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Jane Heinze-fry
Invitation to the Dance - Reflections

Contra Dance Community of the Commonwealth

by Jane Heinze-fry
February 14, 2005

Contra Dance Community of the Commonwealth

Jane Heinze-Fry
February 14, 2005

It's another Monday night in New England. It happens to be mid-winter. It's dark; there's snow on the ground, currently turning to slush. It takes 15 minutes to drive the 10 miles from Lexington to Concord. Some will drive over an hour to attend the Monday night contra dance. The winter wind bites through my coat as I slosh through the slush and slice through the darkness. I turn at the corner and peek forward to the Scout House windows, a beacon of light. The dancers whirl round and round. I can identify some of them, even from this distance. Ah, the music generated by Yankee Ingenuity pulses to my straining ears. My pace quickens. This is my personal battery recharger. . . just one of the weekly contra dances of Massachusetts that I regularly attend. I open the door and walk into the hall.

So what's it like? Why is it a magnet I find so irresistible? I can identify some of the key elements, all of which bring resonance to my being. But the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. The whole is the community of people and the experience they create that tunes to my senses and cultural heritage. And within that community are the dancers, the musicians, and the callers. Each "has a moment on the stage."

The Dancers: Diversity

I dance with octogenarians, who are life-long dancers. I thrill to the rhythmic stomp of the teenagers. I appreciate the collegiates on their school breaks. I dance with men and women partners, with occasional role- swapping, especially when the numbers are unbalanced. Some calling is "gender-free." I dance with parents carrying infants in Snugglies. I dance with a variety of ethnicities and people who also enjoy a variety of other kinds of dancing: Scottish, English, International Folk, Country Western, Couple Dancing, Zydeco, Belly Dancing. I go alone; with my husband; and with my daughter.

Those who first peer in the door of the dance halls may see a zesty crowd "dancing a fiery dance," seemingly balancing and shifting arms and legs somewhat in unison. Some dancers are smooth and experienced. Some accent their speed, foot-stomping ability, and wild balances; others accent a smooth flow and elegance. Some flourish; some keep it simple. Some make deep eye contact; some make very little eye contact at all. A few sing with the music. Some are sound-oriented and follow the verbal calls of the caller. Some don't actually "feel the music." They count out the beats and know how long they are supposed to perform each call. They sense the geometry of the flow of the patterns and are mathematical in their approach. At most dances, there is a called "walk through" of the pattern of moves before the music starts to address the "kinesthetic" sense that many of us need. Sometimes, the caller will ask a demonstration set to go through a particularly unusual move, while others watch. Some dancers move a bit more slowly, a few may be visually or hearing impaired; some are far from "social smoothies," but they all dance!

The Callers

I am persuaded that good callers know all of this intuitively, have learned it from experienced callers, or are tuned to Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. They know their crowd, and call accordingly: "Allemand! Do-si-do! Long lines, forward and back! Gypsy. . melt down to a SWING! Circle! Star! Hay! Cross Trail! Pass through! My mind resonates to some of these calls from my square-dancing past, and I am a child again. Go on to the next couple in line and do it all again! My mind melts into the music and the motion. After calling a few rounds, the caller usually fades out, letting our memories move us through the music. At an experienced dance, the call might be a medley of music with perhaps three different tunes, and we'll "just do it" with no walk through. That's delight! New callers sometimes come and "case the dances" before they call. It's all a part of "tuning the resonance."

Callers exercise tolerance and care. We need not fear too much for beginners and memory lapses that happen when we talk too much or find ourselves forgetting the pattern in the middle of the dance. The dancing crowd is quite tolerant, although there is a "central tendency" for the more experienced dancers to move to the center lines. "Generations of New Englanders have pushed newcomers around. When you make a mistake, just get to the next couple to start the pattern again," assures the caller. Callers use a variety of strategies to mix up a group and secure the safety and health of the group. "Let's start a new line right in front of me." "Take a chance. Dance with someone new." "We have a visitor. Can anyone offer a ride back to Cambridge or Alewife?" "Be careful with the wrist when you allemand." "It's flu season. Wash your hands at the break."

The Musicians

The band members inspire each other, and the dancers in turn resonate to the music: perhaps a reel, hornpipe, or jig with waltzes at the break and to close the evening. Dancers develop a taste for particular musical groups: names like Yankee Ingenuity; Airdance; Wild Asparagus; Swallowtail; Moving Violations; Lift Ticket. The instruments vary: commonly piano or keyboard and fiddle(s) with bass, flute, penny whistle, sax, bombard (go look it up!), and more. Oh, those magical, so-experienced piano-fingers fancifully pasting phrases from other music into the middle of a dance selection. The mind attached to those fingers recently composed a new waltz, one that short-circuits our rational selves and transforms my husband and me into an inspired pair, creating moves as the music unfolds. I knew I must have that waltz. Yes, it was on a new CD. But no, my wallet was empty. "Never mind. Take it. See you next dance," said one of the musicians." So we continue to resonate to their music outside the dance hall, tapping the steering wheels in our cars, dancing around our homes, or, reports one dancer, while painting her walls. While polite applause for the musicians is characteristic of New England contra dancing, I've recently been delighted to hear the crowd break through with the occasional whistle, call, and rhythmic foot-stomp that fully expresses our gratefulness toward these musicians.

Sensory Satisfaction

It's the SWING. It's the light. It's the eye contact. It's the sound. It's the music of my childhood and my ancestors. In December, it's the greenery, the red ribbons, the mistletoe, and the smell of mulled apple cider. The touch. . . .Careful with this one. . . gusto with that one. . ."Hey, could you leave me on the floor please. . . ."Swing me slowly!" A wink for this one. . . a hug for that one. . . .a greeting for this one. . . ." "Here comes a Gene Hubert dance". And I melt, knowing the smooth transition of patterns we'll experience. Ah, the aerobic exercise and all the endorphins it releases!

Cultural Connection: Friends and Family Over Time

Old and new. A contra dance brings me a mix of the security of the old and the discovery of the new. We all were newcomers once. I didn't experience contra dancing until I met my husband in graduate school. Now I know many of the places, dancers, musicians, and calls in our area. BUT there is joy in newcomers, visitors from abroad, and new dances and moves.

Work and play. When I was on a regular work schedule, I was always exhausted by the end of Monday. BUT, by the time I left the Scout House, I was smiling, energized, inspired. The dance helped me get through the challenges of working and parenting.

Over the generations. My parents were square dancers. We've taken our children to some dances since they were infants. One dancer, who had raised four daughters of his own, took my daughter onto the dance floor when she was 11. Afterwards, he came over and whispered, "Get her dance shoes." Two years later, my daughter is no longer reading and playing with her American Girl Dolls on the side. She's fully engaged in the dance. "It's what I live for" she tells me. Her school work is challenging. She's a committed student. BUT her joy is the contra dance. So long as her homework is under control, we take her three times a week. "She's an incredible dancer," observes one friend. "I love watching the two of you together." says another. Ayla pokes me as I pass. We spin; we throw in flourishes; we create the dance together. She spins right past me. Family dancing is one of my deepest joys. Knowing that this center of my daughter's happiness is well-established makes me happy for the bridge it brings from my mother through me to my daughter. We have all shared in the delight of the dance. "I wish my 13-year-old would come," reflects a newcomer. People come to dancing at all ages.

Friends and flexibility. Occasionally we introduce friends to the contra dance experience. "What do I wear?" What are the social rules?" they ask. Hm. That requires a moment's thought. "Well, I've seen shorts, pants, short skirts, long skirts, dresses, kilts. Mostly, be comfortable and wear clean, soft-soled shoes. Both men and women ask each other to dance. Some "book ahead" with favorite partners; some will simply whisper, "next dance?" as they pass in line. Some just flow toward whomever is looking for a new partner at the end of each dance. Some intentionally pull in newcomers or someone who "sat out" the last dance. Most people are friendly and open."

Travels and Festivals. We've danced in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York. On travels, my husband has danced in Colorado, California, and Arkansas. Others take contra dance cruises. Internet is our friend, and dance schedules are often posted on the web. We dance at the Brattleboro Dawn Dance each Memorial Day and Labor Day. In April, we dance at the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA), which draws dancers from all over the country. I've heard dancers plan their medical operations and their physical recoveries around NEFFA!

Beyond the dance. As relationships develop, we visit other dancers' homes and invite them to ours. We share in their weddings and celebrations. We share in their memorial services. Over the years, a group of us has formed, and we walk to our cars together, chat over the week past and week future. "Bye. . . til next Monday." One friend follows me to a parting intersection and blinks high beams in farewell. . . . Til next week.

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