It was almost our first “date” together, and the band was playing their hearts out. Some friends who had known Patty and her family for a long time leaned over and asked me, “So do you dance?” I answered, “That’s why I learned to play music, so I wouldn’t have to dance.” “Well, if you’re going to date her, that’ll change.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, but here I am a few years later — a married man and a card-carrying contra dancer. To be honest, Patty didn’t make me take up the activity. But it didn’t take me long to realize that dancing (especially contra dancing) wasn’t just something Patty did; it also revealed something about who she was.
A contra dance isn’t like the dances I went to as a young man. At a good contra dance, people ranging in age from young teens to generous maturity gather together in an inviting and well-lit dance hall. Each night of dancing involves a specific number of dances. A buzz of excitement builds as an energetic band prepares and a dance caller positions him or herself behind a microphone. For their parts, as if receiving invisible and inaudible signals, dancers form amorphous double lines on the dance floor, awaiting instructions from the caller.
“Take hands-four from the top,” the caller gently commands. Immediately the lines shape up, with little dance cells forming up and down the length of the dance hall. The caller goes on to describe the dance to come, movement by movement, using specialized dance terminology such as allemandes, mad robins, hays, courtesy turns, and the ever-popular gypsies followed by swings.
After these preliminaries, the caller turns to the band, nods a head, and the entire dance hall explodes into rhythmic and coordinated movement. The band streams out interesting and sometimes beautiful melodies. Each piece is often punctuated by thumping bass and the pounding of dancers’ feet. Early in each dance, the caller calls, or sometimes sings instructions over the microphone. As the dance continues, the calls become less frequent, ceasing entirely until a final musical cadence from the band signals the end of that particular dance.
All the while, dancers dance. Men spin the ladies. Women turn, spin, and smile as their dresses flow in a kaleidoscope of color around them. Men and women form intricate and dynamic patterns as they progress through sequences of each dance. Before long, each woman wears a slight glow of perspiration; many men bear an obvious layer of sweat – even on a cool evening. But each dance ends with applause, laughing, hugs, and general celebration.
And now, I too join in this activity – and I get it. For several hours on a dance night, I join with my wife in a social activity that involves music, coordination, quick-thinking, and teamwork. I spend time with healthy, happy, supportive, and friendly people who have chosen to take a break from all the other demands of the world and to spend time together dancing.
Yep, I learned to play music, and I dance. And now I’m glad I do both. – Bob Tatum
Sound Traveler has a couple of big engagements next week. Check the schedule and come if you can.
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