I had noticed the terse and mysterious blurb last Wednesday: Montpelier Contradance: Move your feet to live piano, fiddle, mandolin and clarinet. Capitol City Grange, Montpelier, 8 p.m. $7. It was not the first time a contradance was listed in the paper -- it seems there's at least one every weekend -- but it was the first time I mustered the guts to actually attend one.
Friends and family who contradance assured me that lack of experience would earn me no black marks at the Grange. That's the only reason I was going, since I can dance about as well as I can fly. Though the directive in the calendar was simple enough, I suspected there would be more to the evening than "move your feet" suggested.
With the sun setting on Route 12 last Saturday, civilization seemed to ebb away as soon as the capitol dropped out of sight. The H&P Grange is easy to miss; the only indicator of its existence is a weathered wooden sign in the shadow of an I-89 overpass. The faded lettering on the peeling placard is barely legible from the road. If a veteran contradancer hadn't given me directions, I probably would have missed the turn. As it was, I successfully steered my decrepit Honda up the Grange's narrow dirt driveway and parked. And got out of the car. And blinked.
A big crowd had turned out. The windows of the Grange blazed with light and flickered with the silhouettes of careening dancers. The parking lot was packed and on my way inside, I noticed tags from Rhode Island and Massachusetts among their green-and-white Vermont brethren. A red Subaru sported a "Brattleboro Dawn Dance" bumper sticker. I've heard of the Dawn Dances -- they last from eight at night until eight in the morning. I swallowed, hard, as a kernel of apprehension formed in my stomach. These people were serious. Was this any place for a novice?
At the entrance to the Grange, a hand-painted notice politely spelled out the house rule: Clean shoes only on the dance floor. The kernel of apprehension became a peach pit: I hadn't brought any spare shoes with me, and the ones I was wearing had trekked through a section of yard my cats used as a toilet.
Fortunately, a staircase to the right descended to the basement, bathrooms, water fountain and "official shoe-cleaning station" -- a cardboard box of hard-bristle brushes and screwdrivers. I headed down and set to work dislodging pebbles and gum from my sneakers. The dancehall was directly overhead, and the basement ceiling rocked and creaked under the syncopated tread of hundreds of dancers. Muffled strains of lively music drifted downstairs, giving my shoe-cleaning efforts a sense of urgency.
As I brushed and picked at the stubborn sediment in my soles, a steady stream of new arrivals trickled down the stairs, with spare shoes in hand and no need for the cleaning equipment. They quickly changed and darted up to the dance floor. As soon as I could, I slipped back into my freshly flossed footware and huffed back upstairs to check out the action.
The Capitol City Grange was chartered in 1871. The walls were festooned with crumbling certificates and black-and-white photographs of 19th-century men with somber mustaches and regal sashes. They seemed to regard the evening's proceedings with approval. Contradancing is an old tradition in this area, and the monochrome men on the walls likely participated in a dance or two in their time.
On a stage at the far end of the hall, caller Susan Kevra stood by an eclectic acoustic scratch band that was churning out a roiling, Irish-influenced dance tune. At first I stood at the periphery, where I planned to watch and learn. But I had trouble divining the steps. My eyes were beguiled by the swirl of skirts and loose hair, the snappy sashays and spins of contradance regulars and the freewheeling turns and awkward allemandes of first-timers. Dazzled by the kaleidoscopic currents of motion on the floor, I soon realized that it was impossible to learn a dance without being in the thick of it.
I don't dance often, or well. I get self-conscious bobbing and shuffling at DJ dances, and, because I'm a control freak, I don't do well in couples dances where my partner is supposed to "lead." But contradancing moves too quickly for a person to remain self-conscious or inhibited for long. And based on what I could see from the sidelines, there seemed to be very little leading involved. In any event, I hadn't come all this way just to sit and watch other people cut a rug. When the dancers dissolved into new sets for the next number, I moved onto the floor.
Each dance was explained step-by-step. Some moves, like "do-si-do," I remembered from middle-school square dances, but most were alien to me. Ladies' chain? Balance and swing? Ripped and snort? Fortunately, most of my neighboring dancers knew what they were about, and helped me navigate the caller's instructions.
A gap-toothed, grinning old man in a blue T-shirt helped me perfect my allemande, showing me the appropriate grip and tension to apply. Several people gave me spinning pointers -- one said gently, "It helps if you don't jump up and down." Some steps no one knew, like "ripped and snort," in which one couple forms an archway and six other dancers thread between them hand-in-hand. Mostly, though, I just watched other people and picked up the steps as the dances repeated themselves.
Even so, I did get hopelessly dizzy during a few dances and more than a little lost during most. The dances are rapid, with one step bleeding into the next in a fluid weave of movement. But as disoriented as I sometimes got, I never stopped having fun; the music was wild and vibrant, it felt good to be moving and my more accomplished dance partners were always forgiving -- even when I trampled their feet.
Towards the end of the evening, I took a break to speak with Todd Taska, who organizes the Montpelier contradance. In a voice raised to carry over the band, he affirmed my sink-or-swim approach: "The way people learn is by doing." Taska added that it's important for new dancers to be flexible about who they dance with, even if they come with a date. Partner-swapping is de rigueur in contradancing, and you're unlikely to learn much if you only dance with fellow beginners. (And you never know what might happen in the arms of a stranger; Taska met his wife at a contradance.)
Because of the rapid exchange of partners in a single dance, contradancing isn't just a social icebreaker -- it's an ice pulverizer. As Henry Rich, a young man from Connecticut, pointed out, "you might dance with 20 strangers in 10 minutes." Some might find this therapeutic; for others it's a great way to meet people. For most, it's a bit of both.
Contradancing is aerobic, social, cerebral
and cooperative. Though the prospect of learning and memorizing steps, executing them with grace, keeping in time with the music and keeping track of your partner may initially daunt newcomers, the support of advanced dancers makes the challenges surmountable. As long-time contradancer Anna Seeger put it, "It doesn't matter if you don't know what you're doing -- everyone helps you out."
One might be tempted to view contradancing as an archaic, Old World holdover, a dinosaur dance. This Montpelier contradance is 20 years old, but the activity -- derived from dance traditions that predate the "discovery" of the New World -- has a long history. For the last several hundred years, contradancing percolated in New England, where it has achieved a distinctly American flavor that sets it apart from its earlier incarnations. It has persisted in the face of societal sea changes and has recently begun to catch on in the Pacific Northwest. If the potpourri of people at last Saturday's event is any indication, contradancing is alive and literally kicking here in Vermont.
As the Grange dance wound down, I sat on one of the benches lining the hall and tried to take stock of the folks on the dance floor. A surprising cross-section of society was dancing to the same beat. Among the faces that surfaced and submerged in the froth of the dance, I spotted a woman with an eye patch and a girl with piercings in her cheeks. Graying men and women joined hands with flush-faced teens; well-groomed yuppies promenaded with colorfully attired college students. It was impossible to generalize about the crowd, except that they were all dancing and seemed to be having a hell of a time.
Now that I'm a seasoned contradancer myself, I can offer sage advice to anyone who has yet to try it out: Be flexible, not shy. Bring clean, soft-soled shoes. And don't be fooled by that simple calendrical direction, "Move your feet." It really does mean a whole lot more.