When I first heard about the Tangled Up In Blue “Contra Dance,” I was confused. What was this argumentative-sounding affair? Was it somehow contradictory? Did it attract contrary types? Counter-revolutionaries? The event, which happened last Friday, March 24, turned out to be a social dance of the country and western variety, a benevolent invasion of hay bales, fiddles and line dancing into the Timothy Dwight College dining hall. Finally, something sponsored by the Student Activities Fee that I could wholeheartedly support!
The name may have been confusing, but it was not exactly misleading. The Contra Dance did challenge — counter, you might say — the propriety of accepted social interactions. (For the record, the words “country” and “counter” are etymologically related, the country being the landscape opposite a view.) Here is a broad explanation of the dynamics of social dance, the category into which contra dancing falls: Pairs, facing each other in long lines, progress up or down the line by circling, promenading, clapping and stomping. You spend the whole dance with your partner, but as you make your way along the line, you encounter half of the people in it as they come toward you from the opposite direction. Everyone acknowledges each other, smiles and holds hands — very country, very un-Yale.
Today’s popular dance parties, on the other hand, tend always to involve alcohol, and take one of two forms. The first features what some might call an erotic dance, with little talking or eye contact but a lot of touching. The second involves a large group of people, again making little eye contact, and jumping around in the dark. Pleasant and fun, sometimes, but, it must be said, fundamentally antisocial.
The Contra Dance was one of the most supremely social and polite activities that I have ever engaged in. The caller, who shouted out the steps for us as we learned them on the spot, explained at one point that, though dances can be complicated, one need remember only one crucial element: eye contact. You have to look at the person you’re dancing with, and since you end up dancing with everyone in the room, you have to look at everyone as you share circles, promenades and swings.
I remember loving the Virginia Reel when they made us do it in third grade, and I’ve always wished that I could be an extra in an assembly scene of some Jane Austen movie, but it occurs to me that this isn’t just my own nostalgia for another era: It’s a longing for a social phenomenon that, for all the dancing that we do today, is gone.
Dancing at parties today is overtly sexual, but I think that line dancing, more than almost any other public interaction, embraces sexuality as one aspect of everybody’s personality. Some people came to the Contra Dance in couples, others with friends — and, I assume, few or none with the intentions of finding someone to hook up with. But as we all circulated around the room, sweating and grabbing hands, there was an acceptance of pleasure, both physical and social, that is absent in activities whose approach to sex is more extreme and less comprehensive.
The difference between the Contra Dance and, say, Toad’s Place, is that the modern approach to social dancing shies away from this organic, integrated approach to platonic and romantic love. Toad’s is an outlet for suspended sexual energy; you can’t act all the time the way that you act at Toad’s. We should, though, adopt the rules of the Contra Dance in our everyday lives. I can think of no better lifestyle than one that incorporates and celebrates love, friendship, eye contact, music, skipping, clapping and smiling. As I recently remarked to a friend, folk music is like sunshine — how can anyone not like it? I think that the same is true of line dancing.
I am not a sociologist, but I have always wanted to believe that human social habits are essentially the same from era to era, culture to culture. Old customs have their modern equivalents: A personalized CD might mean today what a lock of hair meant centuries ago. But the Contra Dance confirmed for me that dancing is one phenomenon that has changed fundamentally. The old social dance — whether practiced by Gypsies, gentlefolk of Edwardian England or U.S. pioneers — has no modern counterpart. It seems that we have lost sight of its social benefits as we have popularized more overtly sexual improvisational dance practices. I encourage a full-scale revival of the social dance. Call me contrary.
Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.