Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

A Whole Bunch About Contra Dancing and Me

I went to the local contra dance at Tapestry Folkdance Center on Saturday, for perhaps the second time in a year. I drop by so rarely that the people I know who are regulars at the dance always express happy surprise to see me. I noted something at both these dances that pleased me very much: There is a group of high school kids who attend and who bring new and much welcome energy to the event. Actually there are two groups from two different high schools, but the larger group consists of the classmates of my friend Anna (daughter of my friend Jim) who has managed to convince some of her friends to attend the dance -- which they enjoy -- and now friends of her friends are starting to check things out.

You know, I would absolutely have loved the opportunity in high school to attend contra dances with my classmates. I did some contradancing, piecemeal, at various folk festivals, but in those days (and really, for much of my life to this day) there was such an inviolate wall separating any sort of "folkie" activity from what I might share with the people that life threw me in with on a daily basis that it has pretty much scarred me forever in the sense of feeling separate from and baffled by the things that others seem to care about (and, conversely, alienated and strange for caring about the things I do). About this I am quite serious, although that's the subject for another journal entry or perhaps two thousand journal entries.

So I've been thinking about the contra dance, because there have been two periods in my life when I was very excited about contra dancing and I'm wondering if perhaps I can find that great pleasure in it once again.

My first contra-dancing period was right out of college. It began one Thanksgiving, when I was having dinner with my aunt, who lived in Boston at the time. It was just us and we had to have an early dinner because she was calling the Thursday night dance at the VFW Hall that night. Serious contra dancers do not cancel their regular night for something as piddling as Thanksgiving, although I think my aunt was the substitute caller because of the holiday. So I went to the dance and it was like a switch had been turned on. I just loved it. As I say, it wasn't my first time contra dancing, but I had never been part of a group of serious regular contra dancers. It took me a while to realize that these were very serious dancers indeed, with a national reputation for being closed and snotty in their community, but I was young and naive and didn't pick up on this at first.

So I went every week for a while. I remember how tremendously excited I used to feel on Thursday evenings, coming home from work, knowing that it was contra dance night. This lasted about a year, and then my attendance tapered off. So what happened? Two things. First, after a while it was clear that I had to fish or cut bait -- once I got all the basic dance skills down I was going to have to work my way into the regular crowd of center-line dancers who danced only with each other to keep up the level of enjoyment -- you can't stay in the beginner's class (or beginner's sets) forever. And I wasn't sure I could manage this; I never felt particularly welcome among those center-line dancers, although who knows whether that feeling was based in anything real.

The other thing that happened was that the contra dancing just started to seem too straight to me. I was finally out in the world, trying very very hard to find a gay community, and it just didn't feel right at the time to continue to pour energy and effort into yet more straight events -- and believe me, in those days the straight-gay integration I've seen in recent decades was absolutely inconceivable. In fact, I had no interest whatever in Morris dancing (although I was quite aware of it) because that world felt oppressively straight to me, as if the guys dancing Morris had to prove that they were real manly men despite the fact that they pranced around in bells and waved hankies. Again, am I basing this sense on anything real? I absolutely believe so.

None of this was a specific moment of realization. It was more a gradual drawing away, as the dancing did not fulfill whatever it was I was looking for at the time. But boy, what a useful thing it has turned out to be in the rest of my life to have developed basic skill and experience in contra-dancing.

What happened elsewhere in my life was that, a few years later, I helped start a gay and lesbian community band in Boston. Although it wasn't contra-dancing, that was finally the institution where I found that community thing I was looking for. That's where my energies went, on both a local and a national level. And that's what I wanted for many years.

The second time I fell in love with contra dancing was when I moved to Minnesota, where there was a monthly gay and lesbian contra dance that was just wonderful. Brian Humphrey (a Morris dancer!) had started up this event and managed to create an active dance community from nothing; there were very few experienced contra dancers, but boy did these folks get the spirit of the dance right off the bat. I was new to area and looking for friends and connections, and the contra dance was just perfect. Some of the friends I made there at that time are friends to this day, although the dance died out years and years ago. Here's a wonderful moment I remember from that period: One night, heading home, I realized that I hadn't danced with a male partner all night. I had simply enjoyed the opportunity to dance over the course of the night with various friends of mine -- and at that dance you literally did not give a moment's thought to the gender of your partner for the dance. This was glorious for me -- because it proved to me (as if it needed proving) that there really is a gay and lesbian community.

[When I lived in the Boston area, there was no regular gay/lesbian contra dancing -- just the occasional folk dance and a yearly contra dance. Seemingly within seconds of my departure, however, it became pretty much the national center for what they call "gender free" dancing. So now there's regular gay/lesbian contra dancing in Boston and none in Minneapolis.]

Ok, so where does that leave me now? Well, the issue of the activity seeming too straight isn't so important to me, personally, as it once was -- as I've often said, I had to throw myself into a gay/lesbian musical organization for 15 years before I was free enough to dance Morris with a bunch of straight guys. And besides, there really has been incredible integration of gay and straight communities in my lifetime -- by which I don't mean "don't ask don't tell" but "tell all you want and we'll tell you about us" which is where I think it should be. However, I've never been too excited about the contra dances at Tapestry. It's mostly me, but partly the local dancers: The freewheeling joy of what I now think of as New England style is just missing. This is a group that turned my absolute favorite contra dance (Petronella) into something completely undanceable by adding a clap at a point in the music that prevents you from dancing the wonderful little balance-in-a-circle that turns the dance from something pedestrian into something sublime . In general I just don't move like the folks here, so the good weight-giving swing and syncopated balances that add style to the dance never quite come together.

And yet: More people I know are starting to become more regular at the dance. And the kids are willing to dance hard and strong. And Tapestry is a wonderful venue, and incredibly convenient for me. And I enjoy seeing the folks I know there. And just maybe it is the sort of community I want to be part of now.

We'll have to see. I plan to give it a bit of a go over the next few months.
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