Juneteenth contra dance to highlight African American influences

Event is this Saturday in downtown Carbondale

Southern Illinois Community Contra Dance (SICCD) will host Illinois' first Juneteenth contra dance event, highlighting the contributions of African Americans to this traditional dance form.

Clover Johnson, one of the few Black organizers in the contra dance community, is spearheading the June 15 Juneteenth Southern Illinois Community Contra Dance at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), located at 306 W. Monroe St. The event starts at 5:30 p.m.

For those interested in a preview, Johnson invites everyone to the Contra dance segment of the Juneteenth Picnic at the Black Chamber of Commerce on June 14 at 6 p.m., or at the Rainbow Café on June 15 at 3 p.m. during Pride Weekend celebrations.

A former social worker and current doctoral student, Johnson began researching the Black roots in early American music over 15 years ago.

“There was something in the music and the dance that resonated in my soul. It felt familiar, like I was reconnecting with a part of myself I had long forgotten,” Johnson said at a recent contra dance.

Contra dance is an American adaptation of courtly dances from the United Kingdom, with significant contributions from African and Black Americans. Johnson expanded on this history during Black History Month and leveraged the release of Beyoncé’s recent country album to emphasize the longstanding Black presence in country music.

“Let’s stop pretending that Beyoncé and Lil Nas are singing outside of their culture. Black Americans were right there at the inception of country music and have consistently contributed to the genre,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s claims are supported by author Phil Jamison, who has written extensively on the contributions of Black Americans to early American dances. Rhiannon Giddens, a former contra dance caller and banjo player featured on Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ‘Em,” also speaks to the role of Blacks in this tradition. Giddens, a biracial Black woman, has described being Black in a contra dance as being “like a raisin in the oatmeal.”

Despite rarely dancing now, Johnson hosts and organizes inclusive contra dance events, intentionally welcoming people from communities often marginalized in social dancing. She draws on her missionary Baptist roots to reach out and invite these communities.

The Juneteenth event will feature callers John and Kathy Coffman, along with "Contra Joe," who have been instrumental in reviving contra dance in southern Illinois. These callers, who offer insgtruction to dancers, offer their talents at monthly dances and community events, such as the "Wear Orange" campaign.

“Contra dance is wildly fun, and I want everyone to have access to this kind of joy and spirit,” Johnson said when asked why she invests so much energy into a dance where most participants do not look like her.

The Juneteenth event will include live music by Tom Yeiser, who will play tunes from African American composers. Additionally, there will be a presentation on the history and lineage of contra dance, honoring the contributions of Black Americans to this and other musical genres.

For more information on contra dance and the history of Black Americans in this tradition, visit the SICCD Facebook page.