Learning steps Friday night at the dance hall

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Ink contributor COLUMN

For the last two years, "Is there contra dancing?" has been just as common a question for my friends and me as "What movies are out?" and "Where do you want to eat for dinner?"

Sitting around at lunch, we count off on our fingers, trying to remember the last time we went, since the little Charleston church hall is open for contra dancing only every other Friday night.

For anyone who hasn't heard of it, contra dancing is a strange, wonderful variation of American square dancing. It came from Ireland, and watching it, you get the feeling that you're watching something simultaneously foreign and universal.

It's done in long lines, usually with each couple facing each other. The live music is a far cry from my friends' CD collections. It has no vocals and no drums, and the dancers do not wear short skirts or plunging necklines.

The dances are patterns of the same steps repeated over and over again. The caller in the front of the room reviews the steps before the couples dance with music. The steps have names like "Right-hand Star," "Left-hand Star" and "The Hay."

Many of the steps are done with two couples. The problem is, when one couple makes a mistake, it messes up the other couple and often the entire line.

At each dance, there are the contra regulars who dance every dance, who know every step and who recognize every other regular's face. They gulp water in between sets and slap each other on the back. It is a tremendous compliment to receive a nod of recognition or a bright smile from one of these dancers. It is an even greater honor for one of them to remember your name from week to week.

There are always the new people who dance only one dance in three, who worry when they make a mistake and who fumble along, not knowing the nuances of contra etiquette, like clapping hands with the person across from them when positioned at the end of the line.

Most of the time, my high school friends and I fall somewhere in between.

At first, it was a little strange, spending our Friday nights with real adults with real jobs who probably had kids our age. Some of the women seemed offended when the men would ask us to dance, and all of them seemed very angry if we made too many mistakes.

At one point, a very friendly woman handed us a card that read "The Rules of Contra Dance " with pointers like, "Get up and dance," and "Always make eye contact." Some of our male friends who came were embarrassed and taken aback. For a while, they just loafed around, taking up precious dance space in the tiny hall.

But it's gotten better.

On a good night, usually when it's an easy night, the boys ask the girls to dance and not vice versa. On a good night, when we go over the steps before the music starts with the caller, we don't get confused and no one has to show us the right way to do a step. On a good night, we spin ourselves silly and still keep going and don't even get confused when we're at the end of the line and have to in again. On a good night, the regulars don't seem irritated with us, and they ask us to dance as equals.

On a bad night, the boys are still sullen and disinterested. We mess up steps and confuse ourselves. The regulars get fed up with us and ask us to dance just so we won't partner up with another confused person and mess up the sequence.

On the bad nights, we take breaks. We get paper cups full of water and sit outside instead of taking up space in the hall. We chase each other around, laugh, and watch the dance through the windows. Eventually we get our courage up and go back inside.

We usually do better after that.

For the most part we seem to be growing on the contra people. They don't ever seem to be too angry with us, and they're starting to learn our names. The last time we were there, my friend and I showed a new couple how to do a complicated step. We felt very proud. We're all hoping that maybe in a few years we'll get to be contra regulars, too.

Ink contributor Eliza Presson, 17, will be a senior at the Academic Magnet High School this fall.

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