Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in February 2010 as “Monday Night Dance.” Check the Grey Eagle’s calendar of events for up to date information about contra dances.
The walls of The Grey Eagle in Asheville are covered with fliers about upcoming shows and photos of musicians — rock, old-time, bluegrass, folk, and acoustic — who have played at the unpretentious, iconic hall.
Performers change from week to week, but Monday nights draw fans of another kind of entertainment, the footloose from several states who come for contra dancing.
Dancers enter the music hall on Clingman Avenue outside downtown toting water bottles and bags with their dance shoes. The quirky furnishings provide a no-frills familiarity: a foyer with an old piano and chess table, old-fashioned gum and candy machines beside a fun-house mirror, well-loved couches, and chairs around the dance floor.
Beyond the table where volunteers collect the $6 admission, some dancers exchange hugs; others chat in the tavern. With the atmosphere of a potluck minus the covered dishes, the dance seems an afterthought — until a fiddle and guitar rev up on the stage. Then the real reason for the get-together is clear. The floor fills with jeans and leather boots, high heels and short skirts, sandals and long dresses, 20-somethings with tattoos and 50-somethings with bifocals.
On a crowded night — with an average of about 150 people — forget about elbow room. Bumping bodies are forgiven as dancers dip, swing, and sweat. At breaks, winded participants grab their water and towels on the sideline. Their feet stir up so much heat that even the floor seems to pant. The concept is akin to square-dancing, with people switching partners on the fly, but the pace is much faster.
Clif Carroll, a landscaper and stonemason, drives 45 minutes from Travelers Rest, South Carolina, to the event. “It’s all about the energy,” he says. “It’s adrenaline. It’s kind of euphoric.”
Call it a collective euphoria. “There’s a dancer’s high that you can get to,” says Diane Baker of Asheville, who, with her husband, Jeff, organizes the event, known simply as the Monday night dance. “You’re with the music, with all the people that are in the room. The music makes me dance. My body just goes.”
Dancer’s high or not, whatever the varied apparel, everyone soon wears a smile. The fiddle’s exuberance envelops the hall as feet sweep and stamp the plywood floor. Under exposed rafters, ceiling fans, as vigorous as the bodies below, whip the air while the caller gives spirited instructions: balance and swing, forward and back, swing your partner.
For the contra dancers, it’s a happy habit, an event where people have found friends, love, and sometimes a spouse. Regulars who have danced at various venues say The Grey Eagle is different.
“It has a cozy feeling to it. The band’s right there. You feel more connected with the music and other dancers because it’s not a large venue,” says Kim Goforth of Asheville. “The energy and the excitement, I was hooked on that dance.”
To many people, the casual setting is appealing. “We’re a little worn in and comfortable. We’re not the newest and shiniest in town,” Grey Eagle co-owner Brian Landrum says.
No matter. On contra dance nights, the shine is on the faces.
Dancers switch partners all evening. “Some people call it the 30-second love affair,” says Mary Ellen Donnelly of Asheville. “You’re just so connected to your partner when you’re with them, and then you’re on to the next one.”
It may be a 30-second love affair between dance partners, but a love affair with contra dancing can last decades.
Jeff Baker, a dancer since 1973, moved the event to The Grey Eagle in 1999 from a bar downtown, where someone else started the dance a decade earlier. The event draws regulars, beginners, and out-of-state visitors who know the contra dance circuit, from high school students to dancers in their 80s, alone and in couples.
“Contra dancing is one of the healthier social activities you’ll find,” Jeff Baker says. Good exercise and no heavy drinking. The event runs from 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
The mix of ages enhances the dance. “It’s wonderful to have the younger group coming and breathing life into the process,” says Jeff Baker, 58. “By and large, everybody gets along together very well.”
Getting along is part of the attraction at The Grey Eagle, where people dance in long lines to live, old-time music, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, upright bass, or a combination of the instruments, and Celtic music, usually with keyboards and percussion. Colonists brought contra dancing to America, and now it’s done around the country.
Community spirit is another hallmark of the dance. An annual benefit helps people with medical needs, some share birthday cakes, a dancer sells eggs from her chickens, and participants bring friends and family to watch.
“They are my people, the contra dance people. If anybody needs anything, others will help,” says Diane Baker. “People are honored for who they are.”
That engagement and caring may contribute to the longevity of the Monday night dance. The Grey Eagle had held an open-mic night on Mondays. “Support for that kind of dwindled when every place in town had an open mic. We eventually had to lose that, but contra dancing keeps getting stronger,” Landrum says. “It’s a tight-knit group.”
Some connections between dancers are more tightly knit than others.
“Contra dances are certainly places where you can meet somebody. It’s a healthier place than just a bar,” Jeff Baker says. “Like any other group, you have your friendships, your people who fall in love, and your people who get married.”
Like the Bakers. They met at the Old Farmer’s Ball, a weekly contra dance now at Warren Wilson College outside Asheville. Although neither was looking for a relationship, a romance grew.
Goforth, 51, a potter, and Allen Bergal, 50, a handyman, had a similar experience. They met at The Grey Eagle in 2007, started dating, and married at the music hall. The couple had an outdoor ceremony in March 2009. Goforth wore a lavender dress and shawl in the 26-degree cold. Afterward, they went inside for the contra dance and Girl Scout cookies. “Everybody felt like it was the perfect place for us to have it,” she says. “We both were amazed that this happened since neither of us was looking for love.”
Goforth has found more than love at the dance. “There’s a connectedness that expands beyond the dance floor. You can have potlucks and eat lunch together. I’ve definitely made some wonderful lifetime friends,” she says.
Lifetime friendships or not, the dance itself brings people to The Grey Eagle. For Donnelly, a nurse, the music and dancing relieve stress. “It’s a guaranteed good time. The nice thing about it is that you can come alone and connect with others, but there are no strings attached. You dance and go home.”
The dancers are different people when they go home than when they arrive, with fever in the feet. They may carry their cares into the music hall but leave without a stressed bone left.
Even if they don’t meet again until the next week, the community creates bonds: having dinner together at the tavern, sharing a dance that a caller created for the Goforth-Bergal wedding, and taking home the summer squash up for grabs on the admission table.
The Grey Eagle
185 Clingman Avenue
Asheville, N.C. 28801
(828) 232- 5800
Contra dancing is Monday nights, 8 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Jess Clarke is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville.