Opinion » Guest Commentaries

Teens’ experiment with contra dancing offers a moral in cultural acceptance
by Joseph C. Berryhill
published January 7, 2006 6:00 am

My 2-year-old daughter loves musical instruments. In the warm months when she is downtown, she stops for every street guitarist and saxophonist, wiggles her hips to their tunes and then walks my dollar to the tip can.

So it wasn’t surprising recently when she got excited at a West Asheville restaurant after a couple of musicians pulled out their instruments. She stared so intently at the guitarist tuning his instrument that I offered to take her away if she was breaking his concentration. When the violinist squatted down and offered my child the chance to pluck a string, she backed off and curled up against me, as if it were too much to contemplate touching that magical thing.

As an adult, I’ve lost a lot of my ability to be awestruck by the regular miracles of life, like musicians giving birth to melodies. But I was amazed by something else at the restaurant. Let me explain: I was there because it was the site of a Christmas party to which I had been invited. The party was for Latino teenagers, members of a Buncombe County Schools club called AIM whose goal is to help students reach their scholarly potential. The guitar and violin were there for the evening’s entertainment, which was to be a lesson in contra dancing.

As the musicians got ready, I thought to myself: This is going to be a disaster. I looked over in the corner, where the teens kept switching out tropical beats in a little boombox. These kids want to do a hip dance like salsa, meringue or cumbia, I thought, wondering how the party organizers could not know this. In Spanish, contra means “against” — and I figured these kids were going to be against something that looked like square dancing.

Oblivious to my fears, the teacher for the night, a genteel Southerner, softly announced that everyone was about to learn a new dance, that the boys should turn to a girl to be their partner, which she explained was a risk-free endeavor since the girls should then accept such a kind invitation.

But the boys grimaced a little and shuffled their feet, not showing any inclination to find a partner. I was right, I said to myself. Now, I thought, just put the instruments away, insert a compact disc from a 21st century artist in that box, and this party will survive.

But the teacher politely said, “OK, boys, get in a circle” — which they did. Then she told the girls to make a circle around the boys — which they did. Then she said, boys, turn around and look at your partner — which they did.

Then the teacher talked them through the basics: how to turn, grab hands, do-si-do and a few fancier moves. The violinist and guitarist got the melody going, which grabbed my daughter’s attention, but I was fixated on the dancers. These kids started moving and swinging and spinning. And they were pretty good.

But what was even more mesmerizing than their skill was their attitude. They were smiling and laughing when they did well and when they messed up. They were enjoying this thing. I felt like the Grinch on Christmas Day, watching Whoville residents enjoy what they had instead of whining about what had been taken away from them.

Of course the Christmas season is not about the Grinch. It’s the time we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus. As a Christian, I think his main message was to not be too wrapped up into what we look like or what group we belong to, but to love and accept others no matter who they are.

In 20 minutes, these teenagers, many of them relative newcomers here, had not only accepted but embraced a part of United States culture. In this tale there was a contra — again, the Spanish word for “against” — but it was the young people going against my expectations. They were into contra dancing. I found out later they knew the evening’s entertainment would be something different, perhaps uncomfortable to learn, and yet they had insisted on trying it out.

Even though I’m not particularly sentimental, I found their enthusiasm for this new thing lovely and moving. My wish is that the entire Asheville community could see them dance. And then take the time to let them teach us non-Latinos how to do the cumbia. I think it would make a nice Christmas story.

Joseph C. Berryhill, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at UNC Asheville. He lives in Asheville.

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