How I learned to stop worrying and love Contra Dance.
This coming weekend is the Dandelion Romp—Oberlin’s annual one-weekend Contra Dancing festival. It’s been pretty much the highlight of my spring semester for the past three years, so in anticipation of all the dancing I’m going to do this weekend, I’m reflecting a little on where this whole dancing thing started for me.
I have never felt one with my body. Intellectually, when it comes to the mind-body problem, I’m a monist—I believe that there is no distinction between my mind and my body. And yet, in practice, I’ve always lived in my head, treating my body as some external object which I have only rudimentary power over, like an awkward puppeteer1. Before I came to college, I was convinced that I was incapable of displaying any rhythm or smoothness of motion. The extent of my social dancing experience was a few graceless school dances.
People who know me now might find this hard to believe. I dance all the time these days. I go to as many dances as I can fit into my schedule. But people who knew me back then can tell you it’s true. When it came to dancing, I was awkward.
My friend Allison periodically reminds me that when we met freshman year in the ‘Sco, I told her that I didn’t know how to dance, but now that I was in college, I intended to learn. I don’t remember what I was thinking in that moment, but I guess I meant it.
The first time I went Contra Dancing, I don’t think I even took the beginner’s workshop they offer at the beginning of each dance, though the charming and beautiful girl who had invited me showed me a couple moves beforehand. For this reason, I tell people that you don’t really need to take a lesson—it’s just one way to help you feel more comfortable on the dance floor.
People love to wear skirts while Contra Dancing because they twirl so wonderfully! Photo by Ma’ayan Plaut.
Despite skipping that lesson, I remember the feeling of wonderment that passed over me midway through the evening as I thought, “GOOD GOD, I’m dancing! I am actually making my body move in the way that I want it to.” I still remember the amazement at discovering a dance that I understood—that I was not only capable of, but felt like it came naturally.
My two favorite dance forms these days are Contra and Blues, for similar—yet also opposite—reasons. Contra I love because you always know you’re doing it right because there’s a caller at the front of the room who is telling you what to do at all times. Blues I love because you always know you’re doing it right if you’re dancing to the music. I could write a whole separate love post about Blues, but Aries has already done so2. As she says, “There are gentle suggestions of what might work, but in the end of the day, you make the rules.”
Contra is more approachable than blues for most beginning dancers because you don’t have to make things up unless you want to. As you gain experience you’ll find that you can add in plenty of your own flourishes to make things fun, interesting, and your own—but when you’re just starting out it’s sufficient to follow directions.
I’ve progressed3 a lot since that first dance. Though I still feel that body-mind disconnect, it’s less when I’m dancing. I’ve moved from Contra into other forms of dancing4. And in the Contra community, I’m a caller now as well as a dancer, not only better puppeteering my own body, but helping to orchestrate the entire room in dance.
Sometimes I make ridiculous faces while I dance. Also, check out Aries glancing worriedly in the other direction. Photo by Ma’ayan Plaut, from the Dandelion Romp last year.
As part of this role, I’ve also been the instructor for those short beginner workshops (yes, the one that I myself skipped the first time I went dancing) and I’m discovering how difficult it is to explain what Contra is and how it’s done. It’s nearly impossible in words (though I’ve read some very valiant and funny attempts) but even with the people right there and the ability to walk them through moves, I can tell that they don’t quite get it until the music has started and the dance has begun.
My task, then, if I’m not to teach them how to dance, is twofold: 1.) to persuade them that Contra dancing will be an enjoyable experience for them—that they really should stick around after the lesson and try it out and 2.) to make them more comfortable on the dance floor. Once they’re on the dance floor, the dancing will speak for itself.
If I’m not going to explain to you what Contra Dancing is, at the very least I can give you some idea of why I love it. To me, these are the important points of Contra:
- There is always someone telling you what to do. As a beginner, this is reassuring. As an experienced dancer, this is not stifling—you can always progress your technique and there are an infinite number of flourishes and variations that you can throw in.
- Contra is the most social of social dances. It is the only form of dance where I can virtually guarantee that you will have danced with everybody in the room by the end of an evening. You will meet a lot of people.
- There’s always a live band.
- Contra dancers, in my experience, are some of the friendliest, most unpretentious people I have ever met. We’re very welcoming to beginners and everyone always takes it in stride when someone makes a mistake. Experienced dancers are almost as likely to make a mistake as beginners and it’s never a big deal.
- Contra dancing breaks barriers of all sorts. At Oberlin the dancers are largely students, but there are more than a few regulars from town as well as the occasional faculty/staff. President Marvin and Amy even show up from time to time. (Amy, incidentally, is a great dancer.)
This year’s Dandelion Romp poster. Bet you can guess who made it.
The Dandelion Romp starts this Friday evening. As special as Oberlin’s monthly Contra Dances are, the Dandelion Romp is more.
We bring great bands and callers from out of town—who are always outstanding. Lots of out-of-towners come visit for the weekend. Many of them (both the attendees and the musicians) are Oberlin alumni. Some are from such far off locales as Maine, Virginia, and Washington state. One of the band members this weekend is even coming all the way from Ireland!
There will be three dances and numerous dance and music workshops such as “Scandinavian Turning Dances,” “Gender Bender Contras,” and “Shapenote Singing.” If you’re in town, check the website for the schedule. We’ll dance.
Happy dancers at the Dandelion Romp. Photo by Ma’ayan Plaut.
This is how deep my disconnect with my body goes:
Once, at an informal contact improv workshop, the instructor was using me to demonstrate some position, but my body was not cooperating. “Relax your arm,” she said to me. I relaxed my arm. Or so I thought. “Relax it,” she said.
“It is relaxed!” I replied.
“No,” she said, “It isn’t.” I looked over as she tugged on my arm and to my surprise, she was right. My elbow joint was totally tensed up. Embarrassed, I relaxed my arm, this time for real. ↑
This is a Contra Dance pun. Learn to Contra Dance and you will get it. ↑
Waltz, polka, swing, and a little Irish set dancing, among others. After Contra and Blues, I highly recommend waltzing. So beautiful. 3/4 time feels like home to me.
Something interesting you learn about dancing when you do lots of kinds is how they’re all connected. Besides skill in each dance contributing to skill in the others, many of them have some historical basis together. For instance, in Contra there’s a move called a Petronella twirl, which involves spinning over one’s right shoulder. In Irish there’s a whole dance called Petronella which contains a similar move. There’s clearly some historical connection in the dances’ pasts. And did you know that early Swing clubs also played waltzes and Latin songs in addition to jazz tunes? No dance is an island. ↑