May I Have this Contra Dance?

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Contra dance in Worcester MA

In a time not so long ago, there were group folk dances that people went to, where you could go to have a great time dancing in synchrony with friends, family and strangers.  Dancing nowadays mostly consists of going to loud and dark clubs and “doing your own thing.”  While individual dancing is can be fun, the structure of a group dance puts you into a part of a whole, something that we’ve lost along the way.

Recently, I was invited, or rather roped in, to attend a contra dance in New England. What is a contra dance, you ask?  Contra dancing is similar to square dancing, where you typically dance with a partner in groups of four, and there is a caller to call moves.  But in contra dancing, you and your partner move down a line and dance with new partners for each group of dance moves.  You end up dancing with every one else in the set.  A live band consisting of a fiddle, guitar, piano and percussion typically accompanies a contra dance.

When I arrived at the dance, I was pretty skeptical, especially coming with no partner.  But the half hour of instruction before the dance quickly put me at ease.  The very first thing they asked us to do was to hold hands in a circle.  Once I got over the “Agh! I have to touch other people?” mentality, I was fine.  These days, touching strangers is totally unacceptable and foreign.  But humans are social creatures and touching is a natural part of social interaction.  During the instruction, we learned the basics of circling, stars, do-si-dos, allemanders and most importantly, swinging.  No move required any huge amounts of coordination or balance.

When I think of swinging, I think of the children’s book, Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton.  With children, swinging is usually done with the elbows.  Adults swing in a dance hold, going in a circle around each other, as fast as each of you feel comfortable.  And that can be pretty fast.  I learned to lean back into the swing, which allows centrifugal force to take over and the speed to build up.

Once the dance started, my friend graciously partnered with me for most of the dances while his wife partnered with other people, which was perfectly normal.  The first dance went pretty smoothly.  When I forgot a move, my partner or neighbor easily showed me the way.  These contra dancers are a friendly, non-judgmental bunch.  By the end of the first dance, I had already worked up a sweat.  Did I mention that it was great exercise?

Several dances in, I felt quite comfortable.  Swinging with strangers was fine.  The veteran dancers assess you pretty quickly and only push the swinging as far as you are comfortable.  I had worked up such a sweat that I started looking forward to swinging, where my hair could fly off my neck and cool me off.  Several times, I had the sensation of being one with the music and my partner, and the room just flew around us. 

Before the breaks, there were waltzes.  Since I’ve taken ballroom dancing in the past, I felt comfortable enough to dance the waltzes with strangers.  I hadn’t done ballroom dancing in over ten years, but contra waltzing is simpler and quite natural.  My first partner was actually a waltz instructor and once he assessed that I could actually dance, he whisked me all around the room.  Once again the room magically transformed into a blur around us.  It was wonderful.

At the end of the dance, I was almost reluctant to admit how much I enjoyed it.  Afterward, I tried to convince my family how much fun it was, but they just rolled their eyes at me and were not convinced.  They will be going with me someday!

So if you’re ever invited to a contra dance, don’t be shy, join in on the fun.

Contributing editor Angela blogs about her non-contra dancing family at mommy bytes.


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