Just when you think you know S.B. culture up and down, in comes the sidestepping flair summoned by the Santa Barbara Country Dance Society (SBCDS). Dispose of any mental images of barn-style do-si-do that arise. Almost every week, SBCDS puts on English country and contra dancing classes, a far stretch from the flannel-and-boots kind of country dancing that stereotypes the long tradition of English dance.
Replicating the dancing that took place in 17th-century English ballrooms, SBCDS’s English country takes place in the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara nearly every Tuesday evening. The contra dancing, an American derivation of traditional English country dancing, takes place every Sunday night in the Carrillo Ballroom, accompanied by live bands. “What happened over time is English country dancing came over to the United States and the Yankees jazzed it up a bit, and it became what is known as New England contra dancing,” says English country dance leader Alice Williams. English country dancing is viewed as more tame and civilized than its more swingy, bouncy successor, contra dancing; however, longtime dancer Fred Perner assures, “It looks more proper, but once you start having fun with it, it is as wild as contra dancing.”
Both the English country dancing and the contra dances put on by SBCDS in conjunction with the Parks & Recreation Department see regulars get “hooked on the high,” as described by one of the regulars, Miriam Slater, who qualifies: “But it’s a super healthy high that comes from living life very well.”
Dancing comes with a whole slew of mental health benefits, and English country dancing is no exception to this. However different from other dance forms, Slater says, “English country dancing is done socially, not solo. It’s more communal and you have to connect and look at each person you’re meeting, so it becomes this very collective Zen moment where everyone opens their heart and you become very connected.” Some connections on the dance floor can get pretty heated — Alice Williams met her husband, Dave Williams, at an English country dance. “One of the things I dream of doing when I’m retired is going all over the country with my wife and going to dances. We’re going to be dance gypsies,” he says.
Every year, the Santa Barbara Country Dance Society puts on a ball, for which all the dancers costume themselves with the appropriate period garb of ballroom dresses and suits. English country dance leader Gary Shapiro promises, “If you start now, I’ll probably get you ready for the ball in February.”