One Woman’s Contra Dance Adventure

I have an early childhood memory of a tap dance class. My aunt offered to take me to one of my cousin’s classes. Unfortunately, all I remember is how I struggled to understand what to do with my feet. The evening concluded in tears and I did not show much interest in continuing.

In middle school, I gave dancing another shot. A friend invited me as a guest to her Jazz dance class. The dance school was in an old, classy building and the dressing room had classic Hollywood vanities with the globe-shaped light bulbs. I think I enjoyed the class, I don’t remember crying. However, I was very self-conscious the entire time.

In high school, I attended a few dances. I always felt relief when it was time for the Macarena and Cha Cha Slide because there were instructions and I know what to do. I’d spend the rest of the time in a circle of dancers, taking frequent breaks in between for wallflower duty.

In my second year of university, I was invited by my friend, Sarah, to go to a “Contra” dance. I had never heard of this before and I was not enthusiastic about dancing, but stepping outside my comfort zone was a top priority for me at the time.

The dance was held in the basement of a church located in Montreal’s Mile-End neighbourhood. I was hesitant, but definitely had fun. There was a live band, the community was very welcoming and many people were happy to help out beginners. In Contra, attention is never focused on an individual person and doing fancy moves is very optional, relieving much of the pressure I had felt in my previous dance experiences. The main thing that helped me get into it was the fact that there were instructions. At every stage of a dance, the steps are: find a partner, get in line, listen as the caller explains the dance steps, then repeat the same sequence for 10-15 minutes with music. The caller continues to give cues after the band starts playing, so you don’t need to worry about memorizing the steps. It is customary to switch partners after every song, which gives everyone the freedom to dance whenever they feel like it.

In recent years, it has also become common for people of any gender to dance any role. Traditionally, women are “ladies” and men are “gents”. Encouraging this practice has sparked a passionate debate about what gender-neutral terms should be used in place of ladies and gents. Popular alternatives include jets and rubies, larks and ravens, sharks and giraffes, etc. This abstraction has helped create more inclusive spaces and also makes dancing more fun, as it gives dancers more options.

These changes have not happened without creating inter-generational tension, but it is rewarding to take part of a living tradition. I enjoy listening to older Contra dancers talk about what was controversial 10-20 years ago because they are all things that are common place today.

As the months went on, I attended more dances with Sarah. I became better acquainted with other dance regulars over post-dance outings. I soon learned about another, very important, dance phenomenon: dance weekends. In particular, The Flurry Festival, a weekend festival that happens every year around Valentine’s Day in Saratoga Springs, NY, about four hours south of the Quebec-Vermont border. It is held in a large convention center, every room is booked with a dance, music workshop or fitness class. Though Contra is the main focus, events include dance and music styles from all over the world. It is a truly magical experience, and this year I’ve been 6 years in a row so far.

Today, I regularly attend many dance weekends and volunteer at my local Contra dance. My Contra wardrobe contains many fun skirts and dresses, taking up a large portion of my closet space. I’ve even started calling! Since embarking on my Contra dance journey, I have tried other daunting activities with enthusiasm and an open mind, something I never imagined myself doing before moving to Montreal. This is an attitude for which I am eternally grateful as it is present in all areas of my life.

For example, one of the highlights of 2018 for me was a trip Ireland. I rented a car and spent the first few days exploring County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. Among the many amazing experiences I had were two evenings of Irish set dancing. There are enough similarities with Contra that I could participate. I was able to dive right into the culture and had a blast in the company of locals.

While some of this can be attributed to learning and maturing over time, I don’t think the kind of personal growth I’ve experienced would have been possible without a supportive community. In my case, this community is a bunch of Contra dancers.

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