Encounters of the anonymous dancer:
My first contra dance was a disaster!
I knew NOTHING about contra, and had a partner who was even more clueless than I. I had worn flat little shoes with no support or ties, so when I danced, they fell off. My partner was doing the swing BACKWARDS. I felt like a basketball, being pushed and pulled all the way down the line. My partner and I just couldn’t get it together, wreaking havoc for the entire dance, and I eventually left in embarrassment.
The man who had been my partner must have lived in my neighborhood, because I’d see him at the train stop after that first dance, but he wouldn’t ever look at me!
Why did I go back for more? I loved the music, and wanted to experience as much of it as possible. Eventually I got the hang of it, but I’ll never forget that first time!
My first contra dances
My memory is so titled because I feel like I have had several “first contra dance” experiences.
My love of contra dancing in some ways started in fourth grade, when we did square dancing in gym class. I loved it and was even part of a group that performed a square dance on stage for some school function. This admission is ironic for someone who has been known to groan when the caller announces, “Take a partner for a square,” though I can also say that I have danced some truly fun squares. Actually, that’s a good way to capture the difference…squares are fun, while contras are intimate…at least the way I like to dance them
I went to my first true contra dance in March, 1988, during my freshman year in college. I was visiting my best friend from high school at Oberlin College in Ohio, which I recently heard still has an active student contra dance community 13 years later. A friend of hers got his friends to go dancing every so often, and she had enjoyed it. So we went when there was a dance during my visit. I have two memories: one was a general sense of great joy; the other was the intense eye contact that her friend Jonathan made when he swung me. The kind of eye contact that warms you and makes you feel like you are the most beautiful person in the world. (Which of course, we all are every moment that we are dancing
I went to a few other dances before my next “first” contra dance. There was a dance at my university during my senior year, which I attended remembering how much I had enjoyed the Oberlin dance. After I moved to Washington, DC, I went dancing every few months with the guy that I was dating. I really enjoyed it but didn’t want to go alone, so we only went when he felt like it (a mistake that I will never again make!!) During this time, I remember being somewhat awkward…not always knowing which way to turn and completely oblivious to the fact that there was an elitist line on the other side of the huge hall at Glen Echo. But always enjoying the movement and the music.
In January, 1997, I stopped dating the once-in-a-while dancer (he was a college friend, so this was not a dancer romance story…), and turned to dancing to fill the hole. I started dancing every week at the wonderful Friday night dance at Glen Echo. Nothing could keep me away, even though it was almost an hour’s drive each way from where I was living at the time. This period was when I truly became a dancer. As I went every week, I began to be a familiar face. People taught me new moves and I learned others by osmosis. I even danced in the elitist line once in a while.
I have been dancing weekly ever since, in Boston and now in Chicago. I even schedule my periodic travels to Washington DC so that I can go to at least one dance. While I was living in Boston, I made it to Washington frequently enough that people didn’t realize that I had moved away!
My last “first” dance happened when I attended my first dance week just after moving to Chicago. My regular dances in Boston and Washington had large groups of experienced dancers (and, in fact, were not always as welcoming to newcomers as I have found Midwestern dances to be), and regularly booked big-name bands like Wild Asparagus, Laura and the Lava Lamps, etc. So I had never felt the need or desire to look elsewhere for dance weeks or weekends. In fact, I hadn’t really enjoyed my only festival experience, the New England Folk Festival, because the hall was so crowded that we danced like sardines.
Around the time that I moved, I had begun to pay attention to band names and knew that I loved Wild Asparagus. I saw that they were playing at a week-long dance camp in Michigan in August 1999, just after I would be moving to Chicago. I decided it would be a great way to dance to music I loved while meeting Midwestern dancers. I cannot put words to the great joy of the Between the Bays dance week–the experience of doing nothing but dancing day and night, of living and eating with other dancers, of laughing, of passion, and of wonderful people.
So now I am in Chicago. A smaller but also warmer dance community. It took several months of weekly dances before people began to know me in Washington and Boston. Here, I felt a part of the community in a matter of weeks. Dancing is an important part of my life and will be so no matter where I live.