Last Saturday night was the first contra dance of the semester at the big university in town. For me and my friends, this is the best night of the month. Since a friend who plays fiddle in a contra band introduced a group of us to the swirling, toe-tapping world of contra dance last semester, we’ve become addicted.
Contra dance is a New England variation of 17th century English country dance. (Think Jane Austen attending a party thrown by Laura Ingalls Wilder.) The name, as I found out comes from the French, contre danse. Happy Francophile is happy. I and my friends join 60 or so local residents — no formal partner required, because everyone changes partners for every dance — and step, swing and sway according to the caller’s directions.
I’ve been trying to write about contra for a while, but of course I couldn’t do it to my satisfaction without a pinch of snark. So, here I bring you 15 normally awkward situations rendered slightly less mal à droite by contra dancing. Notice how I say “slightly.”
1. Stepping on your partner’s toes. Contra moves fast. Ain’t nobody got time for excuses for your two left feet. Quickly apologize and move on.
2. Someone stepping on your toes. Don’t wear sandals. Don’t do it.
3. Sweat. By the end of the first dance, contra dance halls get as warm and moist as a greenhouse. You will be touching a lot of sweaty backs. Get used to it.
4. Asking a guy to dance. There’s usually a shortage of partners, so grab ’em while you can.
5. Asking another girl to dance. It’s not weird. Seriously.
6. Dancing with someone other than your SO. Everyone changes partners. Don’t be stingy. And even in the course of the dance, you end up dancing with several different partners, or “neighbors.”
On a side note, my ex-boyfriend told me that seeing me dance with other guys made him jealous in a “Save the Last Dance for Me” kind of way. He was dating a pretty girl that guys wanted to dance with, but he would always scoop me up for the closing waltz. (We didn’t break up because of contra, I swear!)
7. Dancing with someone twice your age. Contra dances attract a lot of locals. People under 30 make up a small percent of the population, even in a college town.
8. Dancing with someone old enough to be your grandfather. See above.
9. Holding hands with a stranger. You have to hold hands with your partner or else you will go spinning into the wall. Between a broken nose and clasping someone else’s sweaty palm, I’d choose the latter.
10. Staring into someone’s eyes for a whole minute. Eye contact is crucial for “swinging,” or spinning in a circle with your partner, especially for those prone to motion sickness.
11. Small talk. Normally, I hate small talk, but it’s even more awkward if you dance with someone without getting at least their name.
12. Dancing with someone in whom you have no romantic interest. These dances may have been designed as a form of courtship, or Elizabeth-and-Darcy-style snark-fests, but asking someone to dance does not mean you like them, nor does being asked to dance mean someone likes you.
13. Dancing with someone who you do find attractive. You can always play the it’s-a-contra-dance-and-my-dancing-with-you-is-totally-arbitrary-except-not-really card.
14. Not having any idea how to dance. There is someone there whose sole job is to tell you what to do, i.e. the caller.
15. Showing that you’re having a good time. People appreciate smiling. And laughing. You’re not a robot. Relax. Have fun.
À la prochaine!