Dance Lessons: Part 1, Conquering Fear

“There’s something different about you. What is it?” My husband, Mark, has heard a lot of this lately, and it’s no wonder. He has a twinkle in his eye and an extra measure of confidence, and we both agree that it may have something to do with our new hobby: contra dancing.

For those of you who haven’t heard of contra, I will try to describe it to you, although it is something that is better understood by watching or participating. A caller, working with a live band, directs two lines of dancers through a series of dance steps, and that set of steps is repeated throughout a song. You and your partner progress through the lines, so that by the end of the dance, you will have danced with everyone in your line. As one dance website put it, contra “is a form of dance that thrusts a different person of the opposite sex into your arms every 30 seconds or so.”

The music is part of the appeal for us. Reels, jigs or songs with a Celtic influence get the dancers going. And it seems that the more unusual the band name, the better the music. Some of my favorites are House Red, the Elftones, Toss the Possum, and Floor Play.

Some friends of ours dance at the Vintage Theater every Tuesday night, and often invited us. It sounded interesting to me, but Mark wouldn’t even discuss it. “I don’t dance,” he had told me early in our marriage. He didn’t even attend his own prom, and when he went with a friend to hers, he warned her up front that he would not step onto the dance floor. “I don’t want everybody looking at me,” he said.

One time we had a polka band playing at a church function – don’t ask me why. I’m originally from Minnesota, and polka music just sings to me, and I starting moving to the beat. Mark moved away from me. Waaaay away. Like he was embarrassed to be seen with me, which embarrassed me. He explained later that he was terrified that I’d ask him to dance. It didn’t happen again, believe me.

So when my friends invited us to join them at the Vintage, I declined for both of us. “Mark doesn’t dance” was my simple explanation. Looks of pity from them, silence from Mark, a shoulder shrug from me, and on to a different topic of conversation. But this year, I met another lady who also enjoys contra dancing. It seemed that every conversation we had eventually turned to dance – terminology, dance partners, venues. It’s the language she spoke, and I wanted to understand what she was talking about and get to know her just a little better.

I looked up contra dancing on YouTube and was surprised at how fun it looked. Lines of people twirling to the upbeat music. Suddenly I understood why my friends enjoyed it so much. Mark heard the music coming from our computer and watched the videos over my shoulder. “Wow,” he said, “that looks fun!” I held my breath for a moment, waiting for him to remind me that he doesn’t dance. But instead, he said, “well, look! It’s a called dance. You just do what you’re told! I could do that.”

I couldn’t sign us up fast enough!

The following Saturday as we drove to our first dance at the Guilford Grange, we were both nervous. I was afraid I’d love it and he’d hate it and we’d never go again. He was afraid of all the same things he’s feared for years – stomping on someone’s foot, slipping on the dance floor, everyone whispering about the new guy who can’t dance. But we were in this thing together. At least we had that going for us.

We attended the lesson that comes before every contra dance. The caller taught us all the basic moves – alamande, do si do, balance and swing – and experienced dancers invited us to partner with them for the first dance. Everyone was friendly and encouraging, the music was lively, the caller was considerate. And Mark? He grinned like a fool the whole evening.

On the way home, we could hardly contain our excitement and made plans to attend the next dance, and the one after that, and the one after that …

Months later, and we’re regulars at the Vintage and at the Grange. Mark is the first to ask new ladies to dance, and he’s a favorite among the experienced dancers. And he is always inviting new people to join the fun. “Hey, meet us at the Vintage. The Morrison Brothers are playing, and you don’t want to miss them!”

He reminds me of someone who goes skydiving for the first time. “Whoooo! What a rush!” he tells people. Now I know that not many would compare dancing with skydiving, but he would. For him, dancing was that scary. And conquering that fear has given him the greatest rush . . . and has put the biggest grin on his face. So it’s no wonder that people are asking, “what’s different about you?” Go ahead and ask him. He’ll be glad to tell you allll about it.

Our first contra dance at the Guilford Grange in Greensboro, NC, in 2009.
Our first contra dance at the Guilford Grange in Greensboro, NC, in 2009.
One of my favorites of Mark
One of my favorites of Mark

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