I was trepidatious. Not so much alarmed, just worried. I had already spent a perfectly sunny and wonderful Saturday
helping my sister and her husband move into their new house, so I was less than enthusastic about not only attending a scary and exotic form of folk dance
, but dragging along an innocent young girl as well. As we sat in the parking lot to the VFW Hall
, I looked my date in the eyes and popped the question: "Don't you just wanna see a movie or something?
But this had been my suggestion in the first place, and her curiosity was substantially more piqued than mine. So we went in and caught the tail end of the beginner's session. I learned what would become the most important lesson of the evening: when swinging a partner, plant your right foot and skate (I would later learn to use my arm to brace said partner: the first time wasn't too disasterous). We were then segregated into long vertical lines about three feet from each other -- men on one side, women on the other. My date returned my look of fear. We really did have no idea concerning what was about to happen, but our anxiety would soon prove foolish. The dance was about to begin.
Contra dancing, handily put, is a fast paced form of dancing with live musical accompaniment that puts you in the arms of another partner roughly every thirty seconds, and it first became popular in England and France in the 1700's. Also called a "country dance" or a "barn dance", the contra dance has been described as "an amusement park ride we make for ourselves." The word contra dance is evolved from the French contredans, which translates as "opposites dance". It is unclear in history whether the term evolved from France or England, as both countries blame each other for stealing their form of entertainment and corrupting their language. Regardless, it migrated its way to America by the 1800's, where, in the usual American fashion, we claimed it as our own and made it into a folk dance to be enjoyed by people from all walks of life.
Dances usually take place in long halls, the longer the better. Two lines are formed, one of men and the other of women, and these two lines face each other. A bit of terminology: "up the hall" means towards the band, "down the hall" means away from the band. Every dance differs, but most dances start by forming groups of four, two couples each, by each participant extending their arms at right angles and taking hands with the people around them. The couple furthest up the hall in each of these groups is called "ones" and the couple furthest down the hall in each of these groups is called "twos". The "ones" will very often switch place, and then the dance is then walked through by the caller, and then the fun starts.
All left feet? Cha-cha like a champ? It gets defenestrated in your first contra dance. Most of the footwork is basically walking, and the most important thing, above all, seems to be eye contact. Once you have the terminology down, it becomes possible to simply listen for the caller and know exactly what you're supposed to do with either your partner (the person whom you have asked or who has asked you to dance) or your neighbor (the person, usually of the opposite sex, to your left in each group of four when the dance starts).
Once you're in the dance, you will execute a series of figures as dictated by the caller. Here's a short list, by no means comprehensive, as some callers might get inventive and no source I could find was entirely complete:
Often, this is the most fun you'll have during a contra. It is executed by grabbing your partner in ballroom style, and walking around each other. Sounds like a blast, doesn't it? It gets better. The point is to use our friend centrifugal force to carry you and your partner to speeds upwards of Mach 2 (kudos to you if you can do this in the 16 measures of music often allowed for your typical swing). Honestly, this is the time for eye contact and weight support. Give your partner a little resistance, plant your right foot next to (note: not on) theirs, and skate on your left foot like it's coming back into style. Smile, laugh, look into your partner's eyes (however temporary said partner might be), and let go.
The four count prelude to a swing. Take hands with your partner, step twice together and then twice apart.
Take your allemanding partner's right hand in an arm wrestling-type grip and pull yourself past him or her. Nothing simpler. To "allemande left", use your left hand.
Basically this is an allemande around somebody with your arms at your sides. You pass on the right, then walk backwards to pass on the left and end up where you started. Enter more spinning: it's customary to twirl while doing this, and eye contact is an interesting touch to add if you can maintain it as best as possible when coming around.
Like a dos-à-dos with couples. Ladies on the right, gents on the left, join hands (the fashion in which this is done seems to vary from region to region) and circle around the other couple in your set.
long lines forward and back
Formed, very obviously, by taking hands with your neighbors up and down the hall, and then taking four counts to walk into the center of the lines (there are two, remember?) and then four counts to walk back to where you were.
circle left & right
Taking hands with your group of four, move in a circle in whatever direction is dictated for how many positions are dictated. A full circle takes eight counts of music and puts you back where you started.
star left & right
Similar to a circle in that it happens in groups of four, place your wrist of whatever direction is called in the center of the circle and grab the wrist of your partner, then walk forward (so if a "star left" is called, your left arm is in the center and you will walk to your right). Sometimes handshake grips are used with the person opposite you, but not usually. Your dance caller will let you know.
Usually done with the ladies, is performed by two ladies opposite each other in the fours using a handshake grip with their right hand to walk past each other and then being led around by the men of the four with their left hand out and right behind their back (the men's left hand greets the extended hand, the right hand clasps into the hand behind the back) to return to where they started (a motion which, by the way, is called a courtesy turn).
A sixteen count figure that is basically a mini game of "follow the leader". Ladies start, followed by the men, in a weaving pattern that loops everybody's places within the set of four. The rules of the road are as follows: you pass your own gender with the right shoulder and your opposite with the left shoulder. Like the rest of a contra dance, this all makes more sense when actually participating.
Most of the songs played by the band will be jigs or reels, all in 4/4 time and at a fairly good clip. This may all seem like a lot to remember, but don't worry: not only does all this information in motion make any outside worries (tax time, bad break-ups, or the fact that you're stuck three thousand miles from home with creditors breathing down your heels and an automobile that refuses to be repaired correctly and the overwhelming feeling that nothing you do makes a difference anymore) seem relatively insignificant. Besides, if you mess up, contra dance folk are friendly and won't hesitate to help you out. Nobody, not even experienced dancers, get the dance 100% down pat the first time it's called and it's very easy to laugh at oneself and get on with the dance should anything go disasterously wrong.
Despite my mountains of worry at the beginning of the night, I had a great time. All of the experienced dancers were very helpful, the music (performed by a regional group called "Hot Cider") was incredible (although one should note that if you're allergic to grassrooty fiddle numbers, it might be best to hit a club or something), and there was a very strong sense of social interaction. You dance with just about everyone there, make physical and, at times, it seems emotional contact with many people, and it's difficult to find a frown in the hall. My friend said it was the best date she'd ever been on, and I take that to mean that she had a great time for all the same reasons I did, and not because men twice her age were grabbing her and making her dizzy. I am definitely going contra dancing again.
One last thing I found interesting concerns the actual calling of the dance: it seems that many dances are written to tell stories within themselves. One of the dances that I took part in, the only one that had me partnered with my date for the evening, had us flirting with one another: allemanding, dos-à-dosing and promenading, but never actually swinging with each other. We would be called into other sets of four up and down the hall, visiting other regions, seeing other people, but suddenly, by the end of the dance, we were in each others' arms, twirling twirling twirling to our hearts' content. Now, I'm not one to get overly sentimental or anything, but isn't that romantic?
A big fat old courtesy turn to the following resources that helped make this writeup a heckuva lot easier:
(which has some great descriptions of actual contra dancing, not to mention a pun
involving Ollie North
http://members.aol.com/SierraContra/ (the fine folks I spent the evening with)