2 crazy nights (JimRyan)

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Jim Ryan (June 2001):

 (Sooooooo long-winded….)

The ethnologist/sociologist in me wanted to first observe the ritual and practices before participating. I was lucky that the layout of The Abbey made this easy for me, along with an extra added boon – being able to observe from above on the upper level around the dance floor! Although being at ground level would have given me much fodder, being above the dance floor immediately ensnared me as I instantly absorbed the beautiful patterns that emerged from this type of dance. The patterns that unfolded are the first thing that struck and appealed to me, and everything else flowed out from this. A venue like the Abbey’s gallery is certainly a good place for a first-timer to get an overview – at least for me, this helped me immediately grasp the whole scene.

As the caller explained the steps for the first dance of the evening, I felt I would be lost if I

Soooo long-winded....
Soooo long-winded….

just jumped right in (but observing first is my preferred mode of learning and participation). When the caller said something similar to “Long Lines – Balance and Swing”, I was lost. Of course, if on the floor I knew someone would show me, still I did not want to jumble things up and feel overly self-conscious…this might have held me back later.  But as the caller called and the dancers made the steps, I got the general idea – enough to draw up a list of questions that would help settle me when I received answers later, both from you, Sally, and her friend as well as from watching the repetition of the same moves called and danced throughout the evening.

The terms I needed to understand to perform the steps were these:

  • Balance and swing (and how many times does one swing before the next step?)
  • Do-si-do (always heard the term in country music, but never realized I had no clue as to what it meant)
  • Allemande (looked simple enough, but the term itself held me up as I thought there must be more to it because of the special term used)
  • Star
  • Hey and Hey-for-4
  • Ladies’ Chain (with its Courtesy Turn)
  • Box-the-Net (same feeling as with Allemande above)
  • As well as Allemande and Box-the-Net, Petronella Square falls in this category (although you explained it very well in your call, I noticed several people looked lost/confused, and I felt the same although a certain amount of this I know is personal projection) because the name seems to imply a complexity. (By-the-way, your voice volume and enunciation was very good, whereas the other 2 callers I heard weren’t always fully audible or understandable for a newcomer such as I.)

But the wonderment of all of this came from the form that emerged from the seeming chaos; as soon as the dancers went through 2 – or even just 1 – cycle, all fell into place from repetition, and those who seemed lost/confused found the way and took off for the pure fun and abandon that this dancing affords the spirit.
Back to patterns and what emerges, what also entranced me was the transformations that occurred, especially in the newer participants.  I was touched as they fell into their groove, became more confident, started to mimic those more experienced dancers, and felt acceptance and encouragement to explore and stretch out – as people like Jonathon(?) stomped and whooped, others around him started to let loose, too, and have an even more heightened experience. (Also, it was fun to watch what other men would do as Jonathon upped the ante when they Allemanded  with his fun-time antics – some would meet the challenge, some seemed relieved as their sedate approach kept the encounter to a minimum flow – almost like cougars in the wild…ha-ha.) Of especial fun for the ladies it seems was the opportunity to show some attitude when called upon to gypsy…it was almost as good as a Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen” opera!

Other observations caught my interest as the dances continued – first, just how friendly everybody was and what a sense of community underlies the phenomena; second, how helpful the more experienced dancers were to the newbies; and third, the fact that everybody eventually got to/had to dance with everybody else – this being the most enduring overall aspect.

I knew after the first 2 dances that I could join in without too much intrusion due to the caller’s skills, but I decided to wait for a firmer grip knowing that I get could tips and help from you and Sally later(and what wonderful teachers I have!) So I continued the evening from above in the rafters.

Also, I am glad that I did not write this up already, because this week’s experience too was full of first experiences – call this section “1st impressions … the Sequel” – being my actual participation.

After my private lessons at the pub the week before, I went to the World Wide Web and searched for Contra dancing information; I found a couple of good sites (by-the-way, there are many related sites out there). One excellent site is http://www.sbcds.org/contradance/whatis/ a good overall starting point. But from http://www.hwcn.org/link/jig/contraculture.htm I found a great list of dance steps explained very well; with your instruction and these notes, I practiced some over the weekend. And with your kind help, once again, firmed this up right before Monday’s dance.
And then, I jumped in the tribe…


It was just what I thought it would be like, and even more. I felt confident that I had some starting knowledge, but more so I knew that others would be there to help me along (and would not mind at all). I also felt confident having seen that not everybody knew everything, and flubbing was natural – especially since things always fell into place, sort of like chaos theory in nuclear physics (also amazing that nobody gets too tangled up and there are no pile-ups of bodies on the floor!).  I danced 6 dances that evening (I avoided squares just for that night…I WILL square this Monday!)

I also was very happy that I was able to help and encourage other new people from my previous week’s observations, research, instruction, and practice. (Something as simple as knowing that women’s hands face palm down and men’s face palm up – something that would have eluded me before, or by letting others know the structure of the evening concerning when and how long the break would be and how long the evening’s dance would last; also, it is extremely helpful to know musical clues, such as the 64 measure structure and its break down into 32 and 32.)

For other parts of the evening I retired to the rafters again for several reasons;

  1. 1. To cool off.
  2. 2. To listen to a wonderful band (being a picker myself, I had another vested interest, but I could not follow while dancing – being new to this, I had to focus more upon learning from the dance itself. As I get better and more experienced, I think I’ll be able to do both in synch.)
  3. 3. To observe from above more of the beautiful patterns I might not have noticed as strongly as a participant on the floor.  I felt much joy from the Rosetta hands pattern and its resultant Star.  As well, I thought the Spiral looping a wonder to behold once the whole spiral fell into pattern. (This is my personal proclivity – I enjoy the folding and unfolding in pattern and always employ this in my artistic endeavors and hobbies…especially in music.)
  4. 4. And last, for now, I enjoyed the part of this same dance that became momentarily random as partners had to search the room to create a new group of 4. At first, it became chaotic (I even saw one couple race across to the other end of the room to find another unattached couple!), but then systems began to emerge. Some couples immediately snagged the next adjacent couple, others sometimes cheated and remained together for one more round until confident to break away upon the next opportunity.

Once again, I hope these musings and notes will help you recall your own beginning moments in how you approached this, and what your first impressions were based upon your own experiences and proclivities.

Thank you again for adding me to your dance card. I look forward to being listed again…Save a spot for me next Monday because I will certainly be there.

All my best,
Jim Ryan
Your friendly neighborhood anthropologist  (June 12, 2001)

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