Location: Old Mountains, North region, Land of Granola and Granite
After English country dancing, before square dancing.
After Cologne Imperiale, before Shalimar.
American contra dancing.
After crafters guilds, before the UAW
I find myself in a nearly impossibly perfect location, the Grange hall in Montpelier, Vermont. Part church, part one-room school house, part Elks hall...100% American. I’ve stepped out of Pa Ingalls difficult decision whether or not to join the Grange, an activist fellowship/fellowship activist tradition of a collective of American farmers from the 19th century.
Joining me in the top set of the first line is a wonderful person I just met as the dear friend of mutual friends. On the other side of the hall is my son the erstwhile driver, joining nothing but strangers in the third line. The crowd ranges from teenage to octagenarian, amazingly well distributed down the age range and across genders. Dress styles range from granola-punk to casual evening out, but there is general vibe of skirt-iness: easy peasant-style elastic top skirts, in muted or vibrant colors, simple or many panels. On girls, mostly, but there are guys in skirts, which is feeling like a cognitively dissonant throw-back to a certain era of my life. (Plus the kilted punk dude with devil horn hair in Edinburgh.) There are lines, but the lines are in squares of four, so depending how you look down the hall, you feel either like you’ve stepped into a Soul Train dance line, folk style, or as if an elaborate Busby Berkley set-up of pinwheels and such is about to begin.
Turns out both are right.
I have never done this before. Never even HEARD of contra dancing. Square dancing, yes; dutifully trained in a complete unit in elementary school. Virginia Reel, yes; Scarlett O’Hara scandalized the matrons by joining in a reel while still in her mourning clothes. But this? When the gentleman first suggested a group go to a “contra dance,” my son’s eyes flew open wide. “Nicaraguan rebels?” (I tried to ignore the sparks of interest visible in those eyes.)
No, no rebels. Just a bunch of welcoming folks who were very patient and friendly with newbie strangers from a different part of the country.
And belly dancer sourpuss. But she was definitely the exception to the rule.
So there I am, the female half of the Number One couple at the Top of the Set. By “top of the set,” one indicates ones relative position to the band. Oh, yes; I forgot to mention...live music. Real musicians, like gather to play Nova Scotia shanties or American folk or that music that was in the spine of the narrative in Widdershins, which for a meandering reason I picked up as a summer at the cabin read a few summers ago. These particular musicians were quite fine. And the caller next to them, a beautiful woman with salty salt & pepper curly long hair, was extremely fine.
Anyway, Number One at the Top of the Set. We’re closer to the band...and if we were playing cards, we would be dealing the round. One would think that a prerequisite of being a member of a Number One couple would be that one would know what the heck one was doing, but apparently not so. Luckily things work out. The caller starts each dance by leading us through the pattern, and the pattern does not include any move that our “host” didn’t explain in the car on the ride over. As we walk through the dance, he helps me pick up how to spin. My male “neighbor” (from Couple Number Two in our square) gives me a tip on how to hold my right hand as he moves me through a “courtesy turn.”
The dance begins in earnest.
This spin business? Did you ever join hands with a friend on the playground and lean back and circle around, using your momentum and weight to create a multi-person dervish that got crazier and crazier until you fell down laughing and collapsed with dizziness? Well...imagine two grown-ups facing each other, assuming the traditional waltz position, leaning back into the arm on your shoulder blade, and doing a little two-step around and around and around...generally for 10 or 12 beats. Just enough to make you a little tipsy until you get used to it. And even then, it’s...like being on the playground. :)
Turns out the couples/squares are going to move themselves down the Soul Train line, so that by the end of the particular set you will have danced your way through every Number One male and made contact with every single neighbor...not to mention your regular revisiting with your own Number One partner. There is foot stomping involved, sort of--I kept on thinking Scottish clogging meets Western two-step, but that’s not quite right.
I fell in without falling out, as it were. And smiled the whole darn time.
After dependence, before striking out on one’s own
I sat out every other dance. Because a) you are moving the whole time (take that, interval trainers), b) I don’t glow, I sweat, and that meeting hall was not air conditioned, and c) it was fun to watch and learn and enjoy the patterns and the mood. I sat there for the second dance, with the same goofy grin on my face, just taking in the scene, and then I realized there was a tall blond looking sort of new-ish but quite comfortable in the third line. He was handsome, and he was doing fine.
I immediately looked away, because I didn’t want to send the vibe of mother eyes upon him. Got caught up in looking at the mass of dancers closer to me. Forgot about him, remembered. Looked back. And realized my powerful mother vibe wasn’t really all that anymore. Because he wasn’t going to receive it anyway.
At a pause between dances a couple of songs later, I was getting ready to join the crowd when I realized the tall blond was walking toward me. He gave me the look and the words that said he was just seeing how I was doing. And then he walked away to rejoin the action.
Old friends, new friends
I rejoined our “host” for our last dance of the evening, having joined other partners for the intervening rounds. There was a new move incorporated in this one, and by the time I was at the end of the line, I pretty much had it down. We loaded into the car, crunched gravel as we pulled out of the lot...but not so loudly that my son’s last partner couldn’t call out “Come back again! Soon!!”
The new friend flies planes, is a math whiz, bypassed high school before going to college. Loves contra dancing.
The new friend is my son’s new friend. And mine.
Before me, the new friend. After me, my child.
More traveling yet to do.