The Bay Area Country Dance Society Website

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Regularly-Scheduled Contra Dance Series

BACDS operates regularly-scheduled contra dance series on Thursday evenings in Berkeley and Saturday evenings in Palo Alto. San Francisco Bay Area, one of our regular contra dances is close to you.

Berkeley Thursdays / Palo Alto

Berkeley Contra Dance (1st/3rd/5th Thursdays)

This dance began its life at John Muir School in Berkeley during the summer of 1983, organized by Eric Black after the “Amazingly Good Fun” dance series originated by Kirston Koths moved from Thursday nights to Fridays. The caller at the first summer dances was current San Diego area dance leader Harry Brauser. Numerous programmers, including Harry Brauser, long-time caller and BACDS Board member Eric Black, and current Ashland, Oregon caller Ruth Lowengart, have contributed to high-caliber mid-week contra dancing in Berkeley throughout the years.

The dance has moved from venue to venue, including a stint at the UC Berkeley Gymnasium, and there are rumors that dancers enjoyed a clandestine skinny dip at the pool next door during the mid-dance break. We have no official comment on those rumors.

Since his Bay Area arrival in 1994, highly-regarded caller and dance author Erik Hoffman has been the programmer for this odd-Wednesday-evening series. In late 2018 Audrey Knuth came aboard as co-programmer but retired from the position when she left the area. Music is provided on most evenings by an open band led by groups whose genres range from old-time to New England to electric. Open caller evenings on most fifth Thursdays complete this dance's reputation as an incubator for up-and-coming musical and calling talent. In September 2022 this series movied from Wednesdays to Thursdays because of hall availability.

Palo Alto Contra Dance (2nd, 4th and 5th Saturdays)

The Palo Alto contra dance, originally the Stanford contra dance, is the oldest continuous contra series in the Bay Area, perhaps in California. It was started in 1975 by Nick Harris, then a 1st year grad student, recreating the contra dances from western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, and New Hampshire he enjoyed as an undergrad. The house band eventually started calling themselves Blackberry Blossom and included Derek Booth on piano, accordion and concertina, Liz Dreisbach on flute and pennywhistle, Stan Kramer on fiddle and bass, Warren Nokleberg on banjo, Ben Dawson on fiddle and Ginnie Mickelson on piano. Nick called and played hammer dulcimer.

The series built up over 4 years from an initial 20 to 30 dancers to around 150 to 200, with lots of good dancing and great energy. Brad Foster took over when Nick left for a job in Oklahoma. Brad organized the dance for several years, and included himself on the schedule as caller or musician (sometimes both), as well as a constant parade of local musicians and callers. Many nationally known bands and musicians initially got their chops at this dance.

When Brad left the area in 1982 to become the CDSS Program Director, Susan Murphy took on the series and ran it until she decided to become a veterinarian in 1983 and work with a different sort of dancing animals. (Susan also helped run the BACDS American Dance and Music Camp at Mendocino for several years, through 1990).

Eric Black became the programmer and chief caller for the Palo Alto contra dance in 1983, shepherding its moves to various locations including the Mountain View Masonic Temple and Cubberly Pavilion in Palo Alto, before setting into the Peninsula YWCA for 17 years. In 2004 the dance moved to its current home at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Palo Alto, with Diane Zingale managing the dance.

In late 2009 the weight was lifted from Eric & Diane's shoulders with the formation of a Programming Committee, with Alan Winston as booking coordinator for the dance, and a Manager Committee, with Joyce Fortune as Chief Cat Herder, a role she served brilliantly for over a decade.

The programming is selected to make contras fun for newcomers and old-timers alike (with a handful of squares to keep things interesting), danced to music drawn from traditions ranging from Celtic, New England and Quebecois to Southern, bluegrass and old time.

The dance features a wide variety of callers and musicians, both local Bay Area and visiting from other parts of the country.

In post-Pandemic 2023 Palo Alto Contra resumed a regular schedule of fourth and fifth Saturdays and occasional off-cycle dances. In January 2024 the series regains the 2nd Saturday slot, and the Palo Alto Contra Dance is back on its decades-long schedule of 2nd, 4th, and 5th Saturdays near the Stanford campus.

Special thanks to Kirston Koths, Charlie Fenton, Erik Hoffman, Craig Johnson and Nick Harris for providing the historical information above.

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