MAYBE I WAS the problem. Each time someone asked me to dance at the Emerald City Contra Dance at the Phinney Center on Phinney Ridge, I inquired all friendly-like if he was a regular.
In turn, he asked the same question.
My confession was the same — I had contra danced only once, years ago.
A look of concern flitted over some of their faces. In hindsight, I probably should have kept my mouth shut, awkward silences be damned.
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Some asked more questions about my dance history. I didn’t have much more to tell except for a brief fling with square dancing, which I don’t think was reassuring.
Like square dancing, contra dance is a type of folk partner dance, except that in contra dance you are in two lines facing other couples or your partner. The dance progresses down the line, and you dance with new people along the way, with your partner as your dance anchor.
It’s fun to see new faces as you go, and unlike most other partner dances I’ve tried, you can dance with nearly everyone in the room at some point.
I’ve taken enough partner dance classes that I can keep my wits about me when told to move my feet. Like folk dances such as square dancing, there’s a caller who walks you through the steps before the musicians join in and the dance starts.
There’s not much time to talk before the dance begins, but in that short period of time, I did not inspire confidence.
Most of my partners kept their opinions to themselves and merely pointed the way when I got confused. One decided it was best to call the steps for the entire dance — do-si-do!
Another taught me to spin fast when we did a partner swing. He tried to help me twirl. When you twirl, you go with the flow of the dance, he instructed me. But I couldn’t get it, and every time I twirled, he remarked, “the other way.” He probably was relieved when we parted ways.
My last partner told me I was a good spinner and did great. He was my favorite, of course.
There is a lot of spinning in contra dance, so much that lots of people wear skirts, women and men alike. I spent probably half the dance mildly dizzy. There were balances, do-si-dos and pass-throughs, and swinging your partner, always, with the swinging varying in speed depending on your partner.
Moving up and down the lines as we did jigs and reels was fun. The dance was full, but it was never so crowded we couldn’t navigate. Some of the more complicated dances moved us through a couple of progressions so we would see one person only briefly before moving down the line to the next.
For the Fisher’s Jig, we were assigned a “shadow,” another partner to keep an eye out for. I might have stepped on my shadow once or twice.
Regardless of your experience, contra dance steps are simple and easy to follow. The dance was full of people willing to help newcomers, and I got the hang of every dance at some point.
The best part of the experience was dancing with so many people, all of whom smiled the entire time. Every partner I danced with had a big grin on his or her face. Dancing makes people happy, and at contra dance, you will smile, sweat and spin ’til you’re dizzy.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.