November 14, 2007

Contra Mantra

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Although it is by far most popular in America today, contra dancing comes to us from the intermingling of French and English country dances. More than four centuries old, contra refers to dances where participants start out in long, single-sex lines, partners facing each other and then follow a specific sequence of steps between 20 and 30 times. Musically influenced by American folk and bluegrass music, a band of acoustic instruments play songs called “jigs” or “reels” as accompaniment. With dancers and a band in place, the only missing ingredients are a caller, who keeps the dancers focused by calling out the next move right before you need to make it, and a small school gymnasium or recreation center to dance in.
Slaterville Springs is about four miles past the outskirts of Collegetown on Route 79 (State Street) and the town hosts contra dances every Friday night at the Bethel Grove Community Center. We found out about it by word-of-mouth, but the organizers do poster and publicize the events occasionally. At 6:30, community members show up with instruments and casseroles for a musical potluck dinner. Ideally it would be a good time to meet your future partners, but the group of five of us that went out found it unsettling since the only time anyone talked to us was to criticize us for taking too much wine from the one bottle they had. We ate nervously, had no idea what to expect, and then at 8 o’clock sharp the tables and chairs were cleared away, the floor got swept, the band took the stage and everything changed.
The only way to really learn contra is to just do it. The challenge with contra dancing is that the caller will only walk you through the next dance once or twice, and some sequences have ten or more parts that all need to be executed precisely to keep the dance alive. Beyond that, beginners like us had to rely on our more experienced partners and neighbors just to keep up. This means: asking a 75-year old woman or a 12-year old girl to be your partner, trying to both learn and dance contra’s vocabulary of steps (such as the hay, allemande, promenade, balance, hands-four, and gypsy, all of which encourage intimate eye contact and other forms of trust with strangers), sweating and exhausting yourself for three hours, shamelessly ignoring the dirty looks and grumbles of the old men who’ve been dancing since they were three and savoring every minute of it. I didn’t work up enough courage to get into the first two dances, but once I danced my first there was no way I was going to miss another.
The events in Slaterville Springs are unique because, despite their small size, different bands truck in from all over New England and Eastern Canada each week to entertain the crowd. While the announcement that Mike Jones would be playing the following week was only funny to the (minority) population under 25 that knows the name through rap, the crowd was elated to hear the news. By the end, probably because we stayed until the end, we were welcomed back for his gig this week. There’s a good chance that from now on if you want to know where I am every Friday night from 8 – 11, I’ll be doin’ the contra.