Story By: Noel Nicholas
Photo By: Olivier Koning
Robert Bley-Vroman calls it as he wants to see it.
For nearly three decades Bley-Vroman, his wife Sasha and a small number of
founding members have been running Contradancers of Hawai‘i, which offers
lessons in one of America’s oldest folk dances. Couples face each other in long
lines and weave, spin and twirl in patterns determined by “callers” like
Bley-Vroman, who dictates the next move from a collection of treasured index
cards yellowed from years of use.
“I like to think I’m dancing the same dances that
George Washington danced,” Bley-Vroman muses. The word contradance originates
from the French contredanse, meaning “country dance”; the dance itself is a
fusion of English and French styles brought to New England in the early
eighteenth century. It was Bley-Vroman’s wife who introduced him to the dance
in the early 1970s, converting him from square dancing. “Back then,” he says, “contradancing
was an interesting combination of youth and counterculture along with older men
and women who had been dancing for decades—all in the same New Hampshire hall
that had held contradances for two hundred years.”
Since its inception in 1987 the group on O‘ahu has
grown to include more than two hundred members. Twice a month it stages free
gatherings in a small white chapel at the base of Diamond Head crater, ﬁlled
with the pounding of feet, shouts of happiness and lively Celtic-style music.
The six-person band adds immense energy to the room with arrangements played
on, among other things, a ﬂute, ﬁddle and antique mandocello. “It’s live
music. It’s easy, yet vigorous. And you meet great people,” says Bley-Vroman.
About forty people of all ages and backgrounds show up at each dance. Some come
in evening gowns, some in gym clothes and sweatbands. Some glide with the gait
of a ballroom dancer, some skip like children, but everyone is smiling—and
sweating. Board member Darrow Hand says the vigor of the dance is a big part of
its appeal. “It’s very aerobic, but it’s not a form of exercise you’re actually
thinking about,” he notes. “You’re just having fun and interacting with other