According to an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. student Hannah Johlas is an expert contra dance caller who introduced newcomers to the dance form during a recent Downtown Amherst Contra Dance, an event which, after a decade, continues to attract new dancers every week. According to the Gazette story, the sound of lively fiddle music filled the Pacific Lodge Masonic Hall in Amherst on January 15 as Johlas directed the action through a microphone, telling the scores of contra dancers to switch partners as they moved to the rhythm of the music.
This community oriented dance takes place on most Wednesday evenings in downtown Amherst, with beginner lessons at the start of each evening.
As noted in the Gazette, contra dancing is a traditional New England folk dance, which harks back to the 1700s with roots in English/Scottish country dance, as well as French dance styles. Contra remains popular across the country, but the epicenter of this folk-dancing tradition is western Massachusetts — particularly in Greenfield, where Guiding Star Grange dances have been going on for decades.
Johlas said she started contra dancing as an undergraduate student in Minnesota but was able to dance more frequently after moving to the Pioneer Valley to attend graduate school at UMass Amherst.
As Johlas told the Gazette, the learning curve to become a contra caller “was a little bit steep at first, but I was lucky to take a workshop with more experienced callers, so they kind of showed me the ropes in a faster way.”
Johlas said she now calls contra dances across Massachusetts and surrounding states, including in her home dance communities of Amherst and Greenfield. She is also a board member of the Friends of Greenfield Dance, a volunteer organization dedicated to promoting folk dance in the Greenfield area.
Johlas is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the fourth year of her doctoral studies and is advised by Professors David Schmidt and Matthew Lackner of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department. Her research focuses on computational fluid dynamics simulations of offshore wind turbines.
Johlas credited calling dances with helping improve her public speaking and leadership skills, which have transferred to her academic life. She also said that “Contra dancing helps balance my life as a graduate student: It’s wholesome social time, good exercise, and a live folk concert all rolled together.”
Johlas added that, even more importantly, contra gives her a “strong cross-generational community outside the university” that connects her to the surrounding area. (March 2020)