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Lure of the dance: Society thrives as community learns to step to the music

The Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center was lit up with smiles one recent Saturday night as dancers of all ages swung from one partner to another, all to the beat of the three-man band.
Before the Nov. 15 contra dance began, a workshop was held by nationally renowned dance caller Diane Silver to help newcomers become accustomed to contra lingo and dance steps, as well as provide a refresher for the seasoned dancers.
A large circle surrounded Silver, with men and women in pairs as they went through such steps as pass through shoulder to shoulder with a new neighbor; ladies pass right shoulders while looping around a gentleman; and balance and swing, pull and swing around.
Betsy Campbell, a resident of North Carolina, said the 30-minute beginner workshop typically includes seasoned dancers who help newcomers get the steps down. She said in contra dance, the seasoned dancers are encouraged to dance with new people.
“The fact that everybody helps each other, so you don’t feel left out” is something Campbell thoroughly enjoys about contra dance.
Once the workshop ended, the Visitors Center came alive with sounds of the fiddle, guitar, mandolin and foot percussions from the band, Pete’s Posse, as the dancers moved from partner to partner, all while further mastering the contra dance steps.
New friendships blossomed as men and women asked each other to dance, which oftentimes left the seats that lined the wall of the center empty.
“I have always wanted to learn,” Campbell said. “Now that I’m retired, I can go to the dance classes.”
The Nov. 15 dance, marked Campbell’s 12th contra dance overall and her fourth time participating in the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society dance. She said she sees a lot of the same people at the different dances she attends, which can be as far as 45 minutes away from her home.
Campbell continues to attend the dances because she enjoys the variety of age groups that participate.
Seth Parker, a Greeneville resident, began contra dancing about a year ago after he heard about the dances. The 16-year-old attends the dance with other friends from the Greeneville community.
What started off as a group of four friends has expanded to as many as 15 on any given dance night in Jonesborough.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said, when asked why he brings so many new people. “I have improved a lot as a dancer. I’m glad I found it.”
Dave Kehs, a Johnson City resident, found out about contra dancing one Saturday when he was attending an art exhibit at the center in December of last year. He decided to attend the next upcoming dance.
“It’s something different to do,” he said, adding that he enjoys dancing with people from all over.
Organizer David Wiley said contra dances are about building the community by using traditional dance and music. He said nine marriages have stemmed from the dances during the nine years they have been held.
The beauty of those marriages, Wiley said, is they started off with two people not knowing each other before they attended a dance.
Wiley said because of social media, the dance community continues to grow.
He takes pictures of every dance and posts them on Facebook, which gives the dance participants opportunities to tag themselves in the photographs. Wiley said new friend requests are made, which sometimes turns into invitations to carpool to other contra dances outside of Jonesborough.
Wiley said the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society, a nonprofit organization, was chartered in the fall of 2005, and the first dance event was held in January 2006.
“We are finishing up our ninth year,” he said.
Wiley said the idea to form the organization came from a desire to round out the arts programs in Jonesborough because there were lots of storytelling, theater and Music on the Square events, but no dance.
“Folk dance was a big part of our region for a long time,” he said, adding that with popular culture, a lot of it was pushed out of the way for more modern leisure activity.
Since dance was once a focal point of a community, the Historic Jonesborough Dance Society was formed to bring it to the forefront once again.
“With the prevalence of social media, digital media, TV, internet . . . a lot of people are choosing to withdraw and disconnect from community,” Wiley said. “Realizing how important community is, I felt like the contra dance, traditional folk dance, would be a good vehicle to try to build a community around.”
In 2008, Wiley said, they put the wood floor in the Visitors Center auditorium.
“Our organization donated that floor to the town of Jonesborough,” he said. “We had been dancing on concrete with tile over it for two years.
“Amazingly, we still got people to come.”
By laying down a new floor, the organization took the dance to a professional level, which brought more people to the area.
“It is a professional-grade dance floor,” Wiley said. “It allowed me as an organizer to go out to dance communities similar to ours all over the country.”
Wiley said they hold 30 events a year and made the national country dance map in a relatively short time.
The Contra Dance nights are held on the first and third Saturday of the month at the Jonesborough Visitors Center.
The next dance will be held on Saturday, Dec. 6, with the band Toss the Possum. A beginner’s class will start at 7 p.m., and the dance will be held from 7:30-10:30 p.m.
For more information, call Wiley at 534-8879, visit or like its Facebook page.