The Mystical Experience of Contra-Dancing

Dancing American Style

It was about time for Rachel and I to find another fun thing to do together.    We had already of raised a dog from puppy-hood to senior citizenship, bought a house and sold it at a loss, of bought another house and remodeled it, remodeled it again, and remodeled it again, had kids, faced spiritual problems, financial problems, career problems, emotional problems, and perhaps the most challenging, the care for a difficult husband with a lumbar disc herniation in a cramped hot apartment in Italy.

A friend once told me that after having kids, the marital relationship takes on a military flavor.  The marital couple forms a small army for facing the kids’ activities, the dogs, the house, the grandparents, work and the not-to-be-forgotten insistent needs of aging adult bodies.  There was a time when extravagant adventures such as travel to foreign countries, multi-day backpacking trips, taking white water canoeing lessons were what I thought of as the fun stuff.  I’ve since learned to broaden my definition of fun stuff.  I give the dog something to eat and she eats it… Ah…  I pay the bills and Quicken works… ooh, I go to pick up the kids at school and I’m not late, wow…  I take the kids to after school activities and I don’t forget anything important… fantastic….  We all get home in one piece with all errands accomplished in less than 2 hours… mission accomplished.

If I was Italian, Brasilian or from some other passionate ethnicity, I would easily be able to come up with a new activity that would involve beauty, sweat, shouts and food, hopefully all at the same time.  But I felt a little stuck.  So, I took an approach which has worked for me in other parts of my life.  I did research.  I conducted a poll amongst friends at my life stage.  I googled.  I read books and magazines.  And in the end, I found dancing.  Yes, I remember enjoying dancing and I started to imagine two entangled bodies with beauty, sweat, shouts, and food, hopefully all at the same time.

But where and how does one go dancing in Seattle, especially when you were never that great a dancer in the first place?  People suggested, “Try contra-dancing.  It’s easy and fun.”  So we signed up for a contradancing lesson followed by an actual contradance.  Their web site recommended wearing light weight clothing.  Hmm, perhaps there would be sweating.

The dance master told us that you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have worry about how you look doing it nor about what you don’t know.  So far so good.  He added, “the dance form is very American, it’s populist, and simple.  When you’re doing it, you’ll feel good, but you won’t feel good at it.  And by the way, you will be dancing with strangers.”  Hmm… we might get to sweat with strangers.

The first step we learned was how to make a circle of four couples.  Then how to make the circle go left, then right, then smaller, then larger.  And then the most important technique, how to “swing your partner.”  The instructor said that swinging your partner could make you dizzy and he gave us a few techniques of how to avoid dizziness.  I would later learn that none of those dizziness-avoidance-techniques would work for me.

The other piece of advice was to pick partners that you didn’t know, but who were experienced, instead of partners that you did know but who were as ignorant as you.    Then he said, “By the way… when the music starts, the steps won’t be exactly as you’ve learned them.”   Instead of dancing in circles we would be placed into two long lines, one all women, the other all men… facing each other.  When we heard certain instructions the lines would shift, kind of like wave patterns going out of phase and  without any effort on our parts, we would find ourselves with new partners.

The music started and immediately, two lines formed spontaneously and I found myself across from a woman at least twenty years my senior.  She said, “Don’t worry honey, it’s obvious that you’re new.  I will show you what you need to do.”  Where Rachel had gone, I had no idea and I had no time to worry about it.  The music started  and the lines started to shift.  After a bit, I realized that the secret to this dance form was a deep and instinctive knowledge of trigonometry.  I was never very good at trigonometry.  When I missed a step or a turn, I seemed to be shattering geometric patterns  that had been passed down to us from our ancestors, ancestors who should be respected.

In moments like those, you learn the true nature, the true essence of your fellow human beings.  Some of them emanate universal love even when they’re involved in highway pileups with you on the dance floor.  Others let out their inner dominatrix.  One of the more experienced dancers was a woman who appeared to be in her sixties.  She was modestly overweight, but beautiful, and dressed in authentic folk dancing costume. When people stamped their feet to the music, she stamped her’s with such authority that the vibrations of the floor frightened everyone within a few yards of her.  When the shifting lines brought her across from me, she gave me a severe look and said, “The rest of them don’t know what they’re doing.  I’ll show you how to do it.”  Her sternness, and oversized presence brought to mind…  alpha-female rhinoceros.   I felt like an adolescent male rhino about to be judged whether or not I could stay in the herd.  I started to sweat.

I looked around and noted that others were sweating too.   Indeed, the room was extremely hot and I felt dizzy.  The combination of extreme vertigo, great music, and the occasional reception of universal love from fellow dancers had thrown me into an altered state of reality.  I was an adolescent rhino and Sufi Whirling Dervish at the same time.  I saw all the beauty of humanity not only in the face of the alpha-female-rhino-woman but also in the faces of the others who feared her.

I was a rhino having a mystical experience.  I had always wanted one of those, but boy was I dizzy.  I asked the next woman who arrived across from me on the next line shift, “What do you do to not get dizzy?”  She said, “Oh, I take Dramamine before coming here.”  An unexpected answer… so when the lines shifted I asked my next partner who answered, “Well, I take medication.”  It appeared that one of the keys to this dance-form was performance-enhancing drugs… much easier than trigonometry.  .

Finally the dance finished and I found Rachel.  She too had noticed the stern older woman.

Rachel:  “Did you notice the alpha-female-rhinoceros woman?”

Rich:  “As a matter of fact I did.   I’m awaiting judgment on whether I’ll be allowed to stay in the herd.”

Rachel:  “Are you having another mystical experience brought on by dizziness and threatening women?”

Richard:  “Perhaps.”

Rachel:  “Don’t worry, it will pass.  Do you need medication?”

Rich:  “No thanks, I’m OK.”

Rachel:  “Do you think that a hallucinating adolescent rhino would like a piece of chocolate?”

Rich:  “This rhino likes his chocolate.”

It turned out that there was a little table filled with chocolate bars of very high quality.  It seemed that the little tradition was for people to bring wonderful chocolate to share with the other dancers and it was this chocolate that completed the experience.

We had had it all… beauty, sweat, shouting, food… all at the same time.

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