You’ve heard of this thing called contra dancing and you find yourself at the Guiding Star Grange, having also heard that this is the Mecca of contra groove. Maybe you’re a newbie, uncertain if you have rhythm, if you can count and walk and listen all at the same time. Maybe you’ve been dancing for years, a dance gypsy well-versed in different venues and the myriad of subcultures within the dance community. Maybe you even dance regularly at the Grange!
Which one of us hasn’t stood or sat on the sidelines, staring in wonder at dancers executing twirls and flourishes, dancers whose ability to stop on a dime leaves one breathless, dancers who have the music in their bodies and souls, grooving to the rhythms emanating from the stage? Every dancer wonders, at some point along the way, about how other dancers find such control, or such grace, or such power in the dance.
Whatever your bent and whatever your level of expertise, yearning to become a ‘better’ dancer is a feeling that overtakes most of us who give ourselves over to the joys of dancing……but what does that really mean? How does one get ‘better’? The figures are pretty straight-forward, repetitive, patterned. How does one develop ‘style’, and yet stay true to the genre of contra dancing?
Many of us have attended workshops on contra dancing, either at big festivals such as NEFFA and The Flurry, or at smaller, community dances, or right here at the Grange when David Kaynor or George Marshall teach beginners. We have heard the words “give weight” and have listened to beloved callers such as Lisa Greenleaf tell us to “keep your elbows in and dance small” in a crowd. We know that spaghetti might be delicious, but “spaghetti arms” are highly undesirable on the dance floor. We know that some people are sticklers about ‘timing’ but don’t necessarily know why, and we sometimes view such people as being too serious to be any fun on the floor.
I have been listening to words and comments from dancers for the past seven years, and it has occurred to me that a different approach to learning might be helpful to dancers of all levels who want to gain greater confidence and stability on the dance floor. Many of you know that in my work-life I’m a psychologist; fewer of you know that before I found my way into that profession, I was a dance/movement therapist, working in the back wards of state psychiatric hospitals and rehab facilities with people too depressed to talk, or too cut off from mainstream society to remember how to communicate in words. My work involved helping these people find an avenue of emotional expression through their bodies, through moving. An idea caught fire in my mind that there are some things that I’ve learned about moving that could really help dancers enjoy the movement of their own bodies, and help the community of dancers enjoy one another even more.
Contra dance figures such as allemandes, swings, petronella twirls and ladies’ chains are all relatively simple to teach, yet beginners and experienced dancers alike sometimes plod or arm-wrestle their way through such moves, unaware that there is another person’s energy involved in the movement. Dancers on a crowded floor sometimes seem oblivious to the other bodies swirling around and past them, forgetting that the basic physics of trajectory, speed, mass and moving objects applies to moving bodies too. Perhaps it’s not enough to be told what an allemande looks like and that you have to “give weight” to do it well or for it to feel good. What if you don’t really know where your own weight is, let alone how to “give it”?
With this in mind, the Board of the Friends of the Guiding Star Grange has generously agreed to sponsor a series of 4 workshops that I am offering to any dancer who would like to learn more about the fundamentals of moving, and then apply that foundation to contra dance moves. Each workshop will be devoted to a dimension of movement; all four dimensions combined in differing ways make up most of the movement ‘vocabulary’ of human beings, in work and in dance. The dimensions are Weight, Time, Space and Flow. From understanding each element, through games and experiences, and finding how to express that dimension in your own movement, words such as “giving weight” take on a new, experiential level of meaning. Each workshop will be 1 1/2 hours, and will take place on a Saturday afternoon prior to a dance, with ample time for dinner. A potluck supper will be an option, so that participants can have an opportunity to dine and share their experiences together.