It has been a long standing truth that you cannot explain Contra dancing - you must do it to understand it. The same can be said for English Country Dancing. In fact, perhaps this is even more true for ECD.
Brasstown; Winter Dance Week. A 4 p.m. English Country Dance class. Not a magical time of night; not a stunning setting. Irish Lamentation. Colin Hume is the caller. A wonderful pick-up band is playing: David DiGiuseppe, Andrea Hoag, Pete Campbell.
My partner and I were fortunate in that we began at the top of the set and worked our way down. When the dance was first being explained, I thought, I dont even get to touch my partner - then I realized we do touch hands. Big deal. I liked this lady I was dancing with. We had seen each other at Brasstown for several years now. Nothing - absolutely nothing - had ever gone on between us. We did not interact much at Brasstown, and of course we were not in touch after Brasstown. But she is a good dancer. In this dance she was a sublime dancer.
What is it that is so wonderful about this particular dance? I cannot, at this moment, even recall the exact sequence of moves - and yet I danced the dance not two hours ago. But I know what I recall about the dance. Eye contact - prolonged eye contact.
The music is lilting, slow, unbelievably beautiful - as many English country dance tunes are. At one point in the dance there are four changes of a hey. Long, loving eye contact occured at that point with my partner - and it is done as we move away from each other - which somehow makes it more poignant.
I particularly remember the last two moves in the dance: two long, slow, arcing right hand, then left hand, turns with your partner. Intense eye contact before you leave your partner & set to a new lady.
I could go on and on about the number of moves where one has eye contact with ones partner, but I will never-ever forget suddenly seeing tears in my partners eyes three quarters of the way through the dance. Are those really tears in her eyes? Am I seeing correctly? (She later told me there were tears in her eyes.) But this is just one midafternoon dance amidst many.
Yes, the tune was played with breathtaking beauty. Yes, I looked lovingly into my partners eyes, and eye contact was prolonged - and intensified by the music - but how can one explain tears? But then, how can one explain English Country Dancing?
Your body movements seem to fill all the notes of music. Someone once said: Movement must swallow music. Nothing so swallows music as English Country Dancing. You move in sweeping gestures, across the set, up the set, executing a half figure eight through the other couple. The dance is coming back to me as my minds eye is filled with great beauty.
I am known as a frenetic Contra dancer. I am a madman - a controlled madman - in Contra Dancing. But nothing so swallows music - nothing so inhales music, expresses music, as some English country dances do.
Finally, what is life - this brief sojourn on this planet? Life is something filled with moments such as these: an English Country Dance that transcends time, place, previous experience. Such moments do not occur easily or frequently. Stunning music coupled with sweeping movement, coupled with genuine, intense, prolonged eye contact - can - did bring on such a precious moment.
Brasstown: Eye Contact continued.
The evening of the same day. I was involved in another English Country Dance where there are fewer opportunities for eye contact with ones partner. But one sequence -- a long looping circle where we come together and then turn our backs on each other -- does afford opportunity for eye contact.
My partner was someone with whom I had made direct, warm eye contact with all week long -- but this was our first dance as a couple. Her gaze was unusually warm and direct. When she looked at you, you knew it, you felt it -- and yet this is all in the context of a dance. I did not take it as a come-on. In fact, her engagement to another dancer had been announced earlier in the week and we all danced a dance around them -- congratulated them.
Once again, I was at the top of the set (predictable) and we worked our way all the way down. Less eye contact -- but still good opportunity for warm eye contact -- and we took advantage of it. Two couples from the end, I spotted her fiance -- and when we took that long loop in front of him, zero eye contact. She did not even look at me -- and I dont blame her.
Eye contact can be misleading -- we were engaged in direct and very warm eye contact. She was not going to do that in front of him!
When we got to the next couple, she again looked away from me -- and out of the corner of my eye, I caught her intended looking at me -- looking at her. For many people, it is hard not to misread eye contact. And believe me, the way I looked at her -- and she looked at me -- well, misunderstanding could be understood
As if to make up for it all, she rushed up to me and hugged me warmly when, seconds later, we were at the end of the set. I was taken aback. But then, when the dance ended, she made sure (almost a stiff-arm) not to hug me. She even resisted, ever so slightly, my peck-on the cheek.
I understand -- I understand. English Country Dancing. Did it lead to affairs long ago? When done properly (or should I say improperly?) Im sure it did. It is, at times, too intimate. Is that why some Contra Dancers hate it?
Is my tone condescending towards Contra dancers? If it is, I apologize. But I am beginning to understand why I love English Country Dancing and I plan to do a good deal more of it -- especially with partners who know how to do it. It is all in the eye contact. Even more than Contra Dancing, English Country dancing is an eye contact sport.
I am not a good waltzer. Twelve years ago one of the more devastating moments in my dance life occurred. Coincidentally, it occurred at Brasstown. An otherwise lovely & considerate dance partner said to me: Havent you learned any new moves in the Waltz, Henry? She was from my hometown. We had danced many times before -- and technically she was right -- I have a severely limited repertoire of Waltz moves.
Yet some ladies love to waltz with me. I have a great sense of timing: I move in time to the music -- and I lead well. To balance that one unbelievable comment (many people at Brasstown gasped when I told them what someone said to me), I have received dozens of spontaneous, effusive, compliments: you waltz beautifully, Henry.
All the preceding is prologue. For me, Brasstown, this year, seems to be a few unbelievable, unrepeatable dances. In general, I still avoid waltzes: with the wrong partner, a waltz can be murder. As someone once said: dancing a waltz with her is like trying to move a piano around a dance floor. Still, I love to waltz when the band is good -- and this year, at Brasstown, the bands were exquisite. So I ventured to ask a lady Ive never waltzed with before. The result was unbelievable.
We glided -- she weightless within my arms. She reacted instantly to the least little signal from me. Of course we moved, in spins, around the circle, but she was absolutely there: when I dipped my shoulder & began a gliding, rocking motion, when I adjusted the radius of the circle, when I turned her under my arm, when I moved her straight back. Though my repertoire is still limited, it seemed we were doing a hundred different moves.
And what made it all so tremendously pleasurable is that her eyes never left mine. Must I say again that dancing is an eye contact sport? My three transcendant dance experiences had one thing in common: eye contact. I do not think we lost eye contact for three seconds during that dance. She is married. Ive danced with her perhaps ten times before in my life.
We were in a heaven of our own creation. Nothing else existed. Nothing. We moved effortlessly around the dance floor. We moved as the music dictated, and the music dictated motion of unsurpassed beauty.
Why do we go to dance camps? For me, it is partly because I get to dance with strangers. If these women were in my town, Id have difficulty -- theyd have difficulty. Anton Chekov, the playwright, said tragedy is not when people die. Tragedy is when a dramatic moment occurs -- a highly dramatic moment occurs -- and you dont die. What happens is that you have to get up the next morning, and the morning after that -- and you have to face the person with whom the dramatic moment occured.
I cant dance that intense way often with people in my hometown. I must see them the next day -- and the day after that. People, at a dance camp, die. I have brief, intense, dramatic experiences with them -- and then, in some sense, (Thank God) they disappear.
I do not want to downplay the dance-experience by explaining it. It cant really be explained. It simply occurs. Some dances suddenly become dances of transcendant beauty. I told my waltz partner -- and I meant it -- that I had never danced a waltz equal to this one (or some such inadequate words). T.S. Eliot said: We only have words for what we no longer need to say.
Dance expresses the inexpressible. Every time I try to describe what happened on the dance floor, I am at a loss for words--and I should be. Dance expresses what cannot be expressed in words. If we could explain dance, we wouldnt need to do it.
Why does anyone write? Why does anyone read? I try to transmit my experience -- and thereby perhaps better understand my experience. And I assume that is why others (certainly I) read: to understand my own inadequately understood experiences.
I have always known I dislike couples dances. I am interacting with only one other person -- and succes and failure -- in each & every single move -- is dependant on me (& my partner).
This became horribly true as I tried -- for the umpteenth time -- to learn the Hambo. The only reason I even try to learn the Hambo is because I cant stand to sit out even one dance in an evening (thats why I go Contra dancing rather than Folk dancing). Yet more & more frequently I have been relegated to the sidelines as the band at a Contra dance strikes up a Hambo.
So I tried, yet one more time in ten years, to learn the Hambo. But I hate couples dances. Why am I trying to learn the Hambo?
Day four. Brasstown. I ended day three with what I thought was my first breakthrough to competency in the Hambo: a wonderful Hambo with one lady who, like me, was struggling with the dance -- but between the two of us, we got it right! Then disaster. A rather stern faced, serious dancer was my first partner on the fourth day. Taller than me, muscular -- and as I quickly learned, enormously self assured.
Let me immediately say the fault was mine. I was totally out of synch. I was bouncing-dipping on the wrong step. She stopped me mid-move once, twice, thrice. She could not, would not, muddle through with me. She let me know, brutally, directly, succinctly: Im wrong. Im offbeat. But she was not articulate enough -- or shall we say knowledgeable enough -- to tell me what I was doing wrong. What came through was brutal honesty -- and an abrupt cessation of movement. I do not take criticism easily -- and basically, I simply didnt know then what it was that I was doing wrong. I excused myself, handed her to someone else.
I was devastated, paralyzed. She was clearly somewhat angry and displeased with me. Thats why I hate couples dancing. Who needs this? And what is this? This is direct contact, close contact, and total responsibility. You are f---ing up this whole dance was her basic message. In Contras I am not attached to just one other. And the moves in a Contra, right hand turn, dosido, circle left, are not moves where you are likely to mess up your partner, where you are responsible for your partner. The one move in a Contra where you are totally responsible for your partner -- the swing -- happens to be a move Im particularly good at. No, Im a great swinger. I cannot count the number of times I have been complimented on my smooth swing.
Contras are full of moves that allow me to express myself, that allow me to express the music. Moves wherein I can flail my arms, gyrate, gesticulate -- move my body in weird ways, but since I am not physically attached to another -- the succes of their dance move does not depend on me.
Let me out of the Hambo. Hambos arent for me (different strokes for...). All the time that I have been trying to master the Hambo I keep thinking -- once I master it, Im not even sure I will like doing it! Well, yes, Ill get the exercise; Ill get to be out on the dance floor and I will get to hold a woman in my arms and twirl around. But this dance is so regimented, so prescribed, so limited, that it really isnt my kind of dance.
All the above is not meant to be a criticism of the Hambo. Someone once said, find out what you like to do and do it. The corollary is, Find out what you dont like to do and stop doing it.
I think I will stop trying to learn the Hambo. I will be satisfied to be a member of that large group called The Hambo impaired. My consolation comes from a ballet dancer whom I met in New York City who said to me, You know, this dance baffles me. I cant seem to get it right. Thank you dear lady. Youve consoled me. If you, a ballet dancer, cant do it, and I dont much like doing it, maybe I can stop trying to do it.
Late afternoon in the Main sitting room at Brasstown. Someone tiptoes up to me & whispers: This feels like the reading room of a library. I picked my head up from the book I was reading and counted seven people -- all of whom were absorbed in books and newspapers. And I mean absorbed. Not one was glancing up from a book to greet people. Everybody was deeply absorbed in their reading.
The typical crowd at a Contra dance week? The old overworked saw is that in Contra dancing the women are all in social work (human services), the men are all math-engineering-computer freaks. Like all generalizations, it is mostly true -- or it describes a large percentage of those who go Contra dancing. Can we say that all Contra dancers are readers? That all Contra dancers are highly educated?
Four hours later. A much smaller side room at Brasstown. The subject of marriage & divorce comes up. The most directly involved participants consist of a 50 year old, a 60 year old, and a 22 year old. The 60 year old Jr. College Professor is long-ago divorced. He raised two children for eight years as a single parent, and then his ex-wife took over and raised the two boys.
The 22 year old (just graduated from college) chimes in. Her parents were divorced when she was five. She spent seven years with her mother (who was at the time studying for a PhD), and then she spent three years with her father (a College Professor), and then three with her mother.... The 50 year old ( a Computer programmer) has been divorced for 19 years. For many years she raised her daughter (a contra dancer) as a single parent. Then the daughter spent some years with her father...
Do you hear the word divorce often? How about college & college professor? Can one make generalizations about Contra Dance Communities? Yes. In general, contra dancers are well educated (over-educated?). In part, that simply means teachers have more vacation time.
Without generalizations, we would be an ignorant lot. Generalizations means seeing patterns. There is a pattern. Free spirited, different, divorced, educated, lively folk, are drawn to Contras. And I am glad to be one of them. But I am also glad that generalizations are only generally true: lots of other kinds of folks come contra dancing -- and without them, the Contra dance community would be much poorer.
I am known as a frenetic dancer, an almost out of control dancer (I dont think Im out of control), and yet one of my favorite callers is the gentle David Kaynor.
What is it that makes a caller a great caller -- and David is a great, great, caller. In his case, part of it is his wonderful, even-keeled, soothing personality. One of the very first of the many things I learned from him was to look over a crowd of chattering Contra Dancers and wait patiently, silently, at the microphone. If people are having so much fun talking to each other, why rush them into the next Contra?
I always used to rush people into the next contra. People are here to dance, arent they? I must give them what they came for, dont I? But Davids gentle patience taught me a great deal. Wait a few seconds. Theyve just lined up with someone they want to talk to. Let them talk. Then, after youve given them a little time to socialize, ease them into the next contra.
David is great caller for many reasons. Every great caller must be able to teach the dance quickly, efficiently. Ive been dancing to David for a week now, and he has never-ever had to explain a move twice. If he did, I cant remmber his doing it.
Choice of words is of the essence. I am an English teacher. It is how you say what you say that is important. After all -- all callers are explaining moves we already know -- yet all of you have encountered callers who tell you to do something youve done a thousand times before, and you find yourself befuddled as to where to go & what to do next.
How you explain the dance is 99% of the dance, and David is close to flawless. Of course he makes mistakes. Two times in one morning he confused dances in his head (He astonishes me. He uses no cards. None. It is all in his head!). His momentary confusion necessitated a longer than usual run-through. But it is not that he explained a move incorrectly, he simply explained the wrong dance.
What else makes a caller great? The highest compliment I can receive is, I loved the dance you called, Henry. They are not complimenting the way I called, but the dance I chose. Choice and sequence are tremendously important. Are all the dances you chose frenetic, fast? Do they contain the same moves over & over? Are they all improper? All contemporary?
David is a master (have I said this before?). He educates while he teaches. Suddenly we are dancing an ancient dance I havent done in five years: Sacketts Harbor. Later, after a dance that sent me rocketing into overdrive, David choses a stately, sedate dance.
What else can I say? All writers create a world of words -- and some readers love to be in that world, and some readers flee that world almost immediately. The same is true of callers. Callers cannot help but create the world the dancers inhabit, and Davids world is one I would always chose to inhabit. He will always lead me gently, yet firmly, from dance to dance. I can also be sure that he will never-ever embarass anyone on the dance floor. He will also never take too long to explain a dance.
I could go on & on. David Kaynor is a great dance caller. I have met callers as good as he; I have met none better.
P.S. A word of explanation. I write to understand. I know I love dancing to Davids calling, but I am trying to understand what it is I love about his calling -- so I sat down and wrote the preceding.
P.P.S. Compliments are wonderful -- I love every compliment Ive ever received -- but I love best those compliments that explain what it is that someone likes about me, or about my calling, or about my dancing: then I can better understand what it is that I do.
Copyright © 2001 Henry Morgenstein