The Tao of Contra Dancing
You've heard of the Tao of Physics, The Tao of Pooh......yes, even the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Well now we have the Tao of Contra Dancing. "Swing your partner", "dos si dos", "alamande left". I'm sure the words invoke thoughts of square dancing at traditional Midwestern barn dances for most of you. But for me they hold a different meaning. These are all moves in the New England folk dancing tradition known as contra dancing. Contra dancing started out as a fun way for me to spend a Saturday night but has evolved into a sort of religion for me, sharing many of the tenets of Taoism and other religions of the world....that is, an avenue for peace and inspiration, human intimacy and cooperation, and a means of tuning into the spirit of love and ultimate happiness. Contra dancing has been practiced for hundreds of years in New England and, although it's still concentrated there, has since spread to all four corners of the United States, including weekly dances right here in Madison. It's origin can be traced to the courts of Renaissance England where its predecessor, English country line dancing, was practiced. When the colonists immigrated to New England with their adventurous spirit and rejection of old ways, they transformed the elegant and formal dance of old into an Americanized version - an informal, foot stomping, free spirited hoe down. Thus, contra dancing was born.
Although each is unique, contra dancing and square dancing share many things in common. They are both set to eight count bluegrass music with a caller belting out moves for all to follow. Many related contra and square dance moves have French names owing to the influence French culture and language in the United States after the Revolution. The "dos-si-dos", a move where partners go around each other back to back, is really "dos-y-dos" - the French phrase meaning "back to back". Likewise, "alamande left", the move where partners grasp each other's left hand and walk around each other, is really "a-la-main left", "a la main" meaning "with the hand" in French. The principle difference between the dances is in formation. Whereas square dancing has four couples, each standing at the corner of a square owing to its evolution from English country dancing set in square formation, contra dancers are arranged in long lines of twenty or more couples, all dancing together.
I started contra dancing as a freshman in college in Amherst, Massachusetts and enjoyed the friendly, smoke-free atmosphere that was in stark contrast to the regular bar scene frequented by most of my peers. Here, people didn't worry about getting picked up or trashed, but instead, let down their psychological walls to enjoy some good, clean, old-fashioned fun. Contra dancing for me was a way to let loose all the frustrations and stress of the previous week in a healthy way. Although confusing and even intimidating at first, I persevered and gradually became familiar with the various intricate moves. Eventually, I improved to the point where I no longer had to think about what I was doing....I just felt it. With the music keeping the rhythm, I was carried from one move to the next with effortless grace, almost as if I were being led instead of actively participating. Thus began the gradual transformation of contra dancing for me from a purely entertaining event into the truly spiritual experience of becoming one with the universe.
I began viewing contra dancing in a new light. I wasn't just having fun, I was actually participating in a ritual that represents all the virtues of the human spirit: love, intimacy, cooperation, compassion, responsibility, piety, and trust. Here were all the basic tenets of the world's great religions being expressed by people of all races, colors, ages, sizes and walks of life who had come together not to preach or get preached to but only to "do". Isn't that what it's all about? But surely you're wondering, it this guy "high"? How can something so seemingly simple as contra dancing be all this? Well, let me try to explain a bit further. Besides bringing out the virtues of the human spirit, religion serves ultimately to facilitate universal understanding. But the biggest barrier to this is the human mind. Man
cannot possibly comprehend the grandiose designs of the universe by thought process alone. Maybe a small part, like quantum mechanics, for example, but the whole is impossible because it is infinite. The only way to achieve universal understanding is to turn the mind off and just"be", in meditation. Only then can man tap the breadth of knowledge and creativity buried deep in the subconscious. However, some of us are too high strung to sit around in a room doing nothing for a half an hour and expect to stop thinking. When I try it I usually end up thinking about not thinking when I'm supposed to be not thinking about thinking.
Contra dancing offers an active form of meditation for us hyperactive types. The way it works is this. Each dance is really a repetition of the same series of moves danced to a repetitive musical beat that keeps the time and signals when the next move should begin. After a couple oftimes through the dance, you become familiar enough with the choreography to anticipate the next move even without hearing the caller's call. Combined with the music, this repetition becomes very hypnotic until you're dancing without any thought process at all. It is only then that the mind shuts down and your inner self is set free to come forth to dance and experience and "be". And let me tell you, when you get a line of 40 people all working together in harmony, giving their all, dependent upon everyone else to make the dance work... and it does, then it's just pure magic, plain and simple.
The only way to truly understand all of this is to experience it yourself. So, I invite everyone to join me and rejoice in the Tao of contra dancing, for your own personal enlightenment and the betterment of mankind.
Bruce Abedon 2-1-'92