CONTRA CULTURE

During the fifteen years that I have been a contra dance caller and musician, I have watched newcomers walk into the dance hall for their first evening of contra dancing with the same trepidation as sojourners entering a new culture. In some ways this is close to what is happening. Newcomers who are escorted by eager spouses or adventurous friends or those who venture out alone are entering a setting where many of the rules of every day interactions are changed. It is no surprise that they show mixed reactions to their first encounter with contra culture. In order to consider the evening a good experience, newcomers must be able to make several adaptations from their everyday expectations.

The first adjustment has to do with the sacred territory that Americans call their personal space. The second has to do with a different style of eye contact that experienced dancers consider essential to the fun of contra dancing and newcomers find unnatural and disarming. Contra dancing is a traditional American dance form. As a displaced relative of English country dancing; contra dancing was common throughout the original colonies. The Virginia Reel, which children learn at the age when they feel that holding hands or touching one another is to be avoided at all cost, is one form of contra dance. Unlike other dance forms, where dancers interact solely with a chosen partner, contra dancers must dance with a series of strangers! This aspect of contra dancing often surprises and temporarily dismays new dancers. In the course of the series of figures that make up a contra, original partners will be as likely to dance with strangers (politely called their neighbors) as with one another. Each one of these strangers will enter that territory that Americans preserve as intimate, personal space.

New dancers who overcome that hurdle must next adjust to an unfamiliar style of eye contact that can be direct, intense, and--according to most dancers--quite necessary. Contra dance tempos are relatively quick and the figures, sequences of turns and swings, can become dizzying. To keep from becoming disoriented, dancers must learn to fix their gaze on a stationary point, usually their partnerís face! Newcomers who successfully adjust to dancing with strangers frequently comment that learning to give and take an extended gaze is creepy, unnerving or embarrassing.

The rules used to define personal space are different in contra dancing than in every-day encounters. As a result, some people have difficulty extending that space generally reserved for intimate contact to strangers on a dance floor. To feel comfortable, new dancers must recognize that they are in a new situation, outside the definitions of everyday encounters. And they have to decide they can share their close personal space, even while dancing, with strangers. This said, there are limits to which strangers are considered to be acceptable partners.

While newcomers make certain adjustments, it is equally interesting to note there are definite limits to peopleís adaptability. This is reflected in the willingness to mix traditional gender roles in a dance. Often a woman will dance with another woman, particularly when women outnumber men at a dance evening. Occasionally two women will dance together for a couple dance like a schottische or polka, even though there are male partners available. This generally happens with two experienced dancers or two women who want to "try out" some new dance move. The less frequently crossed boundary is men dancing with other men. The few contra figures that involve two men dancing together generally involve turning one another arm-wrestle style, with hands clasped and elbows bent. Besides that, men rarely dance figures with one another and even more rarely choose to dance with one another as partners. This rule of gender roles remains strong, despite the odd fact that our monthly dances regularly attract more men dancers than women. Surplus men prefer to be wallflowers than to dance as partners. Over many years, I have seen one or two determined men don skirts in order to assure that they secured a place in the contra line, but these are high-spirited, good-humored dancers. The chuckles and attention they attract underscore the fact that they are the exceptions to the rule.

When newcomers attend a contra dance for the first time they are walking into something like a different culture. They find there are new rules for some familiar interactions while rules for other interactions remain intact. Naturally, not everyone who comes to a dance for the first time becomes a contra dancer. For some, contras just arenít their kind of fun. Others overcome their initial awkward feelings. Those who can enter a new situation, overcome their initial feelings of discomfort, and leave the dance hall smiling have successfully adjusted their cultural assumptions about appropriate space and gesture. Whether sojourners abroad or dancers at home, those who can tolerate or adapt their expectations are rewarded with new pleasures.

By Karen Berquist