Contra dancing, a great way to chase those winter blues. Photo by Trish Finn.

When it comes to staying active, engaged, healthy and positive, winter in Pittsburgh presents some challenges. By March–or even February–our New Year’s resolutions wane and our motivation proves, at times, inconsistent. Carbs, Netflix, and our down comforters call to us, especially when the alternative is drinking the same beers in the same bars with the same friends.

Those of us who suffer from the winter blahs have often been instructed how to improve our seasonal well-being: remain socially connected, maintain physical activity, eat right, and continue to be challenged by new experiences. Oh, and get more sunlight.

While I can’t help with that last one, I have discovered an activity that costs little to no money, gets me out of the house, helps me meet new people, and challenges me physically: blues dancing. I found blues dancing the way most people do; coaxed by a friend, I arrived at Peter’s Pub one Tuesday night in July for the weekly lesson and dance hosted by Hot Metal Blues (HMB). I was told I didn’t need a partner, I didn’t need to pay, and I didn’t need to know what I was doing. Win-win-win.

For a small city, Pittsburgh has a relatively bustling social dance scene. A “social dance” is a group or couple’s dance done primarily for recreational (rather than technical) purposes. You can dance every night of the week here, and you can experience everything from square dancing to blues and everything in between. Most of these social dances are free (a few have covers) and many include a lesson beforehand.

So what, exactly, is blues dancing? Zach Frenchek, the president of HMB, describes it as “pulse-driven and grounded…usually done partnered, though solo dance is also common.” Frenchek first encountered Blues Dancing as a result of an OKCupid date. Though the couple didn’t “spark” she asked him to try blues dancing, and he was intrigued. He kept going back.

“It’s easy to pick up, but you can spend years—and I intend to spend years—improving,” Frenchek says, making the dance easily accessible to newcomers and challenging over time for regulars.

“It’s kind of like chess,” adds Jared Clemens, a HMB committee member who is also active in the Swing scene. “It’s easy to learn where the pieces move and how to move your body, but it’s hard to master it and make the dance a special one between you, your partner, and the music.”

Depending on the partners’ levels of comfort and ability, a blues dance can be intimate or not, sensual or playful or technical. Blues music is by nature varied, and the dances themselves attempt to follow the pulse and rhythm of the music. It’s “creative and communicative,” says HMB committee member Adam Handen. He also notes that while every social dance should be spontaneous and rely on both partners’ performance, blues puts more of an emphasis on these aspects than other styles.

“A lot of people describe blues as a healing dance,” Frenchek says. “Finding the community here and the experience of becoming more connected to my own body has been wonderful.”

Blues is just one style in a sea of many. Across the range of dances, the social aspect remains a major draw for those involved. Julia Chambers, a dance co-organizer for monthly CMU contra dances describes contra as “if square dancing and swing dancing had a baby, and it grew up and was awesome.” This “awesome” stylistic love child appeals to Chambers because it still offers the benefits of physical contact and human connection, but without the added (and sometimes intimidating) intimacy of blues. “I love the feeling I get when we are all moving to the music,” says fellow contra organizer and caller Gaye Fifer. “We create our own entertainment.”

Contra dancing.
Contra dancing. Photo by Trish Finn.

It is the communities—and not necessarily the footwork—of these dances that seem to keep people coming back. “I can’t stress enough how much fun it is to go to one of these dances and how generous and kind and happy everyone is,” says Allison Burd, a co-organizer for Steel City Squares, a monthly square dancing group. “It has been so much fun to watch 17 year-old kids dancing with 70 year-olds and punk kids dancing with grandmas. The dances have really brought a lot of people together who would normally not spend time together.“

Indeed, one night at Swing City, a Saturday night event held at the Wightman School in Squirrel Hill, I watch as Nancy Snyder, a 76 year-old dancer, gets spun and dipped by a host of younger partners. Snyder has been dancing for years; now a widower, she enjoys the social aspect of dancing and attends Swing City as often as she can.

Whether you want to pulse with me at blues or stomp, clap and whoop at contra, whether you want to learn ochos at tango or the Charleston at swing, there’s a dance out there to help kick your winter blahs.

Regardless of the style, the sentiment of the organizers is one and the same. As Frenchek says, “I hope someone new finds it a welcoming place.”

Grab a friend or show up solo to one of the many dances in the city. While this list is not comprehensive, it’ll get you tapped into the pulse of Pittsburgh’s social dancing scene. Check the websites for any specific schedule changes.


Ballroom PGH

Thursdays, Lesson 7-8pm; dancing 8-10:30pm at Wightman School Community Building, Squirrel Hill; $10 cover


Hot Metal Blues

Tuesdays, Lesson 8pm; DJ/dancing 9pm-midnight at Peter’s Pub, Oakland 2nd floor, free

James Street Pub

Hosts swing/blues dancing many Friday nights; check website for details

Steel City Blues

An annual blues workshop weekend, coming up in March. Three days of dances and workshops with national and international instructors.


Pittsburgh Contras and Squares

Fridays, Lesson 7:30-8pm; live music/dancing 8-11pm at Swisshelm Park Community Center; $10 adults/$7 students


Salsa Pittsburgh

Mondays, Lesson 9pm; DJ/dancing 10pm-2am at Seviche, Downtown, free

This website lists the Salsa happenings around the city. There are dances every night of the week. 


Tuesdays, Lesson 9pm; dancing follows until 1am at Steel Cactus, Southside, free

Bachata Night

Thursdays, Lesson 9:30-10pm; DJ/dancing 10pm-2am at Perlé, Downtown; free

Salsa Fridays

Fridays, Lesson 10-10:30pm; Dancing 10:30pm-1: 30am at The Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown; $5 cover; 21+


Monthly dances, Door and music 7pm; dancing 8-11pm $10 adult/$5 student; The New Bohemian, BYOB; all ages; Like on Facebook for event details


Tartan Swing

Thursdays, Lesson 7:30-8:30pm; dance 8:30-10:30pm; Locations shift between Pitt and CMU, check website for details; free

James Street Pub

Hosts swing/blues dancing many Friday nights; Check website for details

Swing City

East Coast Swing; Saturdays, Lesson 8-9pm; DJ or Live Band/dancing 9pm-midnight at Wightman School Community Building, Squirrel Hill; $11 cover


Argentine Tango with the Pittsburgh Tangueros

Wednesdays, Lesson 8-9pm; Milonga (tango dance party) 9pm-midnight at Peter’s Pub, Oakland, 2nd floor, free


Sundays, Dancing 8pm-11pm at Wightman School Community Building, Squirrel Hill; $10 on DJ nights


Absolute Ballroom

Hosts West Coast Swing dancing on Tuesdays and Salsa on Sundays, as well as many other dances throughout the week.

CATS Dance (Carnegie Alliance for Traditional and Social Dances)

Holds get-togethers for contra dances, French dance, and other traditional social dances.

Los Sabrosos Dance Co.

A dance company that offers many different styles of dancing, but specifically offers Salsa dancing on Wednesday and Saturday nights

Jessica Server holds an MFA in poetry and a certificate in travel writing from Chatham University. She is currently the nonfiction instructor at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School, and works as a teaching artist and writer around the city. Her first chapbook of poems, Sever the Braid, is currently available from Finishing Line Press.