Issue 18.1: February/March 2015
Native Intelligence: O`ahu

Half Hey and Figure Eight

Story by Noel Nicholas. Photos 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 mando-cello. “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 people.”

Story by Noel Nicholas. Photos by Olivier Koning