Contra Madness

Winter 2005-2006

by Alyssa Benjamin

I must be stuck in a re-run of Little House on the Prairie. Swirling skirts, bearded men, organic women. I sat paralyzed in an itchy, 1970s tweed chair positioned in the corner of a small, rustic dance hall in rural Maine. Once again, this is what my ebullient Aunt Nancy had deemed a good time.

The folk/country music began and the contra dancing commenced. The announcer boomed instructions to the posse of maybe twenty. He rhythmically called out his commands like a conductor leading an orchestra. The group dutifully obeyed.

As I watched the dancers kicking and bowing and swirling and turning, I frantically searched for another in my situation, someone like me who was aghast at this ridiculous contra chaos. Alas, among the ‘60s vintage blouses, trousers and quilted skirts, I found no one.

I sank back into my chair. Having biked down a 10,000-foot volcano, tap danced in front of hundreds of people, written an article in the school paper for the scrutiny of my peers, I thought I was much too cool to contra dance, and secretly was terrified to do so as well.

As I calculated down to the second the time remaining, an older man approached and gestured to me to join him in a dance. Embarrassed, I turned a radiant shade of rouge and refused. But as he walked away, I wondered if I should have accepted his invitation rather than remain the lone brooding soul hogging the back corner.

The night went on. I looked across the dance floor and saw my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Doug – elated, feeling the ebb and flow of the steps and rhythms. I have a penchant, some might say a talent, for dance. Feeling ill at ease all by myself and intrigued by the unfamiliar steps and melting pot of vivid colors, I debated participating in the merriment of the contra. I finally pushed myself to join the contra line.

For the first song I laughed, nervous and embarrassed at my lack of coordination. After my laughing fit, I let go. Enveloped in the music, my legs seemed to move automatically to the energizing beat. Arm here, foot there. I felt free and blissful. Contra dancing, while not as aesthetically graceful as ballet or as rhythmically pleasing as tap, exuded its own aura of enchantment and beauty. My preconceptions, I realized, were stereotypical and ignorant.

After tired feet and bodies finally halted the jubilant crew, the night was over. New and old friends bade their farewells. Surprisingly, I was sad to leave such an affable group full of those bearded men and skirt-draped women.

Aunt Nancy had once again opened my stubborn eyes to new experiences. She had shown me the path to acceptance of those who have much to offer, but who are different from me, teaching me to feed and thrive on life, wherever and however I find it. Ironically, I now search out, rather than hide from, those eclectic experiences that make life interesting. Nancy inspired me to become inspired, and as I left my new two-stepping friends, I was grateful.

Alyssa Benjamin, of Castleton, New York, has visited her aunt and uncle in Camden each summer since she was six. This essay describes her impressions of a contradance called by John McIntire at Simonton Corners in Rockport in the summer of 2003, when she was fourteen. She is now a student at Boston University School of Communications.

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