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Why Contras are “Different”

It is a two thousand year old tradition that on Passover Eve, when all are seated around a diner table, the youngest son stands up and asks the four Kashes, or the four questions, and he often does so in a sing-song voice: “Ma Nishtana halayla haze mikal haleylot” -- “What makes this night different from all other nights? Shebchall Haleylot anu ochlim… “On all other nights we eat… while on this night…“ “On all other nights we sit…while on this night…”

Let us translate all this to Contra Dancing: what makes our kind of dancing, different from all other kinds of dancing?

One.  At all other dances you dance almost exclusively with the one you brought. Going to a dance means finding a partner, dancing all night long with that partner and no one else. It is an intense, one on one experience. You are almost unaware of who else might be at the dance that evening.

At a contra dance you dance with many different partners. It is polite to dance the first dance of the evening with “the one you brung,” but after that, what is polite, in the contra dance community, is to dance with everybody else who is at this dance -- whether you’ve ever met them before or not. In fact, contra dance communities are constantly telling their core group of dancers (who don’t always listen) that at least once during the evening they should chose a total stranger to dance with. The unwritten rule at Contra dances, a rule so familiar, so ingrained, that callers have stopped calling it out after every dance, is “Please thank this partner and find another.”

Two. At all other dances you have to choose the steps you will use in the dance, at a contra dance, somebody else has figured out the whole sequence from A to Z. I have always hated “the pressure on the man.” In Swing, in cha-cha, in foxtrot, in waltz, in all forms of couples dances, the man must lead the lady: now I will do this move, and then I will…but then I must… One of the most embarrassing moments of my life occurred when a lovely dance partner said to me, “Haven’t you learned any new waltz moves Henry?”

I was shattered. That summed up what I hated about couples dances: I must learn the moves and I must string these moves together in a pleasant manner. The man is in charge and all through the dance I am thinking -- what do I do next? My aim in a dance is to stop thinking, to get lost in the music, to let my body react to the music. If I must “choose” what move to do next, then my mind is still “on.” I want to shut up that maniac who is in charge of my mind.

In contra, I often get lost in the music and my body reacts in ways I did not tell it to. I call contra dancing trance dancing; I once saw a sign that said that contra dancing is Appalachian Sufi dancing. As the sequence of dance moves strung together by a choreographer I have never met, repeats & repeats & repeats, I get lost in the music. My mind is not there, it has left because I am not required to be in charge, to choose the next move.

Yes, at the end of four or eight beats I need to be there, to “right hands round” or “dosido” or swing, but my body has internalized the sequence, and when it forgets (and sometimes it does) my partner (or opposite) grabs me and makes me do the move. Men are not “in charge” -- this is an equal responsibility dance: the two of you must dosido, and if either of you forget, the other (male or female) is there to remind you, to grab you as you are flying off into space, inhabiting a world far removed from the world you should be in -- because the riveting music has taken you there and no real “thinking” is required of you in this form of dance.

Three. At all other forms of dance there are fancy steps, in some cases steps you need to take lessons for before you know how to do what you need to do. In any given evening of dance you might have to do a swing dance, a foxtrot, a tango, a waltz, a merengue, a salsa dance, a cha-cha-cha. What that means is often, as the band plays a dance you don’t know (haven’t taken the requisite lessons for), you and your partner sit out, bored, envious, inactive when the whole point of being at a dance is to dance, be active, join in the fun.

At a contra dance you need never sit out a dance -- unless you are so tired that you want to sit out a dance. If you can walk, you can contra dance. A contra dance consists of moves like circle left or down the hall four in line, or dosido, or turn by the left (or by the right). There is one move that, strictly speaking, is not walking, and that is swinging (though you can do a walk-swing), but it is easy to teach people how to swing. Contra dancing is fast walking -- and every dance is “the same” -- you walk through a series of moves that take 64 beats from start to finish -- and then the sequence repeats & repeats.

(At one contra dance I attended, a “Folk dancer” was asked to come and teach Folk dances -- Israeli dances, Bulgarian dances, Swedish dances…. After several dances a friend of mine sat down, she quit: she said she was not interested in “gargling with her feet.” That is a harsh, unkind assessment of what were some very lovely dances, but in a sense, anything but walking to music is “gargling with your feet.”)

Four. At all other dances you never dance with, or interact with, ninety nine percent of the people who are in the hall with you. Unless you ask someone else to dance, all evening long you will be swinging with, dancing with, your partner and your partner only. In a cha-cha, or a waltz, you don’t, suddenly, mid-dance, cha-cha with someone else, or waltz with someone else. You are dancing with your partner & with no one else in the hall.

At a contra dance, every single dance involves you, in an intimate hands-on way, with your partner, and another couple -- and by some magic, after 64 beats of the dance, that “other” couple is a different couple than the couple you just danced with! After one time through the sequence stitched together by the choreographer of this dance, after, for instance, you’ve swung your partner, circled left, swung your neighbor (a person you might never have seen before!) chained the ladies, etc. etc., you are moved on down the line, and the whole sequence begins again: you swing your partner, circle left, swing your neighbor ( a new neighbor! a different neighbor!), chain the ladies, etc., etc.

I really do think that the above four “differences” constitute a profound difference. The above four are what keeps me away from all other kinds of dancing and draws me, inexorably, to contra dances (or English Country Dances -- of which contras are a distinct and lively subset).

I hate to have to dance all evening long with “the one I brought.” That’s boring. That’s repetitive. That’s limiting. I don’t want to do that.

I hate having to choose the next move in a dance. I hate the pressure. What move will I choose to do next? I must prepare. I must guide my partner there. I, the man, am in charge. I hate that.

I don’t like fancy steps -- slow, slow, quick-quick, side behind, side in front. I am able to do these steps, but concentrating on the steps does not allow me to “lose” myself in the music.

I love dancing with lots of partners, and lots of other people, some of whom I’ve never spoken to before, but I get to swing them, I get to dosido them and right & left through with them.

There is so much about contra dancing that I love -- and there is so much about the other forms of dancing that I dislike.

By their differences shall ye know them.

Agnes Demille said “Modern dancers give a sinister portent about our times. They don’t even look at one another. Just a lot of isolated individuals jiggling in a kind of self hypnosis, dancing with others only to remind themselves that we are not completely alone in this world.”

That is so unlike any crowd of contra dancers I see in my mind’s eye. Isolated? Not looking at one another? One British dancer accused American contra dancers of practicing “eye contact with a vengeance.” We call our kind of dancing an “eye contact sport.” We love to look into our partner’s eyes -- and in contra dances that “partner“ changes frequently . In our kind of dancing it is essential to keep your head up to see who it is you must dance with next. Interacting with all the people in the long contra line is an integral part of every contra dance.

Curt Sachs wrote “The English Dance unites the guests of an evening by the spell of rhythmical movement into a chance casual community.” Contra dancers do form a community for the evening -- a community based on cooperation in each & every dance. In any given dance, one often ends up dancing with half the people in the hall, and if the group in the hall is small enough, we end up dancing with all the people in the hall.

As another commentator said (Smedley & Tether “Let’s Dance Country Style”): “There is something missing from public dancing today. A guaranteed sociability where the dancing provides a real opportunity to enjoy the company of everybody else in the hall.”

Contra dancing, and English country dancing, provide, “a real opportunity to enjoy the company of everybody else in the hall.”

Copyright 2006   Henry Morgenstein

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