Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Glorious Contra Dance. Glorious.

At the LCFD dance camp last weekend in western Massachusetts I had more fun dancing contra than it might be possible to convey to people who have never experienced that particular level of contradance joy. I had more fun dancing contra than I've had since my first year of contradancing (and really the only year I did much contra dance at all, in 1980 or so). I remember that on Thursday afternoons of that year I would practically shake with excitement because it was contra dance night. But until this weekend I remembered being that excited only in a sort of intellectual story-telling way; last weekend reminded me what it felt like internally, as I experienced those feelings anew.

Come to think of it, I enjoyed the dancing even more this past weekend than in that virgin year, because in that first year I was something of an outsider to the community in which I was learning to dance (it was the dawning conviction that I would always be an outsider in that community that caused me to lose my passion, in fact). But last weekend I was not an outsider, for any number of reasons. I am concluding that a big part of the dance passion I am talking about here is about being part of a dance community (comparisons to Morris dancing are encouraged).

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I want to write about here is why it was so much fun for me. If contradance in the Twin Cities were this much fun for me, I would be there every week (as opposed to once every year or two, if that).

Bottom line is that the level of dancing was first-rate, throughout the hall. At least as important, the band played with drive and swing -- for me dancing is first and foremost a way of listening to music with my body, and if I don't like the music I cannot dance at all (which is why two-stepping is a mixed bag for me, as I love two-stepping when the music is western swing, but for the accent-free four-square electric-drum pablum of modern country music there is no connection between my body and the sound and besides the music is not live so it lacks the give-and-take with the musicians that makes dancing come alive). All up and down the contra line, each swing was a graceful interaction (like Morris dancing at its best). Each set was goofy and fun and free. Each new neighbor, each new set, was a whole new flavor of fun. At the end of a dance, it felt as if I'd just ended a fine dinner party with the other dancers in the line. You could see and sense that feeling of satiation and happiness.

To be honest, this level of dancing surprised me, because all of my previous experience with gender-free (or gay/lesbian) contra dancing was that the community and joy and passion were great (certainly greater for me than regular "straight" contra), but the actual dancing was not as strong as the dancing at the best contras. But not here, no sir and no ma'am. There were decades of experience here. And come to think of it, this was a group who had made a huge effort to go away for the weekend just to dance -- as self-selecting of a group as you can come by (again, connections to Morris dance and the Morris Ales are encouraged). Also there's a lot of consistency of attendees from camp to camp, so this group has collectively developed this amazing level of skill.

So ok, the dancing was great. And that was enough in some ways to explain my joy. But that wasn't all, not by a long shot. When I went to NEFFA last year I came back full of amazement and praise for the level of contra-dancing I saw, and I wrote about it at the time (in similar terms to this -- that if contradance were like this in the Twin Cities I would dance more regularly). I saw contra-dance taken to a completely new level than it had been when I left Boston 25 years ago. I loved watching it, and the bands were great. And yet at NEFFA -- last year or this year -- I never danced a dance. Well, perhaps one. That's a pretty dramatic statement, I think.

You see, at NEFFA what you have are members of various dance communities throughout New England gathering for one massive contraorgyfest. So people have their own communities, as a base, and lots of people they are anxious to dance with. That makes a big difference. Others come as a couple, which makes for a different experience as well, even for couples who dance with others most of the time. I posit that people who come to contradances as part of a couple -- particularly in communities that are not their own -- have a very different experience than people who come by themselves. They have a partner for the first and last dance, a way in to the line, a way of easing in to the group.

It is certainly possible to find dance partners at NEFFA if you are a stranger, and contradance etiquette is such that one does not refuse to dance unless one is sitting out or has already promised a dance. But if you show up at NEFFA alone -- and not a member of any represented dance community -- you have to work pretty darned hard and pretty darned quick to get a partner for a dance. At the LCFD camp, you had to work extremely hard NOT to be part of a dance. I like to sit out and watch a lot, but I got pulled in and pulled in for dance after dance, almost always by people I had not yet met. My favorite moment along these lines was when a young man named Aaron (a first-rate dancer whom I'd met a few years ago at a Morris Ale) came to ask me to dance and I said, "But they're about to switch to English Country Dance" (meaning that I don't really enjoy English dance, although that's another issue and in fact I did enjoy it this weekend at times). He responded with enthusiasm, "Oh good -- I *love* English!" and pulled me with great force into a set that was forming.

And then there's the final overlay, with a significance that caught me by surprise. That this was, at the core, a gay/lesbian/queer community mattered more than I thought it would. Back when I first learned to contra, I felt an outsider to a large extent because it seemed such an overwhelmingly straight community, which was not what I wanted or needed at the time. But I didn't think that was the same issue for me at this point, three decades later. And yet it was a great and wonderful thing to be among these people -- not just because there could be nice little flirtations when your partner or corner was the same gender, but because it didn't matter one way or another to anybody who was dancing what role. It has started to seem to me that this is generally true at many contra dances these days, but it's different when the community is actually defined by the fact that this does not matter. That surrounds me with a sense of warmth and belonging.
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