It’s exhausting to have so many partners in one night.
But I couldn’t resist my new teacher friend’s invitation to a contra dance. She told me it was a little bit square- and a little bit line-dancing, and that the group usually has a lesson before the real action begins. Turns out it was jam night, too, so the stage was packed with a dozen musicians and their fiddles, banjos, accordions, and whistles.
There wasn’t much of a crowd when we arrived, but there was an open box of white stickers, those labels on paper with perforated edges for the broken teeth of ancient printers.
I knew not to expect too much from myself on the first night. I told myself it was ok to be clumsy. I didn’t get a Ph.D. in folk dance. Hazel and David, my mom's parents, were serious square dancers in their day, though, so I do have a genetic predisposition for this kind of thing.
I found an inclusivity to contra dancing that I hadn’t really experienced since my days in Moldova, when everyone who could stand or stumble on two feet got roped into the widening gyres of the hora in the blocked-off streets of a festival or in the stuffy banquet hall of a wedding party. Contra steps aren’t terribly complicated, though once the caller stopped talking us through it and the music took over, I had a tendency to grab the wrong partner and mistake left for right. I was wearing a cute dress, though, so I was banking on that for a little help.
There’s an anxiety for me in the steps of a dance because they’re unfamiliar. “I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form”—I've been thinking about that Theodore Roethke line. Dance is like counting out the rhythm of a song before you can just play it without thinking so hard. But there’s a relief in a dance form. One, it’s beautiful and orderly in a way that a free-for-all booty-shake mosh pit isn’t. Moving through the Virginia Reel or Sarah’s Journey both sounds and feels like dancing a quilt pattern. The designs can be basic, but the repetitions and variations are pleasing, interesting in a restful way.
Contra dance is also a smart social invention. I met everyone in that room in less than an hour. I locked eyes with them or right hand starred with them or let them spin me in a courtesy turn (nice term) back to my rightful place.
And though the dances are strung together from a fairly small vocabulary of steps, each person has their own style. I guess it was clear enough I was new, so some men took the lead, spinning me and even throwing in extra turns so I could feel fancy, without any extra smarts on my part, while I figured things out. Some of the dancers offered helpful hints: look your partner in the eyes so you don’t get dizzy while swinging. “Always place your right hand behind your back on a courtesy turn,” one guy explained. Why? “So I don’t grab your butt by mistake.” I hadn’t thought of this, but of course I noticed that once I started folding my arm, several partners reached for my hand. It was not unlike the moment I read that you’re supposed to take the communion chalice with both hands and drink for it, not wait for the lay Eucharistic minister to pour the wine daintily into your mouth.
Weezil was my first partner, and he always threw in an extra spin before the swing. “Only I do that,” he said. It was a cool move, and like a good teacher, he made me feel competent even with my minimal skill. When we crossed paths in other dances, he might say “I see you’re back.”