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Contra Dancing in Maine

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“I dance like a cowboy,” I protested to Chaya and her mother a week ago in Maine.

“No, really, I can’t dance,” I spoke fearfully.

I was being prompted to go contra dancing in Bangor, Maine, and I shook in fear of what the consequences of doing so could be. Every time I have gone dancing with a girlfriend, I have exited from the dancehall with a very unimpressed girlfriend. I have even had partners who would not dance with me for fear of embarrassment. In point, there are things that I do, and there are things that I don’t do. At the words “dance,” I have become prone to quickly exiting the proximity of the speaker of this frightening word with my tail firmly tucked between my legs. For me, dancing means sending my show south, it means undoing whatever social web I have woven: I dance so badly that I have lost friends and lovers over it.

Dancing and love making are infinitely tied together. I can balk at
confidence in the later, but the former is far, far out of my league. I
am a rickety, angular, white man. My gears are not greased enough to
move rhythmically. The beat of my heart is the only beat that I possess.

“Lets go dancing, it will be fun,” spoke Chaya. “I can’t dance either.”

I did not believe her, as Chaya often makes vain attempts at
incompetence, perhaps only to surprise her suitors as to how wonderful
she really is at everything. But she did not understand what she was getting herself into. My warnings worked to no ends. I was firmly entrenched on a sea of “lets go dancing” and my raft was too far afloat to swim for shore now. Oh well, if this relationship must end by the sword, then so be it. I will go dancing, and sink with my ship in a ring of burning fire.

Chaya, her mother, and sister all prettied themselves up in flowy
dancing dresses. I put on my sole pair of blue jeans and boots and
button up plaid shirt. I felt like a stiff and ridged cowboy. We drove
over to the dance hall.

“Whatever will be will be,” I repeated over and over to myself. Chaya is
bound to see me dance someday, better sooner than later.

We walked into the hall and I was tossed headlong into a dance lesson
for first time contra dancers. Chaya and her mother both joined me so
that I would not feel so weird. I felt weird anyway.

A made-for-PBS looking man with a soft beard, bald head, and rounded
features began showing me made-for-PBS dance moves. He made me do the
dance moves too. I tried to sneak away, I was caught in the net. The
dance lesson proceeded with me walking in circles with some Maine lady
with bird hair and Chaya’s mother. I had to touch them. I felt
uncomfortable. I pretended not to feel uncomfortable. I was shown most
of the moves in contra dancing, and came to the conclusion that I was in
for some odd sort of New England touchy feely kind of endeavor. It became
apparent that I would have to touch many people and could not just hide
in a corner with Chaya, as I had strongly hoped for. I was being tossed
into the pond for the piranhas. I pretended to be cool fish.

No sweat.

“It is a tradition in contra dancing to take many different dancing
partners,” the made-for-PBS man told us as he ended our lesson. I
was sure that I would fall flat on my face. I hoped that Chaya would
still be around afterwards to peel me back up off of the ground.

The first dance was about to start. I collected together my final scraps
of apparent confidence and moved onto the floor with Chaya. The band
began playing music, and everybody began moving in line dancing fashion.
The seas parted and Chaya drifted on a wave away from me. I had no life
raft now, it was time to sink or swim. I passed myself from partner to
partner all the way down the dance hall, everybody was dancing with
everybody in a preset, organized sort of way. There were dance moves to
follow and everyone followed them. I was thrown to and fro.
One lady would take me, do a move or two on me, spin, and then pass me on to another lady who would do the same to me. “Hey, there goes the bird hair woman; hey, was that Chaya’s mother?” Partners, people, music,
ladies, confusion, and the dancehall walls all spun by me in a kaleidoscope of spinning movement. Spin around, spin around, spin around.

I became conscious that I was dizzy.

Finally, the song ended. I ran away to the sidelines with the hope that
I could just blow spit bubbles and take photos for the rest of the
night. “I’m dizzy,” I said. I sat the next dance out and relished that
my woosy plan could work. Perhaps it is better to be a Nancy than a bad
dancing cowboy, I though to myself as I took a few photos and came up
with ways to embellish this story for the travelogue.

Then, as the second dance ended, a couple of Chaya’s young male friends
came into the dance hall. I had competition. How could I sit on the
sidelines blowing spit bubbles while my girl had fun dancing with other
dudes? I am perhaps a little square, but I am not that square. I
packed up my pride and strode out to the dance floor with Chaya in my
arms. If I could not contra dance the right way, then I would just make
it all up and pretend I could.

“The Yankees always win because the other teams can’t see past the
pinstripes,”
I repeated to myself.

The dance started with the beginning of a new song, and I swung myself through the procession pretending to contra dance. About half way
through the song, I realized that I was no longer pretending. I realized that I was contra dancing. Somehow, someway, I had figured it out. I was dancing, and, for all obvious purposes, seemed to be doing
alright. At around this point I caught on to the notion that I may have
been having fun.

I was having fun. This was weird.

Contra dancing has the structure of an English country dance, the steps
of a French court dance, and the sensibility of an American folk dance.
I just danced like a cowboy and hoped for the best. It seemed to be
working.

I took the next dance with Chaya’s sister, who can really friggin dance.
I kept my head above water. Contra dancing is fun. We spun and spun, and
I was no longer dizzy. I laughed a little, as I did the moves as if I
knew what I was doing. The song ended, and I wiped the sweat off of my
brow.

This dancing stuff was not so bad after all.

I took the next dance with Chaya. I spun her in and out of my arms, we
looked into each other’s eyes:

She smiled, I winked. A cowboy learned to dance a New England jig.

Contra Dance video

Wikipedia
What is Contra Dance?

Go to a Contra Dance

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Dance, Maine, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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