Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dance Bliss

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Before I ever started contra dancing, I could not understand the joy imprinted on a dancer's face. Otherwise normal people came to life when paired with a favorite partner surrounded by familiar sounds. Couples moved as one knowing the other's steps and moves intimately. What seemed like chaos with a few dozen couples moving around a dance floor was actually a carefully orchestrated merry-go-around. I watched, but I just... didn't... get it.

Of course, I was only eight at the time wearing a 1970's era powder blue monkey suit (I think it's called a tuxedo in polite circles) watching my grandparents ballroom dance. I have shared the story of being mesmerized by the women's beautiful dresses, but the dancing itself was still a mystery to me. Part of it may have been put off that the dances resembled something out of Lawrence Welk whose show was quite popular with the older crowd at the time. Also men didn't dance that way. It just wasn't cool. Never mind the fact that I was a long way off from even beginning to understand my feminine identity. I had no idea I was looking at a bit of my future in the dancers' happy expressions.

Fast forward to my discovery and beginning of contra dance. I liked the live music, the friendly people, and the twirly skirts. It also seemed accessible and relatively easy to learn. What I learned over time is that the steps are fairly simple, but mastering those steps with a few hundred people is an interesting and fun challenge. It creates a sense of community which is one of the defining aspects of contra dance.

A few months into contra dancing, I switched from exclusively dancing as a follow to dancing both roles. I just wasn't finding enough willing partners, and I wanted to increase my choices of dance partners. I was fortunate enough to learn in a workshop setting where all the moves were slowed down. The workshop was not designed to be a gender switch situation. It just worked out that way for me. Many long-time dancers say that the best dancers do both roles often and well. Even though I didn't plan it that way, I agree that it helps me immensely.

After almost a year of dancing, there was a moment at the end of one dance where something clicked for me. I did most of my moves at the same speed which was too fast. It took me a long time to learn to listen to the music and let it guide me in my moves. This affected me most in the swings which is a part of almost every contra dance. In this particular dance, I heard the music slow down which told me to slow down the swing at the end of the dance. For the first time, I let the music move me into a special moment with my partner. It was like the music was telling me to savor the last swing of the dance, make it slower, and show your partner that you enjoyed the time spent together. It was a wonderful shared moment. I had also crossed over into dance bliss.

Contra dancers, especially women, often speak of dance bliss and dance trance. It's difficult to put into words, but you know it when you feel it. I have told friends how some music moves my body, and some music moves my soul. Dance bliss for me is when the music does both. I have even felt it when waiting out at the top of the hall in front of the band and letting the music's energy wash over me. It is like the musicians have tapped into my emotions, my feminine soul, and are making the music just for me. I have also heard contra dance musicians speak of how the dancers move them too. I like that we can give some of that positive energy right back.

Usually your partner is right there with you too. It is a great feeling when you and your partner are truly dancing with each other (and by extension in contra, your neighbors, your line, and the entire dance hall). It takes two attentive dancers to recognize how the music is affecting the other and just go with it. I felt like for so long I had missed those cues. Now I take advantage of flirty moments and playful opportunities with my partners and surrounding dancers. I am much more open to adding to the dance experience. It all creates many more moments of dance bliss.

You may think that this is only possible with familiar partners. It is true that it is easier to read friends and long-time dancers. However, Sunday at the Cranberry School in Elk Park, NC with the Great Bear Trio playing, I was dancing with a first time partner who said, “Isn't this band great?” All I could manage was an affirmative nod because the music was so good I didn't want to interrupt it with extended conversation. I wasn't even clapping during the Petronella twirls. It was that good!

Many studies have shown that dancing is beneficial for your health both on a short and long-term basis. The combination of good live music, movement, socializing, and most important, human touch keeps your mind, body, and soul active and alive. It also leads to moments of pure happiness and joy that can be shared with others around you. You leave your worries at the door and enter a place where you can experience the acceptance and warmth that is so lacking in the rest of the world.

So maybe my grandparents were onto something. They both lived long, healthy, and productive lives. Their choice of dancing wasn't my thing, but I found my thing many years later. It took a few months of dancing to experience and understand the feelings the other dancers already had. When it hit me, it hit me hard, and I keep going back to feel the dance bliss in new and exciting ways. It is hard to describe to friends who don't dance, but they can definitely see the effect it has on me. That may be the best advertising of all.