The mystery of contra dancers

June 25, 2008 by Jen

As I have for the last month and a half, I went contra dancing yesterday. I was faced with a question that has puzzled my mind since the first time I went, back in December:

Why are contra dancers so happy?

I sat out one dance, and the girl sitting beside me started talking. She had come with a summer school class and thought it was a great place to have fun and meet a lot of people.

I was in “hands four” with another new dancer when she remarked, “This is the most welcoming group of people I have ever met.” I had to agree.

Another man I danced with told me that his partner had recently dubbed him “the happiest person in the room,” but that he was passing the title on to me. For those of you who know me – somewhat a pessimist and not too quick to show emotion – his comment sounds a little bizarre.

I have been to quite a few different dance communities in the last four years. Some are reserved, some elegant, some enthusiastic, some relaxed. Although I have been welcomed at all, and have come to feel accepted, it took time. Not so here.

It could be true simply of my particular contra group. But I have been to another group once, and the same thing was true. All across the Internet are stories like mine. This blog post expresses the same.

But why? Does contra dancing attract cheerful people, or does it make them? I would say the latter. Here are a few thoughts on why:

1. You don’t need a partner. It is expected that you change partners every dance, so even if you sit out one dance, you are almost certain to dance the next.

2. You have to make eye contact in order to keep from getting dizzy. After staring at a perfect stranger halfway down the hall, it’s hard not to laugh at your own awkwardness.

3. Everyone is equal on the dance floor. Some people add more fancy spins or an extra strut, but you’re all following the same steps. There are no star performers.

4. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the caller sometimes skips a measure, and bumping into people or missing a turn on a “hey for four” is just an excuse for a good laugh.

5. You will sweat, and it’s okay; no one cares, because they’re sweating too.

6. Every generation is represented. Older folks show the younger ones, parents bring their little children, college and high school students come en masse.

7. Groups are dissolved. There is no room or time for cliques. Someone will bump into you during an enthusiastic swing, and the group will be no more – they’ll probably all be dancing in different parts of the room.

8. Goofiness is totally acceptable – the more the merrier. Showing off is not competition, it’s a chance to watch someone else collide with the caller and ruefully settle to a quieter pace.

9. The music is foot-tapping, swirl-your-skirts fun, and usually live.

10. And overall, there is a general lack of taking oneself seriously. See this introduction to contra dance for a good example of the tone.

Addicting? Smile-producing? Yes. Find your own. Or come to mine!

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