Tinker Cavallaro

Pair of contra dances to share a caller in Port Townsend, Port Angeles

By Diane Urbani de la Paz

Special to Peninsula Daily News

This activity is “happy-making,” promises Laura Mé Smith as she heads for the North Olympic Peninsula.

Smith is a contra-dance caller, a woman determined to put a spring in your step and a swing in your shoulders. She travels the Pacific Northwest calling dances and is about to do two on this side of the water: this Saturday in Port Townsend and Saturday, April 1, in Port Angeles.

Smith learned to call as a kind of self-defense mechanism. Circa 1980, she was living in Anchorage, Alaska, where the local dance caller was a man who had a vast trove of knowledge but little skill in sharing it.

As she developed her calling, Smith found out something.

“I really, really enjoy helping people have a good time,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Kirkland.

By day, Smith designs theatrical costumes; her current project is the Seattle Repertory’s production of “Here Lies Love.”

She’s been to Port Townsend and Port Angeles many times, and diplomatically says she enjoys both communities.

Yet in both places, Smith acknowledges, are people who refuse to come to a contra dance.

They say firmly, I don’t dance, she said; they do not believe they can.

Smith believes otherwise. Just try it, she says. Contra, a descendant of English country dancing, is altogether different from other kinds of social dance. First off, you needn’t bring a partner. You’ll be dancing in lines, changing partners all the while.

Besides, she points out, contra doesn’t cost much.

The Port Townsend dance at the Quimper Grange, 1219 Corona St., charges $6 at the door for adults while youths 16 and younger get in free.

Port Angeles’ gathering, at the Black Diamond Community Hall, 1942 Black Diamond Road, charges $8 for adults and $4 for youths 17 and younger.

Both dances include a beginners workshop and refresher with the caller at 7:30 p.m. Come 8 o’clock, the contra lines form and everybody gets moving, with Smith guiding them all the way till 11 p.m.

“Laura is very energizing, very clear about what’s going to happen next … and she always adds jokes,” said Tinker Cavallaro, booker of bands and callers for the Port Townsend dances.

Each event has live music from seasoned performers: the Canote Brothers, twins Jere and Greg, in Port Townsend and Sandy Bradley &Friends in Port Angeles.

Cavallaro knows the Canotes well, since she first saw them at a solstice festival in Saratoga, Calif., in the 1970s. The fiddle-guitar duo was “totally amazing back then,” she said, “and now, here we are.”

Cavallaro took over the lining up of musicians and callers last summer. She seeks to energize the events, which happen typically on the third Saturday of the month, by mixing outside bands and callers with local ones.

“I feel like it’s a supportive, community kind of dance,” she said. “Everybody is dancing with each other, with whatever skill they have. You do twirl or spin,” but those around you have your back.

Bradley, who hosted the folk music program “Sandy Bradley’s Potluck” for many years on National Public Radio, has played guitar for contra and square dances for a good four decades now.

The recipient of the Country Dance and Song Society of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award, she lives on a farm in southwestern Washington near Menlo.

In Port Angeles on April 1, she’ll have fiddler Lindon Toney, whom she calls a mainstay of the Olympia contra scene. Gigs like this remain, for Bradley, an important part of life.

“There’s nothing as invigorating as a dance hall filled with music and dancers,” she said, adding, “I’ve felt that way since I was about 5 years old.”

Smith is right there with her.

“My goal,” said the caller, “is for people to go home with a big smile on their faces. They may have no idea what just happened to them, but they want to do it again.”

Learning the steps isn’t hard, Smith emphasized, and neither is interacting with your neighbors.

“It’s lovely,” she said.

“You get to hold people in your arms and smile.”

For more information about Port Townsend’s contra dances, see www. olympicpeninsuladance.com or phone 360-379-2882.

For details about Port Angeles’ events, see www.blackdiamonddance.org or phone 360-457-5667.

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Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Angeles.