By Shelly Romine
Throughout the summer, the Palouse Folklore Society sponsors traditional contra dances at the old Blaine Schoolhouse, eight miles outside Moscow. For the past 36 years, contra dances have been held in this historic building nestled in the bucolic Palouse countryside. With a goal of preserving the culture and tradition of folk music and dance, the evening is reminiscent of days long gone. On the second and fourth Saturdays of June, July and August, dancers are invited to share a covered-dish dinner before joining in the age-old contra dance.
Each dance night features a different live contra dance band and caller, which makes the experience new every time. On July 8, the Sandpoint band InTentCity kept dancers on the floor most of the evening. The young band is comprised of members of the Richards family — Betsy, Graham, Seth and David — who said they feel a bond with the contra dance community. Morna Leonard, a charismatic woman from Hamilton, Mont., was the caller.
With community as its goal, experienced dancers welcome newcomers. The evenings start with dance lessons to help quell jittery nerves. This particular evening there were 10 new dancers, and the old guard — those who have danced for years — helped them learn and adapt with a great deal of encouragement.
Chris Cain, a graduate student at Washington State University, said he has attended the dances before and wanted his friend, Jenna Metzer, to experience the old school house and the art of the dance.
“It’s just fun,” Cain said.
Metzer was visibly nervous as the lessons started, but within 10 minutes, she, like the rest of the newbies, was easily following the moves of the caller and gliding across the floor.
Contra dance has mixed origins, including English country dances and Scottish and French dances popular in the 17th Century. The dance was immensely popular throughout these countries because it was considered a social dance, meaning dancers could attend with a partner or come solo. It’s the perfect mixer: Males line up on one side and females on the other; dance partners, following the instructions of the caller, move up the line, and eventually dance with every other couple.
Live contra bands feature instruments such as the fiddle, mandolin, bass, guitar, and banjo. Songs played are reminiscent of the traditional folk music from Ireland, Scotland and France.
Palouse Folklore Society Dance Coordinator Tim Daulton, said many people attend dances throughout the year. During the school year, September through Mid-May, dances are held once a month at the 1912 Center in Moscow. During the summer, dances are held twice a month at the Blaine Schoolhouse. All ages come, including families with children, high school and college students, adults and seniors.
“Our oldest members are in their 70s,” Daulton said.
Children as young as 4 ½ pick the dance moves up surprisingly quickly, often sooner than an adult new to the dance, said Roberta Radavich, another society member.
“While everyone will be dancing and having fun the first time, it usually takes the first two dances to place all the dance steps into memory,” Radavich said. “From that point on, people just enjoy the dance without having to concentrate on the moves.”
The one-room schoolhouse is all that is left of the city of Blaine, a small community built along one of the original Nez Perce trails which later became a regular stop on the stagecoach route. Blaine thrived for a time, but became a ghost town in 1937 after the old schoolhouse closed. The Blaine Community Association preserves the historic building and offers it as a venue for weddings, dances and other events.
Proceeds from the dances are used to pay the bands, as well as to continue restoration on the building, which is the last standing one-room schoolhouse in Latah County. So far, the society has built a stage in the schoolhouse, replaced its roof, and patched and painted the old building, and it hopes to replace the ceiling in the future, Daulton said. It is a labor of love for the society members.
IF YOU GO:
What: Palouse Folklore Society Contra Dance
When: Saturday, covered dish dinner at 6:30 p.m., dance instruction at 7, dance 7:30
Where: Blaine Schoolhouse, eight miles south of Moscow at the corner of Blaine and Eid Roads
Cost: $8 for nonmembers (includes instruction), new dancers admitted free
Of Note: Other summer dances at the schoolhouse are Aug. 12 and 26.