Dance Magic (published in the Johnson City Press on September 8, 2013)
The first time I went contra dancing, I wore the exact wrong outfit: jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Within a few songs, the back of my shirt clung to my skin, and my forehead and temples were damp then dripping. But I didn’t stop. With each new song, the fiddler pulled his bow across the strings and the caller took a big breath to cue our steps, and there I stood, holding hands with the person across from me like I was supposed to before starting, and off I’d go with a do-si-do or a swing or a star or a promenade.
I didn’t know that first time what any of those terms meant, so I bumbled along. I didn’t know what in the world I was doing, so I just followed everyone else. I had no idea, either, that I would fall for the dance like it was the best boyfriend I ever had. But we rarely recognize love when it is just beginning.
Before I tried it, I didn’t know if I could even do contra dance in the first place, but I was willing to try. That’s nearly all you need because, really, almost anyone can do this dance: if you can walk, hold your arm out, and count to eight, you can contra dance. A caller tells you what to do, and the music--there is always a live band--belts the beat out for you. It doesn’t require years of training or practice, and it’s the friendliest dance crowd I’ve ever known, always welcoming to beginners.
There are lots of dances I call the dim-lights kind: the ones that start late at night and take place in clubs, the ones where you’ll fit in if you wear something tight-fitting and black. Contra dance is a bright-light kind of dance: in Jonesborough, at the Visitor’s Center, the musicians starts sweeping their bows across strings or strumming their guitars at 7:30 pm on Saturday night, right after the free beginner’s lesson. Little kids come with parents; teenagers do, too. Most people wear t-shirts and shorts or billowy skirts that sway with the tunes.
It’s one of the few types of dance that really brings a mish-mash of people: young and old, liberal and conservative, heavy and thin, introverts, extroverts, single, coupled, graceful, and awkward. It’s one of the reasons I started contra dancing to begin with: I didn’t want to have to fit in or be judged. I had been judging myself my whole life and didn’t need another critic with a gavel or a score card. I just needed to move so fast I would stop thinking. Contra dance can do that: if you are stressed out or worried, all that goes flying from the dance floor as soon as your feet find their faith.
When I contra danced, it was the only time I let go of mistakes as quickly as I made them and kept on going. It was the first time I could really laugh at how bad I could be at something. And later, when I got much better at it, I still took the wrong step or made the wrong turn sometimes, a constant reminder to always be humble, to never forget we are all beginners in some ways.
Once I really started contra dancing, I got the full-blown, can’t-get-enough-of-it bug: I found every dance within an 80-mile radius and showed up, usually with a carload of good friends I’d met through dance, a bottle of water, and a bag of trail mix to share on the ride home.
Now, I’ve been dancing for over a decade. I have danced in old barns, in theaters, in big gyms and small churches. I have danced during the bitter winter in Ottawa, Canada, and in the fever of August in Asheville, North Carolina. One time, during a dance weekend, I contra-ed 17 hours within a 48-hour time span. If I wasn’t in love with contra dance before that, then that weekend cemented it, made me declare my unwavering commitment.
But one dance did more than that: it changed the trajectory of my life.
It was May, 2007.
The Historic Jonesborough Dance Society holds a 12-hour dance, called Contrathon, every Sunday of Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. The first time the group hosted it was six years ago, and I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I cajoled my friends into signing up with me, and that Sunday morning, we drove across the state and into the mountains just as the heat swelled into the air.
Two people sat taking money for admissions when our group walked in the door. One of them was a woman we all knew from the region’s dance community, and then there wasa slender man next to her, a man I’d never seen before. He greeted us warmly, and later, in the middle of a contra tune, we shared a moment of dance. He had the kind of hold I liked: his arms, though around me, gave me plenty of space—a sign of respect—while at the same time gave enough frame that I knew I could lean back a little, and he wouldn’t let me fall.
He was the kind of dancer I didn’t want to stop dancing with, that I hoped I’d see again, but he lived in Johnson City, Tennessee, four hours away from where I lived, and I thought, “What are the chances we’ll ever see each other again?”
Turns out, really good. Especially if you’re willing to try.
We both were, and over the next year, we trekked back and forth across the mountains and cities that spanned between us to visit, and to dance. Though the unwritten rules are that you are supposed to change partners after a song, we always snuck back to each other every other tune. At Contrathon, a year after we’d met, we announced our engagement. By the next Contrathon, we were married. Now, he is my home, and Jonesborough is my home dance.
I tell just about everyone that it’s a dance worth trying: if you go even once, you have a good shot at having fun; if you go a few times, you’ll probably like it more than enough.
And maybe, if you’re really open to it, you’ll let it works its magic. It just might teach you something. It just might change your life.