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Dancing By Numbers

The fun and structure of the Union Hall’s folkloric contra dancing


John. I’m only danc-ing. It turns me on. I’m only danc-ing. Don’t get me wrong. It turns me on. I’m only danc-ing.(Musical bridge, with high-pitched scream.)

I wonder if David Bowie knows how to contra dance. I would like to contra dance with David Bowie. I’m getting off on the wrong foot here for writing about a folkloric event, I know. But any kind of dancing makes me feel excited in a spiky-haired, vampire-toothed David Bowie kind of way, even the dogged inscribing of prescribed foot patterns in a friendly but firm atmosphere with water available from a five-gallon container purchased in l988 and harsh neon lights. That last adjectival-clausal string of words describes contra dancing in Missoula on alternate Saturday nights.

And it’s fun. Yes, it is fun. It’s only danc-ing. And dancing’s fun. Fun’s no small thing. Go have some fun. Fun is to die for. (Musical bridge, with high-pitched scream.)

I like to watch people dancing almost (but not quite) as much as I like being one of them. Once I sat with my sister for four hours in a motor-hotel bar lounge in Coeur D’Alene doing nothing but watching people on the dance floor and laughing—not unkindly—at the bodily concoctions these people had somehow arrived at before numerous bathroom mirrors over a number of years, which they called dancing. They looked ridiculous, objectively, but they also seemed blessed, brave, full of a temporary valor. This was l981 and this was Idaho, so remnant disco was still around, and these people were hah, hah, hah, hah stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Their lips moved as they danced. They were singing to themselves. They were pretending they were John Travolta.

As I intimated, the movements of contra dancing are not so capricious and idiosyncratic as this; you must go a certain way and do a certain thing and then go another way and do another thing and all the while friendly but firm contra-pros will be whispering in your ear in a not-so-whimsical manner. They will be whispering, “Pivot on your right foot.” Or, “Lean into my hand.” Or, “Look into my eyes, then you won’t get dizzy and sick.” They will pass you one to another, on down the line. They will gently manipulate you, like knowledgeable physical therapists. They are benign, these contra people. Even sort of saintly. They wish you well.

You might think that dancing to directions is not conducive to the generation of emotion (just as it’s potentially distancing and cold when an essay describes its component parts as it goes along, citing “adverbial-clausal strings of words” and such, as this essay did a bit ago). You might think that when you dance you don’t want to have someone calling out what it is you are currently doing and what’s expected of you next.

Well, think about it some more. Think of Thomas Jefferson. One theory of the origin of the “contra” term in contra dancing is that it comes from the French contredans, or country dance. Jefferson, for all his American forefather fame, was oriented toward things European; his sensibility was sparked by the aristocratic foreignness of Italy and France. And isn’t there a bit of nostalgia for the courtly and the archaic in contemporary American upstairs-at-the-Union-Hall contra dancing? Haven’t you always yearned to don a powdered wig (or at least a flowing skirt) and dance those formulaic dances of Jefferson’s era? Contra dancing is formulaic—as in square dancing, there are set patterns with set names (“gypsy” means “walk around the woman opposite, shoulder to shoulder, with challenge in your eyes”). As you’re guided through these, with a little rehearsal and the help of a caller, you might find that conformance can be a kind of freedom. When a dance is dictated, it takes the burden off of you. And, paradoxically, this can become an optimum situation for any kind of bizarre individuality.

Think of David Bowie. Contra dancing is both Jeffersonian and David Bowian. When the steps are given, you can let your mind wander and your heart soar. Pretend—as you switch through a multitude of partners—that you are David Bowie, contra dancing in Missoula. You might not have all the steps down, but your lips are moving. You’re David Bowie, singing—We can be heroes ... just for one day.

Now why—you might well ask—would one invoke David Bowie, in particular, when writing about contra dancing? Thomas Jefferson was a stretch in one direction. Now David Bowie? Let me explain. There is a certain segment of the population (you know who you are), who do not take advantage of all our city has to offer—don’t go to any of the films at the International Wildlife Film Festival; don’t celebrate the Day of the Dead; don’t patronize Out to Lunch; would only go to the Farmer’s Market at gunpoint. They—you—think that if you do these things, contra dancing included, you will have to become an expert on aromatherapy and start eating to your blood type. You think you will become manipulated toward wellness. To you I say—It’s only danc-ing. It turns me on. Don’t get me wrong. It’s only danc-ing. (musical bridge with high-pitched scream).

The Missoula Folklore Society hosts contra dancing Saturday, April 1, at the Union Hall (upstairs) 201 East Main. Workshop begins at 7:30 p.m., dancing at 8 p.m. Admission $4. Call Bev Young at 542-0236.

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