Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A New Dance

In my efforts to move my femme side into the mainstream, I had been looking for something, anything I could do regularly with a social group. Anything from a book club to yoga would have been sufficient. Civil War reenacting has been somewhat of a small step that will eventually become a giant leap. However certain barriers that I have detailed in past blog posts prevent me from immersing myself completely in reenacting. It is frustrating to say the least but hardly an impossible situation.

Following my Bentonville outing in March, a couple of my reenacting friends invited me to something called a contra dance. I had seen pictures of them dancing on Facebook and had no idea what it was about. It seemed fun, and my friends described it as “uplifting” and “stress relieving.” The music (something between bluegrass, country, and folk) seemed pretty fun. Just what the doctor ordered I thought.

My first dance was at a small community center called Pleasant Green in Durham, NC. It is quite the bandbox with these wonderfully dark old wooden floors and no air conditioning. Each dance has a 30 minute beginner's session. I thought I had everything figured out until we got to this move called the “hey for four.” I was lost after that! A good crowd was gathering as the band that night (Atlantic Crossing) is pretty popular. One thing I love about the dances is the live music. There are so many talented musicians.

I must admit to some trepidation at the start. I have seven left feet, zero dancing experience, and no musical background. I had never danced close with a man. I had never sweated en femme like I was going to that night. Oh, I was the only transgender person in the hall. No big deal, right? In a sense, I was making myself very vulnerable. Everyone seemed nice though, and I was reminded often that mistakes were expected and not a big deal. Plus it seemed fun.

I was even asked for the first dance as experienced dancers are encouraged to ask newcomers. What followed... well think about how Andy Griffith described football. It was that kind of experience... something completely new. Think of contra dance like a line dance with some square dance and folk dance elements thrown in. You and your partner dance with another couple (called your neighbors) for about thirty seconds and then move up or down the line to another couple and repeat. Each dance has a set structure which is walked through before the music starts and called out by an experienced caller.

In that first dance, the thing that caught my eye was all the twirling by the ladies. I'm thinking, I didn't do a single twirl in the beginner's lesson. I was also getting dizzy as there is ballroom style swing each go-around. Lesson number one: look at your partner! At the end of the dance, I thanked my partner and immediately found a chair. I'm sure I looked like a drunken sailor sitting down!

Contra dances usually consist of ten to a dozen dances over about three hours, and everyone is encouraged to seek out a different partner each dance. Women often dance with other women if the gender imbalance is too large. The dances grow progressively more complex so it's not a good idea to sit out too many in a row. I ended up dancing half the dances that night. There were a few guys that I felt were not comfortable with me. I'm sure I reflected that discomfort back which only worsened the situation. Over time, I've learned not to worry about it. I also figured I would have to be more proactive in seeking out dance partners. I had a good enough time to try again. I just hoped I could become good enough to not embarrass myself.

After a few dances in Durham and Carrboro (big hall with AC!), I started checking out dance groups closer to home. One of the scariest experiences was walking into Chantilly Hall in Charlotte not knowing a single soul. A big thank you to everyone who made me feel welcome. Each place you visit, you learn so much from the new dance moves and contra sets to the different people. Winston-Salem was a better experience as many of the Triangle dancers go there as well. The dance hall there (the Vintage Theatre) has a wall length mirror so I can admire myself ;) Over time, I have become more comfortable and confident dancing. I have started leading a few dances as well which increases the potential partner list greatly!

So I have to say I'm hooked. My analytical side says contra dancing meets so many needs: fitness, social, even a little spiritual. All I know is I enjoy it more than anything in recent memory, and I feel better everyday I do it. One week had me going to five dances! About those earlier fears... I'm down to two left feet. Dancing with men isn't so bad (most are quite nice!) although I very much enjoy dancing with the women. Sweating does rearrange the makeup a bit, but I've become used to it. Most callers are good about reminding you to drink plenty of water.

Another great thing is happening: I am making many new friends. A couple of ladies have gone so far as to giving me girly advice! One friend also gave me a short pep talk a few nights after a less than stellar outing where I had a difficult time finding partners. She said to give people time to get used to me, but the community supported me being out as Stephanie. Sure enough, I've had a full dance card ever since.

After the last dance Tuesday night in Winston-Salem, I was sharing a bit about my male work with another woman who I had danced with a few times. I even went so far as to tell my male name. She said, “You'll always be Stephanie to me.” That really made my day. Driving home, I thought that is all I have ever wanted: to be my true self and be a part of the world as my true self. Contra dancing has become a wonderful way to socialize and to test the waters a bit. Reenacting will always be there. My work with the transgender community will continue on as well as the needs are so great. There is something though about being part of another community that has people who will accept you for who you are. A few of them will even ask you to dance with them. What better way to spend an evening?


Jessica Britton said...

Go Stephanie! Braver by far than I!

Anonymous said...

I'm happy for you, Stephanie!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting this. It has given me courage. I have been thinking more and more about this. I have been trying to get out of enfemme shopping rut and doing everyday things while enfemme. I love to dance and I want to so much but I am not good at it and I so scared to do it enfemme. Here in Louisiana we have cajun dancing and it is a lot of fun. I have met some of the people at local small town dance clubs and they are great, so I am thinking about this. My biggest problem is many of the dance events are family affairs and there are kids too. But your post has put me one step closer, at least in my mind.