Folk music brings to mind a variety of names and places mostly from the '70s: Joan Baez, Woodstock, Woody Guthrie, plus many other people and events that by now are cultural icons. But in truth, folk's roots go as far back as the 1400s, and stretch forward into the contemporary culture of contra dance.
It was the love for the latter, that spurred the establising of The Spokane Folklore Society (SFS) in 1977, which now sets the beat for contra culture in Spokane, organizing various activities for dancers looking for a chance to slip on their dancing feet and grab a hand. This New Year's Eve, SFS will hold its annual New Year's Eve Gala Contra Dance at the Women's Club.
Although contra dance is by no means a new movement, Spokane has only had a foot in the action during the last 20 years. Penn Fix, who works at his family business, Dodson's Jewelry, is widely credited with being the father of Spokane's contra dance community.
"Penn moved to Boston and got immersed in contra dancing, which has been popular there on the East Coast for quite a long time," says Sylvia Gobal, a former president of, and current participant in, the SFS. "Then he moved to Spokane and started setting it up here by finding bands and introducing it to the community in the early '80s."
Similar to modern square dancing, the basic New England contra dance involves two lines of people facing each other. A caller walks everyone through each progressive step, so the dance is accessible even to those with no formal experience, and the repetition of moves makes it easy to keep up.
"It's so entry level," says Fix, who creates and choreographs new contra dances. "It's basically just a walking step and the action is with your hands or your entire body, no fancy footwork, so it's easy for anyone. It's a great stepping off point for a lot of people."
Music differentiates the contra from the square dance, as tradition maintains that the contra dance be accompanied by live music, based on New England music traditions which finds its heritage in Celtic and Irish sounds.
"The contra dance community is determined to try and have live bands and real musicians," says Gobal.
The New Year's Eve event will feature the music of the River City Ramblers as well as Sandpoint's Wild Dogs in the Marsh. Callers Julie Dickelman and Ray Polhemus will lead people through a mix of contra line dances, a few square dances and some mixers in the evening. The event, which got started in the mid '80s, continues to be a popular New Year's activity for newcomers to contra dance as well as for the returning faithful folk.
"It's different for everybody," says Gobal. "Some get involved because they like the music and the opportunity to dance and move to live music, since it's different than recorded music. Some come for the exercise, and besides that, it's a great way to meet people, since you switch partners a lot and get a chance to dance with everybody."
Gobal got involved in international folk dancing when she went to school in Bellingham in the '60s. After moving back to Spokane, she got involved with the local contra dance community in the early '80s, at the same time as Fix and other local dancers were working to revitalize the folk dancing community.
According to Fix, folk dance started back in the 1400s in England. It came across the Atlantic in the 1600s with the Pilgrims, and has since been revived periodically first in the 1800s, then in the '20s and the '40s.
"The latest revival started in the '70s," says Fix. "The young musicians were interested in the old time music, so there was a folk revival, and friends who followed them into the dance hall needed something to do -- so that's how the contra started. It began with college kids, kids who're now baby boomers who are still out there dancing. We've just cut our hair and put on shoes. The dancing is much more urban now. It's still easy to dance, and you can't stamp it out. It just keeps coming back."
& & & lt;i & New Year's Eve Gala Contra Dance, Sunday December 31, from 8:30 pm-12:30 am at the Woman's Club Hall, Ninth and Walnut (1428 E. Ninth). Basic dance instruction at 8 pm. Includes snack potluck. Tickets: $8; $6, members. Call: 747-2640. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &