Saturday night my friend Nikki and I put on skirts and comfortable shoes and drove to the Westside. We paid $10.00 at the door of the Community Center and walked in to a large hall with hardwood floors. Musicians were warming up on a small stage. People stood in groups talking. We put down our sweaters on folding chairs and waited. We had come to contra dance.
Nikki is an experienced contra dancer. I hadn’t heard of contra dancing until she explained it to me. Contra is a group folk dance that is sort of a hybrid of square dancing and swing. At these dances, the first half hour is reserved for beginners like me to learn some basic steps from the caller. Then the more experienced dancers join the new ones on the floor. The dance begins. A small band (ours was guitar/fiddle/mandolin) plays a jig or reel and the caller calls out the steps.
The dancers ranged in age from twenties to late 70s. There is no dress code. Full skirts are favored for their twirl factor.
My first partner was a shy, 5’2” Indian man named David. He was more experienced and made it easy.
“Just smile and keep your arms up and you’ll be fine.”
I haven’t danced in any kind of organized way in years. (Actually, disorganized is a great way to explain my regular free-style.) The dances moved fast. I tried to keep up. Sometimes I did.
My next partner was, Carol, a woman in her mid-sixties. She was a pro and threw in lots of extra twirls and flourishes. Carol was fast. Mid-way through my dance with Carol, I started sweating. A lot. The dances are long. You’re instructed to look your partners in the eye when spinning so as not to get dizzy. My awkwardness with so much eye contact caused me to get a little seasick. I kept going.
There is customarily no alcohol served at the dances. People are friendly and patient. There were a few couples but many of the dancers arrived alone. Age is not an issue. I watched a young guy wearing a skirt and rainbow socks dancing with a beaming woman in his arms who favored Nancy Reagan. A mother and daughter who spoke only German danced together. The music rose and fell. Dancers stomped and laughed. There was joy in that room.
During my third dance, my “corner” partner was a thick man in his 60s wearing a Fire Department t-shirt and sneakers. As he spun me around, he leaned in and with a New Jersey accent said, “You come here and the whole week washes off you. It’s a beautiful thing.”
And it was. A beautiful thing.