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David Hirzel

“Better Never than Late”–Contra Dance in Sebastopol

By January 27, 2015No Comments

If you’re not familiar with Contra Dance (and bear in mind that I am only just barely so), think square dancing-mingled with line-dancing spun to the old-timey tunes of a three-piece acoustic band. On Saturday night last, the band Ruby Mt. String Band consisted of fiddle, banjo, and guitar, the tunes were long-winded reels and waltzes.

The outward-reaching contra dance community welcomes newcomers to the art, and so novices like me and Alice and Sharab are provided with a short introductory lesson 1/24/15 at Wischemann Hall in Sebastopol CA, in the very basics of the dance before the fun begins.

The dance is made up of squares of four, interweaving with each other as they move in opposite directions, so that every sixty-four beats or so, you have a new partner with whom to run through the same figures. The figures include “balances” and “do-si-do’s” and “hays” and “swings” two or three or four times during the course of each reel. Since you might have six or eight squares constantly moving through each other, caller Celia Ramsay‘s admonition “better never than late” is particularly apt.

The music is fast-moving, as are the twenty-four or so dancers. If the newcomer gets behind in the beat (we always do), there is no chance that by moving faster he will recover and be in place when his new partner is reaching out, balancing, or getting ready to swing. Don’t even try. “Better never. . .”

Now, in my view the best thing about contra-dance, indeed all the social dances of a bygone era, is this: every two minutes you get a new partner. And two minutes after that another. And you get to interact with each in a prescriptively chaste manner, with the “swing” a closed box with only two occupants, each holding the other around the waist or at the shoulder. “Swing” is a vigorously rhythmic spin to the music. The key to not getting dizzy is to look into your partner’s eyes.

Now, picture this. You are spinning across the dance floor and looking deeply into the eyes (is there another way?) of a complete stranger. Behind that stranger’s face the whole world is spinning. To your own new eyes it appears as though you are the lead actor in a romantic movie, and your partner is, well, your partner. And, from sheer joy, you are both laughing like hell. There is no other way you will become so intimate with a total stranger in under two minutes. And in another two minutes, you will have another with whom to become so engaged.

And everything about this moment is so completely chaste.

And you won’t get to have this moment, if you don’t make it happen. So, in this case it’s “better late than never.” But when you’re the newcomer on the Contra Dance floor, it’s the other way around. You could say that’s the magic of it. . . . And if you’re lucky like me, you get to leave the dancehall with the one you came in with.

Info and calendar:  North Bay Contra Dance Society

Review by David Hirzel