September-October 2007

CONTRA DANCE:

ESSENCE OR ILLUSION?

By Valerie Cooley

When I was in 9th grade journalism, I wanted to work for Life Magazine when I grew up, traveling the world with nothing but a Leica and a battered typewriter. In 10th grade journalism I hated the teacher and changed my mind. I kept taking pictures, though, nothing brilliant but fun. That is, they were until I tried capturing the joys of contra dancing. I got hundreds of pictures of happy people in colorful, idiosyncratic clothing, engaged in earnest but incomprehensible chaos, but nothing to show my aunt in Ohio why it was fun. The only thing I ever caught that looked like exuberance was posed.

I realized I wasn’t alone when I Googled “contra dance images” last March, trying to find photos to display at our Celtic Festival. I looked at twelve hundred pictures and found one good, usable photo. Just one. It showed three couples, all swinging. Three skirts floated merrily in the air. The background was a blank wall. I blew it up and looked again -- it was a painting. No wonder the skirts were synchronized and the dancers didn’t overlap with twelve others. Giving up, I enlarged some drawings of right hand stars and do-si-do’s that were orderly except for the occasional person kicking his heels in mid-air.

Therefore, when Karen Olsen decided to choreograph a dance for the Celtic Festival, I was quite excited. Her mission was to devise a dance that would show, clearly, why contra dancing was so much fun. The moves and patterns we love had to look logical and beguiling instead of chaotic. There had to be more than happy faces to indicate joy and exhilaration because smiles were barely visible at the back of the auditorium.

Stacy Rose, who was playing in three groups as well as coordinating the Festival, was apprehensive. We’d done three demos at last year’s festival – a contra, a waltz, and an English country dance --and they were well received. Was it really necessary for Karen to divide her time between band practice and writing a whole new dance?

Yes, it was; Karen had a vision so Stacy gave her blessing. Recruiting dancers was a bumpy road. Everyone worked full time and lived 20 or 30 miles from everyone else. She needed six dancers but couldn’t find a third man. Finally she persuaded Richard, a ballroom dancer who had never contra danced before, to try it. Kay, who was rehearsing for a play at the same time, kept missing dance practice and Karen, who was playing in the band for the dance, kept taking her place.

One night I stood in for a missing dancer and experienced a great work in its infancy. It started with two couples doing Petronella turns, ladies’ chains, promenades, right and left stars, a couple do-si-do, and a hey (not necessarily in that order). When they finished, they raised their arms in delighted surprise as Karen and Davy joined them for a fast-moving three-couple set. They swung, wove through mirror heys, gypsied, and rolled away into new positions. Bits of contra and English country dancing were blended and further modified to achieve the effect Karen wanted. “In contra,” she says, “you’re having fun with your partner and group but there’s an ‘interior’ joy that isn’t obvious to the bystander, and that’s what I want the audience to see.” Sometimes the timing didn’t work or a move was awkward and they’d change it. It was a work-in-progress and I couldn’t wait to see it on stage.

Richard, the ballroom dancer, learned fast and well, but Kay had to drop out. Karen happily took her place.

“How are you going to play your concertina if you’re dancing? asked Stacy.

“Brian can play his mandolin,” said Karen.

“In TAGIPUB, the all girl band? asked Stacy.

“Yes,” said Karen. “You’ll find a way to explain it”.

And so it was. TAGIPUB (The All Girl Impromptu Pick-Up Band) played a glittering set. Karen slipped out and “Brianna”, with a bandana on his head, slipped in. Richard, Ginny, Paul, and Lynn did their four-person set, a frenzy of joyous action with not a trace of chaos. Karen and Davy fairly flew in, greeted with open arms that drew them into the second dance. It was fast, spirited, and precise. Skirts flared in unison and arms made gleeful gestures never before seen at a contra dance but very expressive of the “interior” experience. They stopped, they bowed, they disappeared, leaving people still applauding their magic act. It had done exactly what Karen had envisioned: it showed the audience what contra dancing really felt like.

I went back stage. “How did you do it?” I asked. “I swear your feet never touched the floor.”

“They didn’t,” said Karen. “We skipped. Every second of it. I thought we’d die. We’d gotten everything perfect – our exuberant gestures, our split-second timing -- but Paul took a video and we looked as though we were walking all the time, or worse -- plodding through mud.”

Skipping! And I hadn’t noticed. I played it back through my brain and, yes, they had skipped. Amazing.

If even a live dance demonstration can’t convey the spirit of the dance without some fakery, no wonder I can never photograph it. The sense of movement needs to be intensified somehow. A little blur, perhaps. But I think perhaps I’ll just leave the camera at home from now on and go for the interior experience.


Valerie Cooley is living in Coos Bay, Oregon. When she's not playing with her beautiful and brilliant young granddaughters, she paddles her kayak on the bay, watches birds, gardens, and contradances once a month


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