History of Ottawa Contra

30 Years of Contra Dancing!

The 2019-2020 season marked 30 years of contra dancing in Ottawa!

2014-2015 marked our 25th Anniversary. In September 2014, Catherine Burns and the Old Sod Band were interviewed on CKCU’s Canadian Spaces about the organization AND the band’s 25th anniversary. Listen here!

Ottawa Valley Contra Dance Series

In November 2008, the organizers of the two long-running Ottawa dance series (Old Sod Society 20 years; Ottawa Valley Contra Dance 10 years) met with a group of community members who shared an interest in becoming involved with dance organization. After an open meeting, a committee was formed to organize the dances. With renewed energy and excitement, the merged dance committee has infused some new ideas while keeping all of the great aspects of what had been in place over the years.

The Ottawa Valley Contra Dance Series was the younger of the two series in Ottawa. However, it was not that new having started with its first dance on November 7, 1998.

Instigated because Shindigo (a local band including James Stephens, Greg Brown, Duncan Gillis, Rob Graves, Ken Harper, Ian Clark, Chris Bartos, & Ken Easton) was interested in playing dances, John Argus led the organization of the dances for 10 years until the merger of the two series. Shindigo was the house band during the early years of the series and later John booked a wide variety of callers and bands. Ottawa Valley Contra Dances were always held at the All Saints Anglican Church in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood of Ottawa and, for most of the duration of the series, occurred approximately once a month.

Shindigo playing at the Ottawa Folk Festival

The Old Sod Folk Music Society – Concert Series and Dances

The Old Sod Folk Music Society of Ottawa was founded by Ian Robb and Gord Peeling in the early 1980s as a non profit corporation promoting traditionally-based folk performance in Ottawa. The name “Old Sod” arose as a reference to the type of music promoted by the organization – that of British and Irish origin, quite literally meaning “the old country”. At one time, there were up to 12 members on the Old Sod Society Board of Directors! Catherine Burns was heavily involved in the early years of the Old Sod Folk Music Society and later became the lead organizer of the contra dances.

The Friends of Fiddlers Green

For the first 15 years, the organization presented regular concerts by top touring artists from both sides of the Atlantic, mostly in relatively informal community hall settings. Look below for a list of the artists featured in this series. In March 1999, the Board of Directors announced their decision to cease promoting concerts given declining attendees at concerts. Many regular concert attended lamented the demise of the series but market realities could not be ignored. Examples of the newsletters and concert posters from this time are available below.

In 1998, responding to a perceived interest in more participatory community events, the Old Sod sponsored its first contra dance with local callers and a house band comprised of local musicians – the first contra dances in the Ottawa area. The house band for the dances eventually became the Old Sod Band, and has played monthly dances with house caller Catherine Burns, ever since. The band, usually a 5 or 6 piece, currently draws on a roster of great Ottawa musicians including James Stephens, Ian Robb, Ann Downey, Tim Cutts, Ian Clark, Philip Murphy, Greg T. Brown, and Duncan Gillis. More on the Old Sod Band, visit their website.

The first dances in Ottawa were held at the Champlain Field house, a little hall north of Scott Street – dances were free. Later the dance series moved to the McNab Community Centre and then to the Multicultural centre/Firefighters community hall on Richmond Road before finding its final home at All Saints Anglican Church in Sandy Hill.

In November 2000, The Old Sod produced Ottawa’s first ever dance weekend. Called “Hey Fever”, the weekend was such a success that it became an annual event. After five consecutive years, the committee that organized the weekend decided to organize the occasional special event in lieu of organizing a full dance weekend.