Saturday night, my parish St. Matthew's hosted a contra dance at the Hallowell City Hall to close out the Christmas season. It may come as a surprise to many that the Christmas season actually begins on Christmas Eve and runs through Twelfth Night (January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany) rather than begins in August and runs through December 26, the way retailers would like you to believe. Technically, Saturday night was Eleventh Night, but who's quibbling? So we all got together, had a potluck, and danced.
Hallowell City Hall is this handsome Victorian confection built of golden brick that includes a small auditorium that's used by various civic groups and some community theater organizations. We started with a small gathering at the rectory, hosted by our rector the Rev. Calvin Sanborn, and then we drifted over to City Hall with covered dishes in hand. When we arrived, our caller, fiddler, and pianist were already there, waiting to play.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, contra dancing is similar to square dancing except it manages to be hipper somehow. Contra dancing, I think, gets its name from the fact that you are often facing opposite your partner in two long lines of dancers (hence, you're contra, or opposite each other). Other times, you're partnered next to each other, and many of the dance moves are familiar to those of you who, like I, learned square dancing in elementary school: do-si-do-ing, promenading, swinging. A caller calls the moves, as in square dancing, and walks you through a basic dance before actually proceeding; then the fiddler starts and you dance. You don't necessarily start in a square, as you do in square dancing. There are various configurations of dancers that you start with that the caller makes clear: two long lines, small circles, four-squares, and such.
Contra dancing is another social institution in Maine that is really big. Every weekend there are a dozen dances all over the state, in grange halls, community centers, colleges (Bates College hosts a very popular one, for example), and anywhere else there's enough room for a group of people to dance. The tradition is to have a potluck supper that people eat between dances, and to ask for a small nominal fee to pay for the musicians.
The real kick about contra dancing, though, is that anyone can do it. Though the learning curve seems a bit daunting, the skill set isn't all that high. (It's true, however, that a skilled contra dancer is a joy to behold. There was one lovely woman at the dance who mesmerized me as she moved around the room with a grace that I will never have.) But if you have any sense of rhythm -- and, honestly, even if you don't -- you can get on the floor and try contra dancing. If you're not very good, it doesn't matter; you will get the gist of the moves quickly, and because pretty much everybody is dancing, nobody will paying any attention to you. Our dance was a case in point: the dancers included everybody from our 80-year-old organist Elaine to a bunch of very little kids (6 and up) along with their parents, and everybody in between, at all skill levels, from previously mentioned mesmerizing dancer to me. One of the fun things about contra dancing, too, is that many of the dances are designed so that you changes your partners constantly, so you get the opportunity to dance with everybody. Several of the little girls on Saturday night demonstrated their Irish step dancing skills for us, and one of the sweetest moments I had was watching a doting father bending over to carefully promenade his five-year-old daughter around the room. The music is vaguely Celtic-Irish-Scottish, and you find yourself tapping your toes even if you're sitting a dance out, which you have to do occasionally. Contra dancing is more aerobic than you might think. It's a very good workout that, unlike step aerobics class, happens to be highly social as well. And properly involves a buffet besides.
Dancing with everybody and switching partners means frequent same-sex couples, and contra dances have a reputation for being very gay-friendly and not all that concerned about gender. Many men wear skirts to dance in, for example, because they're much more comfortable and look nice as they swish and swirl around the dance floor. (None of the men Saturday night did, though, reserving the long dresses for Sunday morning's liturgy.) I picked up most of the basics quickly, as did my friend Becky. Neither of us had ever danced before, but we were fine. As I expected, my friends Alicia and Ryan, true native Mainers to the core, had danced a lot and invited us to a great local dance in North Whitefield at the end of the month, which of course we will attend. I finished the evening waltzing with fellow parishioner Sue, grateful that my mom had the sense to teach me how to waltz many years ago, and exhausted but happy.