When Byron Wiley moved to Lawrence in 1987, he didn’t know many people. His father grew up in town and his grandparents still lived nearby, and it was important to him to become part of the community.
“I was just starting to develop my interest in folk music, so I went to monthly and weekly musical jam sessions,” he says. “It was nice meeting people, and some of them belonged to the Lawrence Barn Dance Association which featured contra dancing.”
Steve Mason was one of the early founding members of the association, and he really encouraged Byron to give it a try. “I still remember that first dance,” says Byron. “It was around 1991 and I was in my 20s. I thought it was great because it helped me connect with my community and with some very interesting people.”
The people were also very friendly and patient with teaching him the dance moves. “It's special because it brings people together to participate in a multifaceted, fulfilling activity. It's an activity where you don't need to come with a partner and where you can fit right in.”
Today, Byron is the president of the association, which was founded over 40 years ago by a group of friends living in and around Hashinger Hall at the University of Kansas. Contra dance is a form of folk dance derived from 17th century English country dancing where partnered couples arrange themselves in two facing lines, then exchange and return partners according to a called pattern.
Contra dancing is performed to live music, played by bands mostly from the local region, and attracts people of all ages. Beginners can show up a half hour before the start of the dance to learn some basic moves. The dancing starts off easy and then will get more complicated as the evening goes on.
“When you're new, it takes a little bit of time to get the hang of it and you might feel a little self-conscious, but once you learn it and the dancing becomes second nature, that's when the magic occurs,” he says. “You can just let the music absorb into your system and it feels really good.”
Adds Byron, “Dances typically gradually increase in complexity over the course of an evening and become more comfortable for new dancers in a short time. People
can take a break any time to watch the dance or strike up a conversation.”
The dances usually take place on the third Saturday of each month and are held in local school gymnasiums, community centers, and other local venues. In the spring and fall, the organization holds special dances in a real barn, or as they did this past fall, in an art gallery.
“We held it at the Cider Gallery in the arts district on the east side of town,” he says. “We typically also have a larger weekend event which might involve two big evening dances. There are workshops and maybe a concert. We bring in nationally known callers and bands for those.”
Contra dancing, he believes, builds and stabilizes the community through the fostering of new friendships and collaborations, the sharing of knowledge, and by providing a sense of well-being and happiness.
In addition to contra dancing, Byron is also a musician and is interested in horticulture. He and his partner, Theresa, have a farm just north of town. “One of my passions is fruit trees, and I've been growing figs for almost 20 years. The farm is part of their homesteading project, and I'm hoping to get a greenhouse built so I can ramp up production.” They also have some sheep, chickens, ducks, and a guardian dog on the farm.
To take part in contra dancing and make some new friends, go to lawrencebarndance.org.