What IS Contra dancing, though? The Santa Barbara Contra Dance Association employs one of my favorite terms when they say, “Contra dancing is social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music. The rest is just details.” An unknown author said, “It is an amusement park ride we make for ourselves.” I have been Contra dancing actively, meaning, at least weekly, for the past three years, and I consider it an activity that produces pure joy, for every three hour session I attend.
Contra dancing is a type of partner dancing, perhaps one of the only types of partner dancing (actually Rueda de Casino dancing also qualifies), that does not require you to arrive at the dance venue WITH a partner, or to have to rely on finding a partner to allow you to enjoy an evening. Why? Because you not only change partners for every piece of music (like ballroom dancing), but you also are switching partners as you work your way through a line of dancers, the line looking much like the scene you may be familiar with in Gone with the Wind, except that dancers are faced toward each other, hence the French derived word “contra” (across), instead of side-by-side, facing the band or orchestra.
The term “Contra” is sometimes also considered a form of the word “country,” relating to the fact that this type of dancing grew out of English and American “country” dancing; you can see it being done by some of the characters in the (excellent) film in theatres now, Twelve Years a Slave.
The music itself sometimes sounds jazzy, sometimes country-ish, sometimes swing-ish…it depends on the instruments and the musicians that have been contracted to come to each event. The moves are not difficult or complicated (like tango), but they do involve lots of spinning and turning, which some of us love and do more than our share of, and some of us tend to get dizzy from, until we get more used to the style. Partially because it is the best way to dance, and partially to mitigate the dizziness, contra dancers usually look straight into each others eyes. You also try to be aware of your posture, doing what we call “giving weight,” to keep your arms tight, your posture firm, and allow for a good spin together.
A hallmark of Contra dancing is also that it is not, rarely ever, “DJ’d,” as is much of the music at dance venues these days, and as is always the case at my also beloved Israeli folk dancing. At Contra dancing, you are dancing to a live band, with musicians who will sometimes jump down into the crowd and dance with you, or, vice versa, many of the dancers are musicians as well, so you’ll sometimes see them up on the stage. One of the things I love about Contra dancing is that you find yourself getting to know a community of creative people. Where you find musicians, you find dancers, artists, actors, in general, people interested in the arts and letters.
Unlike almost every other form of dancing, there is a very short learning curve in Contra, because the dances are “called,” meaning, a person speaks the dance moves you are doing, or are about to do, while you are doing them. This is similar to square dancing. In both cases, you have a person who is on the stage with the band, holding onto (or having memorized) a formula or recipe of what steps are to be done by the dancers on the floor, in time with the music that is being played from the stage. Contra is similar to Square dancing moves and calls, but in Square dancing you only are working with the people in your “square” of eight people, whereas in Contra dancing, you mix with all of the people in your line of progression through the room.
Line dances, to me, are also similarly easy enough to learn and also “called” in a way, although not aloud, you have the opportunity to follow a person leading the group with your eyes. Dances like these are more approachable than most other types of dance, meaning, they have a shorter learning curve than ballroom, salsa, tango, swing, or again, Israeli folk dancing, the hardest of them all. I liken Israeli dance to learning Japanese or Chinese characters, because you basically have to memorize hundreds of pieces of dance choreography that are designed to match with one song (they say there are over 5000 of them these days, like kanji). There is no calling, people don’t usually change partners or help you out; it’s like on-the-job training at a teaching hospital.
More on the partner switching concept: if you show up with a partner at Contra dancing, and neither of you know what you are doing, more seasoned dancers will tend to split you up, so every person has a chance to be led through the process, and nobody feels at a loss or left out. Married or dating pairs who arrive at a Contra venue will usually dance a set or two together, and maybe do the punctuating waltzes we do at the end of the first and second halves of the evenings. Otherwise, the way it usually works is that you partner up right before a dance is to begin. With occasional rare exceptions, there are usually, and blessedly, enough leads and follows (notice, I am not saying men and women, although there are, believe it or not, usually enough and pretty equal part of both genders) so that everyone can dance. If you don’t get matched, that only happens for a short portion of an evening, maybe for less than one 10 minute “set.”
But some people are avaricious enough to try to book sets in advance, which makes things difficult for the rest of us, who try to enjoy the serendipity of switching partners between each set. Contra dancing is refreshing in that you generally don’t have people judging each others’ clothing, looks, age or dancing prowess, which allows for a more ecumenical experience. Just the other evening, I said to a potential dance partner, as we walked out onto the floor after the midway break, “Are you already taken for this set?” He glanced at me and said, “Of course not! I didn’t know there WAS such a thing as promising a set in advance!” When I was a newer dancer, I also heard the following conversation:
Woman: Can I have the next set with you?
Man: I’m sorry, I’d love to, but that wouldn’t be nice for the new people.
One of the things I like best about Contra dancing is that the people who come to it follow an unwritten, but understood, code of ethics that I find to be socially conscientious. I am trying to introduce this mentality to other types of dancing that I do as well. I am out to change dance culture to be more inclusive, to encourage more men to join, and to promote more women being willing to share and/or train the men we do manage to lure into our dance venues.
Contra dancing is usually managed as a “co-op” with a board of directors who collect dues and admissions, decide on expenditures, determine venues, and how to market our events. This is different than other types of dancing, where a leader or teacher of some kind has to take their own risk of renting a place, supplying the entertainment and refreshments, or other requisite material for a dance event. Refreshments at Contra dancing are also something to look forward to; sometimes it is potluck, but there is also a reimbursement funded for bringing healthy and delicious items. Many people also participate in what I call (for various reasons), ‘fellowship,” where we go out to a local restaurant afterwards. That is where we really get to know each other, and become friends. Speaking of friends, for those of us on Facebook, when you “friend” a Contra dancer, you usually find out that you then have “20-30 friends in common!
In the Los Angeles area alone, Contra dancing happens every Saturday night, in Santa Barbara every Sunday, Fridays once a month in Pasadena, and we have dance weekends, and other events, and this is a nationwide pursuit as well, for when you travel. Write to me in the blog below, if you have any questions or need more information. See you at Vet’s Auditorium THIS Saturday (note: it is not always held at Vet’s) at 7:30PM!! $10 per person.