A Pair of High Performance Ponies - a fable...
How the Grinch, erm, RahCoon(s) Stole Mah Birds

Welcome to the Contra Dance


I've been busy. I have at least three posts crammed into my head trying to fight their way out and Contra wins hands down. As a matter of fact there's a half written post in draft but to date I have never been able to complete a post once it's been sent to draft. I find that my perspective broadens enough on the subject to warrent a do-over or I no longer care to discuss it.

Contra Dance: "refers to several partnered folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines." If you follow the link you can read the history which I found rather compelling; but then I would.

In any event, that was the most concise definition I could come up with and I had to resort to the wiki. Most sites start out with three or four definitions the first being....(make of it what you will) and the next few telling you what it is NOT. It is not square dancing. That seems to be an important distinction. What it is, is community dancing. That's the part the wiki fails to convey. You may or may not show up with a partner but the truth is you're probably not going to partner with that partner directly more than once or twice in an evening (unless you're committing the sin of what probably amounts to at least partially shutting out the community) and the other truth is by the end of the evening (unless you're one of those rarities who spend a good deal of time sitting it out or just plain running for the hills) you'll have danced with everyone in the room at least once. That's what happens when you've got two lines facing each other, there are parts for joined women and men, you will ALWAYS pass back and forth to dance between your partner with your current neighbor and once a formation has been completed you move down the line to the next set of neighbors until you've completed at least one circuit of the room.

There. New England Contra defined by a rather smitten novice.

Now. The getting there part.

I do love to dance but I suck at it (suck being subjective; maybe dislike it intensely for the most part is more accurate) if it's not structured. And if it's structured I have one hell of a time learning. There's a terrible disconnect between my brain and my body and until the muscle memory is there, the body kicks in, the brain shuts off I'm going to trip over my feet, get turned around constantly and often find myself wondering what in God's name just happened and how many people have I just pissed off? Also, when it comes to any sort of dancing involving a male partner I'm a real handful to lead because I simply do not follow well. This isn't a feminist thing, it's not a headstrong thing (I used to think it might be a headstrong thing), it's a failure to pick up physical cues sort of thing. I need to hear it, see it and do it, over and over and over again without that mind numbing fear of causing great chaos, frustration in others and finally just terrible upset. The end result being shame. There's a terrible honesty in all that.

But when I get it, when I finally, finally get it, even if it's just basic parts of a larger whole this qualifies as just about the best thing ever. It's right up there with riding a horse at a gallop on a just walked cross country course.

Next. I'm painfully shy in most social situations. Hell, let's face it; I'm hard pressed to come up with any social situation I don't find heinously painful unless I know each and every person present intimately (not THAT sort of intimate; that would fall into the category of 'too many men in the room' and be just as bad if not worse) and even then I'm just as likely to be somewhat uncomfortable for the first ten or twenty minutes on general principle. A room full of complete strangers? By myself? Forget about it. Not happening. At least not without a damn good reason. I'm thinking really hard right now. REALLY hard. Have I ever done this sort of thing before? School does not count. Nope, sorry, it does not. I do remember Pataskala leading me to the door of some sort of church like school (bible study?) when I was four or five and I hid in the bushes until it was over. OK, once I went to a church revival that ought to have been under or in a tent on the Outer Banks because it was so darn hot but I guess because it was out on the sand flats sound side on a camp ground and I could just sit there unnoticed (I was eight) within full view of our campsite and not speak to anyone maybe that only sort of counts. But that's it, OK? Even in business situations if I didn't have a buddy with me I skipped the cocktail parties.

Back up eight days. No, back up even more. Back up to the Clearwater Festival where Florkow and I happened to witness, among other various and assorted interesting things a Contra demo under a tent on a wooden dance floor where anybody at all could grab a partner and jump right in. Right, I thought, I don't THINK so. I think I'll just stand here in this partial shade and watch. But oh I wanted to do that SO FREAKING BAD!!!! It wasn't that I hadn't heard about it. It wasn't that I didn't recognize what I was seeing or even parts of it and it wasn't as if I didn't instantly see the roots of a good part of the dancing. I did. It was instantly recognizable. Most of those formations go way the hell back, hundreds of years and they cross continents and whole civilizations and it all comes down to community dancing.

And oh, my haven't we lost nearly all of that? We've even lost partner dancing for the most part. Swing made a brief comeback just before the turn of the century (THIS century) and it's still out there to some degree and there's ballroom dancing here and there but those are lessons reserved for the occassional chance you'll have to show off your new found skills (unless you can find someplace to use and or hone them on a regular basis) and in the seventies there was the Hustle which is or was essentially Swing. And line dancing? Look at your neighbor? Make any sort of contact, physical, eye contact even? Please. Just don't fuck it up for anybody, OK? But you know by and large at least in this part of the country it just isn't there and not only that the very idea of even doing it is so foreign as to be offensive.

Frightening, maybe? That we might actually touch a stranger, might look each other in the eye? That's very necessary, by the way with all that spinning we do. If you don't make eye contact you're probably going to throw up at some point. I'm just sayin'. But I'll get to that.


To step willingly through the barrier of personal space into the arms of a stranger while MAKING AND MAINTAINING EYE CONTACT is just, well, it's just too damn much, now isn't it? 

Or not. 

To be, perhaps, part of the human race in a way we've long since forgotten.

See, here's the thing about Contra Dance in New England. It is alive and well and being kept that way by a group of really, seriously dedicated dancers who are willing to go to great lengths to introduce new dancers in a way that will have them come back; in other words, they're building community. There are two things they do equally well; it doesn't matter if you have no idea what you're doing and make all sorts of mistakes, we'll teach you (plus there's always a free half hour lesson before the dance starts) and also, coming in here without a partner is perfectly fine. Feel free. We'll make you right at home. Contra etiquette states quite clearly that both men and women may ask each other to dance and unless you either have a partner for that dance already or are sitting it out you may not decline a request to dance.

Can you see where I'm going here? Can you see what I've set myself up for? The only way I was ever going to survive this was to dive headfirst into the game and not look back; not even for a single second. A hesitation could be emotionally deadly. See, this is where my cajones kick in. Thank the gods for the small and great miracles of genetics and example. I blame Pataskala for all of this, by the way. The fear and dislike of the unknown (or even known) crowds, the spine and sack to walk through it and into it headfirst anyway and the ability to get out of herself and experience joy at a level that transcends the temporal world in a way I find truly inexplicable.

I'm getting ahead of myself.

Now back up eight days. I had a date with Little Girl. For some reason she agreed to go with me. First she did her research. She googled Contra the same way I did and looked at all the videos on youtube. She thought long and hard about her desire to dance versus her mild discomfort (as compared to mine or that of Miss Cletus who wouldn't be dragged to a Contra Dance if her hair was on fire) and after asking me if she was meant to act as wingman (REALLY?! I mean REALLY?) because I thought it might be a viable place to find a date agreed to go. When she realized we weren't going to be partnered because we were both too new she gulped once or twice, sucked it up, straightened her spine and in we marched...

...to the studio of her first dance school. Seriously, can you believe the luck? This helped both of us more than I would have thought. Not that there was a single person present even remotely related to the dance school but still, a known space is a known space. She was the only child present and despite the fact that children are welcome to dance and welcome at the Dance if a parent is keeping them in hand I could see they were a little concerned but all things considered she was welcomed into the lesson as an adult. And by the way, she blew their collective socks off. She also forgot about me entirely by the third dance with the exception of when we were neighbors and passed in lady's chains and other such things at which point she made proper eye and hand contact and I got the same ecstatic grin she gave everybody else and she got it right back.

I suppose I could write pages, maybe an entire book on the sociological implications of the demographics to be found on a New England Contra dance floor, especially in Fairfield County. In the beginning it was largely what I would have expected, relatively conservative in a laid back sort of way but more or less homogeneous. Later in the evening that changed slowly as people drifted in with one or two startling additions. There was a man who appeared out of nowhere. He was large, not fat, large, solid, moving slowly across the floor between dances to select a partner. He moved as if more acustomed to swimming and so walked on land as if dancing was the last thing you'd expect of him. I didn't get to really see him dance, not even passing as neighbors because we were still in two lines (although as it turns out Little Girl partnered with him at least twice) until I sat one out to catch my breath (I think I only did that twice despite the fact that I kept telling myself I really ought to but was afraid that if I did I'd never get up again) and he blew me away. He moved with a grace that while different from the others slid in effortlessly and added an anchor to each circle he moved through that swung the circle somehow tighter and then back out again. There was another man who came in late, grabbed me up off my feet and led so well it made no difference that I was nearly too tired at that point to even process the caller's words. He told me when I begged forgiveness ahead of time for my quickly creeping confusion that he would get me where I needed to be no matter what. I found out later in the parking lot that he is a mathematician building a super computer. Take the need for words away and when he dances, when you get to the spin, his eye contact is so intense as to eliminate whatever barrier you might still have in the way and all you have left is the dance, and to fly.

Little Girl passed out promptly at midnight when we got home. It took me until 2 AM to finally settle down and sleep. On Sunday morning I felt like I'd been hit with a hammer. Apparently I dance with my entire body; I'm just not capable of 'walking' through the dance. When I spin I whirl as fast as my partner will spin me and my head is flung back as far as it will go while maintaining direct eye contact.

On Sunday there were things that absolutely had to be done. For example, the chicken coop absolutely had to be finished because the new batch of chicks were scheduled to arrive on Monday. It was HOT on Sunday. Not relevant. My ass got out there. In the hammering and nailing and final fitting I realized that something profound had occurred. A good chunk of this prevailing loneliness I've been experiencing for so long was suddenly just gone. Not gone like gone forever but just not there on Sunday morning.

Zero emotional ache.

If you look into the abyss, the abyss will look right back into you.

Turn that inside out. I dare you.

We are so often, so willing to turn to the abyss and stare it right down and so often, so stubbornly willing to flat out refuse to look another human being in the eye that all we're left with is the loneliness of the abyss. And we wonder why so many of us are depressed, unmotivated, unhappy, unable to get up and move forward into anything but the bare minimum of what is expected of us.

This is so hard for me, this choosing differently.

I had to force myself into the car yesterday evening and I suspect that if Cletus hadn't booted my ass out the door I might not have made it; as it was I was late. I cried the first fifteen minutes in the car (I do that when I'm really scared and nobody can see me. Don't judge. It's a viable release) on the way to Branford which is an hour drive to an unknown group of people All. By. Myself. Where Little Girl and I went last week only dances the second Saturday of each month and nobody dances in August apparently (too damn hot). So my last chance was Branford which dances first and third Saturdays of each month. There's an experienced dance last Saturday of this month and while they might not turn me away out of pure politeness it wouldn't be a very nice thing to do either.

I was scared. I went anyway. It was different; out of Fairfield County, more diverse, a different flavor but part of the same community. I learned to Waltz. They do that to cool down at the break and at the end of the night. I danced with the very large and slow moving man who asked after my diminutive partner. I learned to Waltz because a very patient man who dances and teaches very well was willing to spend the time walking and talking me through it. I also learned (OK, stumbled through) some sort of Polka that starts with an S. I had an experienced male partner (there were more women then men this time and I don't do well dancing with women leading because I'm not good enough yet to keep it all straight in my mind in the circle) every single time because as soon as a dance was over I ran, yes, I did, I ran to the nearest experienced partner I had in mind and asked unless I already saw one coming at me.

I'm very tired today. I feel like I've been run over by a truck. I don't much care. I need to remember to drink more water. I need to try to go to sleep before 2 AM. I suppose that will come.

Oh, and also? I felt safe. Very, very safe. There is a communal undercurrent that occurs somehow. I don't know how to explain but maybe up there in those nearly 3,000 words I just did.

And there's this other thing. My face hurts. It bloody aches. It's from smiling with my entire body for three straight hours. It's from forgetting myself entirely.