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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17 Comments to “SongTravelin’: 1.26.11 – So Do You Dance?”

  • I like dancing cause you can meet some awsome guys.

  • Contra dancing is the most fun men and women can have together with their cloths on…..

  • And the range of attire is quite impressive also.

  • Dancing is one of my favorite things to do (and my favorite form of entertainment to watch)… I don’t get to do enough dancing, but I we do, we always enjoy it… I think it makes people feel so good because it’s a form of self expression and a way to connect with our artistic self.

  • Bob,

    Enjoyed your “contra dancing” piece. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t know what contra dancing is. Is it similar to square dancing? I will have to go on Youtube and see what you folks are up to. Hope you and Mz Patty have a super day.

    Yo Bro,


  • It is a lot like square dancing. In fact, at most contra dance evenings there may be one or more square dances included. In a square dance, each dancer interacts with just the dancers in one square. In contra-dancing, everyone in a line interacts with everyone else in that line. Many of the calls are the same.

  • I just looked at some You tube vids of contra dancing. Looks fun. Maybe we could go with you sometime at least to watch. Dave and I have taken some salsa lessons here in SA and we really like it.There is a group dance that we learned in Salsa that is similar to contra dancing. It is called Casino Rueda. Here are a couple of links. You can see it has similarities. This looks like a group giving a demonstration
    and these folks are really good and fast
    OK here is a cultural tidbit:
    “Mixed dancing” is a sensitive subject in Saudi. Our Salsa classes are advertised as Latin Steps and described as “team exercise”. Our teachers are Saudi though! – Real rebels who had to travel far to get the chance to learn Salsa and who are inspired to teach it for the love of the music and the joy of the dance.

  • It looks a lot like it, except that the Salsa seems to be a type of circle dance. But the expressions on the faces look just the same!
    My best youtube is of a Bugs Bunny Square dance. You gotta see this!

  • Bob,

    I went on Youtube and saw some contra dancing, square dancing and Bug’s dancing.

    It seems to me that I would like square dancing better than contra dancing. In square dancing you only dance with the girls and there is no touchy touchy with the guys. Also in square dancing when you get with an experienced group you can really “lean” into the calls and you exchange a lot of energy with the other dancers. I did like the fiddles in the contra dancing.

  • I have not been on the computer as much lately, I am doing NAEP testing in schools in the area. This is a busy couple of months for me, and then……….what a breathe of fresh air. I am so happy you emailed and invited us to check out your website – I haven’t in a while and as usual loved reading what you two are doing and reading your “thoughtful reflections”. I wonder what credentials are needed to classify someone as a philosopher because if you are not there yet, I think you are nearing that level of achievement. You are truly inspiring.

    But I do have an observation! Contra dancing has many similarities to square dancing it seems from the description you have written. I did that for years as a counselor and loved it – Daddy would say when I would come home from Rock Eagle that it was a crime for me to take money for something that I enjoyed so much. What you describe is a great part of the social part of that experience. Recently Jim and I ran into a counselor that I thought was an amazing dancer. She demonstrated some of her techniques for us when I urged her. As a result this past fall there were some clogging classes offered in area and I took advantage of that and I hope to do some more. It really is fun. I wish there was contra dancing in our area. We are so happy that you two are having so much fun.

    Love to you both and break a leg!

  • Great to hear from you. I guess my first exposure to square dancing was in 4-H, but I was pretty shy. Also, our dancing sessions didn’t last very long. If you have never checked out the Bugs Bunnhy square dance youtube video, you have to do that. I put the link on the response I sent to Karen. Thank you for the kind words about the web log. We’re also hoping to get an original CD out this year. I’m hoping it proves to be good. It’s cool that you’re still helping in the schools. My students continue to keep in touch on face book.

  • Great article, Bob! I love contra dancing, because it’s such a simple framework on which we can move to the music as simply or elaborately as we want, with an amazing variety of people and a surprising variety of musical styles–my favorite is when the band really rocks out. Plus the no alcohol, no smoking, just great “old-fashioned” friendly fun…which never goes out of fashion!
    Jan Harazda

    PS I will soon be changing my business name and website to Hoshino Therapy® of Melbourne

  • Thanks for writing about your new-found interest in contra dancing! I started contra dancing (and other forms of community dancing) 31 years ago and it still thrills me to move to the music and to interact with other dancers. I have such a big smile on my face the whole time I’m dancing and it brings such joy to my heart! Dancing lifts my spirits! When I’m dancing I forget my aches and pains and cares and woes and I’m so happy that I get a natural high! I wish more people would try contra dancing because it’s such a great activity. I hope that all of your friends and family will try it at least once!

  • It’s so rewarding for me to see Bob enjoying the dance community that I have loved for over 7 years now! I’m very happy that he sees how special contra dancing is, and I feel so blessed that we can share it together. Hope to see y’all on the dance floor or a Sound Traveler show very soon!

  • Well said, Bob. I, too, remember hearing myself say, “Real musicians don’t dance!” as a way of dodging an awkward honky-tonk or other dancing situation — something I’ve never been good at. Contra is the exception, both because of the social aspect and the excellent cardio workout. I never smiled at the gym, but I can’t stop grinning while dancing with all these wonderful folks, and that includes you!

  • Welcome to Contra Dancing, Bob.
    Snowball was our first real weekend dance a few months after we discovered Contra Dancing several years ago, and we make a point of returning each year. Contra Dancers have a different spirit than the non dancers we interact with in the outside world; they are connected, to the dance, to other dancers, and probably to their inner selves as well. There are people we have danced with over the years that we know only as dancers because at that dance that is all that is really important. Who they are, the kind of person they are inside is transmitted in their ability to connect with that other person and become one in a sense by giving and receiving the pleasure of the dance and the music. People at Contra Dances smile with their eyes, not just their mouths. They have open hearts, communicating with body language and dance, feeling the music as the pace increases, and transmitting that pleasure to their partners, to the caller who watches what the dance is creating, and to the musicians who feel the appreciation of the dancers.
    And Contra Dancing is also the most forgiving. When I was a beginning dancer, people reached out to help, to teach, to make me feel welcome. If you can count to eight, walk with at least some coordination, enjoy great live music, and want social interaction with friendly, intelligent people from all walks of life, try Contra Dancing. Google it specific to Florida and you will find dance schedules for the entire state. Enjoy!

  • What a beautiful expression of what it is all about. I particularly like “who they are…transmitted in their ability to connect with that other person and become one in a sense by giving and receiving the pleasure of the dance and the music.”

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