Getting back in the swing of things: Group revives folk dancing tradition

By Brady Bauman

Sometimes in the journalism business, you get to participate in the event you’re covering to bring a special perspective to the reader.

Well, on Saturday evening, I did something quite daring.

I danced in a well-lit room — in public.

Dancers and musicians of all ages inside the Douglass Community Center on 9th and Yuma streets, revived a tradition that used to be a Manhattan mainstay: contra dancing.

Some may know it as barn dancing, and it’s similar to square dancing. There’s a live band, the dancing is done in a large circle and partners rotate. There’s a caller, too, who communicates the steps in real time as the musicians play.

Saturday night’s caller was tie-dyed-shirt-and-beret-sporting Jerome Grisanti, who traveled to Manhattan from Maryville, Mo.

For some enthusiasts, contra dancing is better than booze.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t tell you how often I say, ‘Oh, I’d rather just stay at home. It’s so much easier,’” said 70-year-old Manhattan resident Dave Redmon before events got going. “But when you get here and when you get moving, well, music and dance is a powerful, powerful thing and it alters your state. It works better than liquor.”

Redmon was joined by his wife, Ann, whom he met in the Douglass Center for contra dancing in 1996, when the event was more regular.

And that theme of two people finding love in music continued.

Alice Boyle and Robert Rosenberg, who met at the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield (my hometown, by the way) in the late 2000s. The two played in the band Saturday and said they enjoy the interaction they have with the participants.

Oh, and fun fact: they got married the Walnut Valley Festival in 2010.

Boyle, who moved to Manhattan from Vancover, Canada, in 2012 to take a job as a professor of biology at Kansas State University, was on the fiddle, and Rosenberg, who spent much of his life in Colorado before moving here with Boyle, played guitar.

“All the ones everyone knows, like ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ those are dance tunes,” she said. “It’s fun to play for people dancing because you feed off them.”

Saturday night’s contra dance — the second one this year after an eight-year drought — attracted dancers young and old.

Becky Roeder, a 21 year-old speech and language pathology student at K-State, said she showed up because she usually has to travel out of town to dance with groups.

“I really don’t know much about it,” she said. “But it looked like fun and I love dancing, and I’ve never been able to dance in Manhattan, so I thought I’d try it. I usually have to go to Kansas City to dance.”

Local fiddle player Bob Atchison was also on hand and lent his talents.

Atchison, who’s been a fiddle player for 30 years, had played for the Douglass Center contra dance nights in the past and said he’s glad there’s an interest again.

“It’s great,” he said. “My wife plays, too, and we’ve been playing dances in Kansas City and Wichita, so it’s great to play here again in the Manhattan area.

“What’s great about playing for a dance group is that you see (your music) in their dancing. It has a lot of social connection to it, and there’s just so much joy in this music.”

After a short instruction session by Grisanti, the band got going, and I was invited to join the circle.

There’s a special sense of panic that strikes me when it comes to public dancing, and as I approached the circle, that panic certainly was present. While I’m in no way shy in public — I dabble in improv comedy — dancing, when it’s meant to be taken seriously, has always frightened me.

But the fear went away as soon as I joined the dancers hand-in-hand in the circle. We danced to the left, then danced to the right, butterfly whirled and promenaded.

Anna Franklin, who helped organize the dance, told me later the group is looking to bring back monthly gatherings starting in October.

I think I’ll be back for it, for my fear of public dancing has been conquered.

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