra series in the Bay Area, perhaps in California. It was started in 1975 by Nick Harris, then a 1st year grad student, recreating the contra dances from western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, and New Hampshire he enjoyed as an undergrad. The house band eventually started calling themselves Blackberry Blossom and included Derek Booth on piano, accordian and concertina, Liz Dreisbach on flute and pennywhistle, Stan Kramer on fiddle and bass, Warren Nokleberg on banjo, Ben Dawson on fiddle and Ginnie Mickelson on piano. Nick called and played hammer dulcimer.

The series built up over 4 years from an initial 20 to 30 dancers to around 150 to 200, with lots of good dancing and great energy. Brad Foster took over when Nick left for a job in Oklahoma. Brad organized the dance for several years, and included himself on the schedule as caller or musician (sometimes both), as well as a constant parade of local musicians and callers. Many nationally known bands and musicians initially got their chops at this dance.

When Brad left the area in 1982 to become the CDSS Program Director, Susan Murphy took on the series and ran it until she decided to become a veterinarian in 1983 and work with a different sort of dancing animals. (Susan also helped run the BACDS American Dance and Music Camp at Mendocino for several years, through 1990).

Eric Black became the programmer and chief caller for the Palo Alto contra dance in 1983, shepherding its moves to various locations including the Mountain View Masonic Temple and Cubberly Pavilion, before setting into the Peninsula YWCA for 17 years. In 2004 the dance moved to its current home at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Palo Alto, with Diane Zingale (Eric’s wife) managing the dance.

In late 2009 the weight was lifted from Eric & Diane’s shoulders with the formation of a Programming Committee, with Alan Winston as booking coordinator for the dance, and a Manager Committee, with Joyce Fortune as Chief Cat Herder.

The programming is selected to make contras fun for newcomers and old-timers alike (with a handful of squares to keep things interesting), danced to music drawn from traditions ranging from Celtic, New England and Quebecois to Southern, bluegrass and old time.

The dance features a wide variety of callers, both local Bay Area and visiting from other parts of the country.

South Bay Contra Dance (1st Sundays)

Shirley Worth started this dance series in partnership with the First Unitarian Church of San Jose. The series started with mixed English and contra each time, but has turned into a regular contra series, with a strong emphasis on great music, great dancing, family-friendliness and a sense of community.

A new committee was formed in April 2016 to manage the dance. Starting in May 2016, the South Bay Contra will be called using gender-neutral terminology (“Larks” for the traditional Gents’ role (on the Left, and “Ravens” for the traditional Ladies’ role (on the Right).

As of July 2016, dances run from 2:30-5:30 pm, with a newcomers’ orientation at 2:15pm. The first contra dance is Free when the newcomers’ orientation is also attended.

Special thanks to Kirston Koths, Charlie Fenton, Erik Hoffman, Craig Johnson and Nick Harris for providing the historical information above.