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memoir: a slightly autobiographical account of contra dancing

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The most common introduction people receive in the world of contra dance is no introduction at all. You arrive at the dance hall, realise, if you are a girl, that your skirt is too short (or too long) and that you forgot to bring another set of shoes. Your carefully chosen boots, which you wore from home, in your car, across the parking lot, are now your street shoes, and so not allowed on the dance floor, according to a sign composed in chunky Word Art letters. You have arrived in the foreign country of contra dance, the honeymoon is over, and you are barefoot. But maybe you are modest and wore tights. Maybe you exalted the antiquated nature of this activity and wore a long checked skirt. Maybe you were born in the wrong century and hope to find others lost in the linear illusion of human history. Maybe you are feeling pretty prepared (aside from the fact that you are shoeless).

Maybe you arrive early and await the dancehall doors to be opened, alone, hoping you don’t smell too much like the salmon you just ate for dinner. You check your breath in your own hand. (Does that even work? All you ever smell is hand.) A woman arrives. She has self-dyed black hair, glasses that make her eyes comically large, and is missing all of her top teeth (later you will find out she has end-stage lupus).  She tells you she is a student at the university. She will tell you she was bored this summer and so decided to go back to school. Even so, she will say multiple times over the course of the next twenty minutes that she already has a four-year degree in microbiology). She is now fifteen thousand dollars in debt, but she isn’t bored anymore. She looks terrified. It could just be her eyes. While you wait for the other dancers, the band, someone, anyone, she gives you a preview of her speech for one of her classes. She tells you she is an award-winning public speaker (no further details). Her speech is about the history of cadavers. Her saucer eyes grow.  You wonder why you insist on being so early. You wonder if this is how they’re all going to be, and then feel bad for thinking that (she has end stage lupus and not many teeth). Incidentally, it’s not all like this.

The other dancers start arriving. You are all strange moths drawn to this dance floor flame. You might as well be fuzzy with six legs for all you know about what you are about to endeavour. Someone with authority unlocks the doors and you all filter in. It’s five dollars at the concession stand. Toothless gives a ten and tells the concessioner to donate the rest to the band and the caller. Toothless has told you (multiple times over the past twenty minutes) that she is broke. You find yourself warming to this toothless award-winning public speaker. Not because she gives good speeches or is particularly endearing, but because she probably doesn’t have five dollars to donate.

Inside the dance hall people mill and talk about how good the berries have been. One young woman—a Patty—describes some rosehip ketchup she made. They talk about the merits of a water bath versus a pressure cooker for canning, and how the jars really only need ten minutes as opposed to the suggested twenty. The musicians arrive: a fiddler and a guitarist. They look like father and daughter.

The caller calls everyone to the floor. She reminds you all that there are two acceptable answers if someone asks you to dance: “Yes, thank you,” or, “No, thank you.” She reminds everyone that contra dancing is flirtatious and social. People couple up, dance, flirt, and leave. You’ve never been so concerned in your life. She tells everyone the first dance is about to begin. And so ensues a polite free-for-all. You are scooped up immediately by an older gentleman in cowboy attire. He asks you how long you have been dancing. You tell him you are, at this point, a liability. He looks nonplussed. The musicians are tuning up. The tonal din is a sound that will come to release butterflies in your gut. It is the calm before the country storm. You remember you are wearing that organic deodorant that doesn’t work. Then, you are moving.

You learn quickly that the older guys are the best dancers. You swing and twirl and do-see-do. You are the barefoot contessa. You realise that contra dancing is the best thing you have ever done. You dance all night. Your saliva is viscous by the time break rolls around. You are so thirsty. You drink your entire Klean Kanteen and realise that you are going to slosh.

Waterlogged, you return to the dance floor. Your partners are stacking up. Someone asks you to be his partner. Then, another, and you have to slot him in for the next dance. You get up to the Next Next Dance before you go stand in a corner and try to look dour. But this is futile. You can’t stop smiling. You have the beginnings of a blister. You’re not the dizzy type. It helps if you look into your partner’s eyes, a fixed point in the centripetal vortex you are creating with the other’s weight. You are each other’s gravity toys.

You start embellishing your dances. You kick and stomp and twirl. Your partners think you are more experienced than you are, and so you become as good as they need you to be. You are barefoot. You are bright. People keep asking you if you are a student at the university and you keep telling them no. This excites and disturbs them. Most people don’t know what to do with an unyoked youth. And a barefoot whirling one, at that.

You have learned to flirt with everyone: the men, the ladies, the caller, the band, the floor, the group of curious college kids at the door who are too cool to contra.

Sometimes everyone in the whole room stomps at the same time. Sometimes your right-hand star twinkles. Sometimes everyone is dancing together, stepping, flirting. You realise why humans dance. You realise that this kind of movement is a spell, an incantation of feet. You and your partner are pieces of flint. Your sparks mingle with all the other conductor couples. This is an inclusive group. There is a girl with a t-shirt with a gothic cross. Blood red letters say something about “dying for your sins”. Another girl is wearing an inverted pentacle. You count two septum piercings. You aren’t wearing makeup, and you are not the only one to forego this practice. You dance once with another newcomer. He is a tall, heavy young man in a red dress shirt that darkens as the evening progresses. The sweat stain on his back is the shape of Canada. He is exuberant. All his steps are jumps. He cannot seem to clap or stomp with everyone else. He is either a harbinger or an echo. He steps on a lot of feet and says sorry so many times during the first few dances that the caller has to remind everyone that there are no “sorry”s here. He talks to you between dances as if you are conspirators. You are, in that you are both new. You are both pioneers of your own movement. He says they told him to stop jumping. You don’t know who they are but you silently thank them.

You discover that you are as bad at waltzing as you are good at contra dancing. You are an inverse proportion of dance. You are y=k/x. Waltzing isn’t as fun, so you don’t mind. You and a young man share the last waltz. He is no better than you are. You end up standing together, hands on hips and shoulders and clasped, in the middle of the circle. The other couples are your undulatory border. You think it would make a great bird’s eye shot, if this were a movie. This feels like a movie. It has its own soundtrack. So, you two faux-waltz and talk. Your faces are not a foot away. These are the inherent perks of dancing. You pity the wallflower, who would be so, not because she did not want to dance, but because she chose not to. There are plenty of flints here to flick against. Excuses are as scarce as judgments (except yours, oh barefoot contessa). The too-cool group has been assimilated into the contra dance. They are spread among the lines. They are all smiley and surprised. They are all being worked upon by the warmth. Most people don’t know they are moths.

You have learned a few things at this point: there are no sorrys, if someone reaches his or her hand out you should take it, both partners must support each other for a swing to be swung. You cannot do this alone.

The dance ends. All dances do. You want to refuse to believe it, but you have a blister on the bottom of your foot the size of a quarter and you would drink from a puddle if you had to. You have to get home. Your faux-waltz partner asks if you would like to chat for a bit. You can’t. It’s late. Your car is a pumpkin. He walks you to said car. Out in the brisk night, you realise the dance floor was terrarium-warm. The stars are out. That must have been where the flint sparks landed. The last of the light is draining from the indigo ink. Your escort leaves you. You are alone again, but not alone like you were outside the dancehall three hours prior. You are sweaty and your deodorant is definitely not working. Your salmon breath has passed. You are no longer new. You have danced, and now you know.

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9 thoughts on “memoir: a slightly autobiographical account of contra dancing

  1. Awesome article. You expressed the emotions one feels for the first time they experience this. When I go to one, I never leave the floor. I’ts so cool.

  2. I’m a contradancer (and English dancer, etc, etc) who read this article because the link is getting passed around among dancers on Facebook.

    This is a beautiful piece, and brilliantly expresses what brings me back to country dancing again and again.

  3. I am a contra dancer of many years. This is such a wonderful piece of writing that captures the feelings of dancing not just the first time but every time. It is why I keep coming back again and again. Thank you so much for putting into words what many of us feel.

  4. Thanks! Have fun! If the contra carriage turns into a pumpkin over time like so many carriages do, if some handsome princes turn out to be cads, some handsome princesses turn out to be cadettes (sorry, I could’t resist the word play), look back at these words and remember the magic of when it was all new, and you found your way through an unknown land. Keep an open mind like you had then, and above all, have fun.

  5. I agree with Alan, you have expressed well the joy contra brings. I love the unknowing moth metaphor. I have said often contra group dancing is very “brainstemy” and thus the reason for one of its appeals, but I like better your “an incantation of feet” and the dancers as pieces of flint sparking.

  6. Delightful insightful writings. Who would know that she came form the town hall with the slanted floor and the name of a special step?!

  7. Thanks for the great writing Kaiyuh. You bring out the joy of contra. Though you may be new to contra, your dancing shows you are obviously not new to dancing. I wish you many more dances filled with joy!
    And don’t forget to cheer for the caller and the band.

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