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Dancing My Passion

Written by Siri Paulson

I've long been interested in all kinds of dance and music. Over the years I've taken piano lessons, played in school bands, sung in choirs, gone to concerts and dance performances. More recently I've taken a variety of dance lessons, looking for the kind of dance that would speak to me.

Hip hop and salsa weren't it. Flamenco was closer – all that drama and Spanish guitar, and the close attention to technique. Belly dance held some of the same attraction as flamenco, but I didn't fall in love with either one.

Then I discovered contra dance.

I was looking for a new kind of dance to try, and someone pointed me to contra – a style of folk dance from New England and the Canadian Maritimes, done to Celtic or French-Canadian or bluegrass music. This appealed to me a lot. Local contra dances existed, but they weren't lessons – they were social dances. This was way outside my comfort zone. I enlisted a friend for moral support, and we turned up half an hour early for a quick "contra basics" class. That went by awfully fast, and then it was time for the real thing.

Contra is complicated. It involves long formations of couples lined up facing each other. You dance with your partner and the two of you also dance with another couple, doing a number of figures and then progressing to face another couple and start the figures over again. When the music ends, you find a different partner, the caller walks you through a new dance you may never have done before (although it involves figures you already know, just in a new pattern), and off you go. Think square dancing, or Jane Austen. It doesn't sound very beginner-friendly, does it?

But there was live folk music, something I loved. Everyone was really friendly even when I screwed up, which was often. Sometimes I didn't and that was even better. I danced and got sweaty and tired. I sat out and listened to the music for a bit and watched the skirts swirl – even some of the men were wearing them, while some of the women wore pants. Then I got up and danced some more. By the time the evening ended, I was hooked.

I was still taking belly dance at that point, so I didn't start going to contra regularly until later in the year – at which point I discovered that going regularly was better still. I started to feel the music and step with the beat instinctively, instead of having to count. I screwed up less and less often (still not down to zero, but hey, it happens), and learned to recover faster.

People started teaching me fancy things, like twirls, and seeking me out as a dance partner. I learned how to welcome newbies to the dance and help them navigate the figures while making sure they had fun – just as the experienced folks have helped me. Then I learned how to dance the gentleman's part. This was necessary because at my local dances women often outnumber men, but it also led to something else fun – dancing as a gent with a male partner dancing as a lady. I've now been dancing regularly for seven months, and while I have a good grasp of the basics, there's still more to learn.

The only problem is that I'm still hooked, and contra dance only happens for one evening every two weeks. I come home exhausted and, at the same time, longing for more.

This weekend there's a contra festival. Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday afternoon will all be devoted to dancing. I can't wait. Maybe I'll finally get enough of contra dance.

What are your passions and how do you feed them?



# Midge 2011-04-07 04:22
Oh, so much love for this. I love hearing how people got hooked on contra, because I got tossed into it headfirst and sort of backwards from how most people do it. I'd been playing fiddle tunes for probably less than a year, and violin in general for three at most, and I got summoned onstage at a gig and knew about three tunes and could not play them to speed and the whole thing was terrifying for about twenty minutes before I fell absolutely in love. The dancing part didn't come until way later, but I'm starting to love that just as much.

In case that didn't make it quite clear enough, contra is definitely one of my passions as well, though I haven't been able to feed it much lately.
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Siri Paulson
# Siri Paulson 2011-04-07 14:42
KD, I too have been known to hoard random facts. Just once or twice *coughadaycough*, though. >_> (Psst, contra dance is descended from English folk dance borrowed by the French and then borrowed back.)

Midge, it's great to hear your "how I..." story. Being thrown into the deep end would have terrified me too. The fact that you still fell in love just proves the power of contra! Alas, I have zero experience playing folk music, so I'm not likely to be onstage at a dance anytime soon. Of course, that just means more dancing!

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