Since moving to the South I’ve mostly stayed around Cleveland and the surrounding areas. Last year’s trips to New Orleans and Biloxi were exceptions and in any case the reason for travelling was work related. But there’s only so much to do around the Delta. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting place. But there are things I like to do which cannot be found around here. Chief among those is Contra Dancing.
Some of you may have heard of it and you can feel free to skip the next few paragraphs. For those who haven’t it goes as follows. Contra dancing is sort of like Square dancing. Some of the moves are the same, but you dance in a line not a square and it is far simpler and more beginner friendly. Contra is a lot like (and probably came from) English Country dancing, but is typically faster and more energetic.
It begins by finding a partner. One of the things which I love about Contra dancing is that you don’t need to show up with someone. People typically switch partners after every dance. Traditionally men and women would dance with the former leading although that is not really a hard and fast rule these days. The dominant person is the “gentleman” or “gent” and the other is the “lady” regardless of gender. In most cases the gentleman is on the left and the lady is on the right. Once you have a partner everyone lines up on the dance floor. Partners stand across from each other forming two lines facing each other. This is called a set. There may be only one or more than one depending on the number of people.
After that groups of four people take hands starting at the head of the line and going down (known as “taking hands four”). The couple closest to the band is the number 1 couple in their group and the other is the number 2 couple. Usually the number 1 couple trades places (“crosses over”) so that the gentleman is on the right and lady on the left and each line alternates lady gent lady gent etc. The technical term for that is improper formation. Sometimes you instead move one spot so that your partner is in the same line as you, which is known as Becket formation.
At that point the music starts. Contra dancing music is diverse, but generally sounds like Irish or Celtic music. There is rarely any singing. Instead a person known as the Caller tells the dancers what moves to execute while the music plays. Usually they tell you what those will be at the start of each dance although I’ve done some improvised ones in the past. All the moves together form a pattern and when it is complete the number 1 couple moves down the set (in other words away from the band) and meets new people. Then the pattern begins again. Think of it like doing a one minute dance for twenty minutes, but each time you do it you move a little and dance with different people.
All of the above may sound horribly boring and complicated. However with a room full of experienced dancers everyone feels like they’re flying. Time seems to melt away and you forget that you’re repeating the same dance over and over again. Even the caller stops speaking and merely waits on stage for the music to end. I’ve done other types of dancing, but none have the same feel or energy of Contra dancing.
This is the point where my trip to Atlanta comes into play. I’d picked up Contra dancing while in graduate school. There is a thriving dance community centered around Albany, New York and for a few years I was a part of it. Then came the big move down South. The organizer of one of the local dances mentioned there was this thing called Catapult down in Atlanta every year. I was immediately interested. The whole point of the Catapult Showcase is to give up and coming Contra dancing bands and Callers a chance to play at a festival and gain exposure to talent scouts who may then hire them to play elsewhere, hence the name.
The concept is brilliant. There were six bands and six Callers all of whom were fantastic. Moreover the venue, while sizable, was still small enough to have an intimate feel to it. Hailing from as far away as Alaska, the bands and Callers were truly some of the best I’ve heard. And they mixed it up with different Callers calling for different bands throughout the weekend. Catapult also had a few workshops off to the side allowing for a fun diversion from Contra dancing, My personal favorite was one about different forms of dance with similar styles to Contra. It culminated in a dance called the “New Parliament House Jig”, originally from Australia, which can not be explained and only demonstrated.
Catapult also has an incredibly friendly and generous community surrounding it. That is probably what surprised me the most. Being new I expected to dance but make few friends. However that wasn’t how it went down. The people are very hospitable and even willingly host dancers from out of town, myself included. Moreover they are welcoming and approachable. Before the dance I fell playing softball and had to put ice on my knee three times a day. The organizers easily accommodated that need and several total strangers came up to me to ask if I was alright. Someone even gave me a few tips on how to be a better dancer, something which never happened in New York. So not only did I meet a lot of really cool and interesting folks, but I made quite a few new friends. A number of people even suggested I start my own dance in Mississippi! All in all it was a wonderful experience. There is another dance weekend in Atlanta in November and I am hoping to go to it.
The only disappointment is that I won’t be able to dance much before then. Contra dancing is totally unknown in the state of Mississippi. There is some in Memphis, but I haven’t had the chance to travel there yet. It’s not that no one dances around here. I’ve been to Po Monkey’s and saw plenty of dancing. But for some reason it is not really part of the local culture which is ironic given Mississippi’s musical heritage. The closest thing is the annual “street dance” during Octoberfest, which is really just a concert.
Finally, I can’t end this blog without saying a few words about the Atlanta area. They must indeed be a few since I did not set foot in metro Atlanta, but remained in the suburbs. Even there it felt as if I’d entered a totally different region. Mississippi, and the Delta in particular, hearkens back to the old South in ways both good and bad. Around here it feels as if one has stepped back in time although things are changing somewhat. But Atlanta is clearly the New South in every sense of the word. It’s diverse and multicultural, but also crowded and congested. In many ways it feels like travelling back up North. The dichotomy is fascinating, but that is a post for another time. Meanwhile here are some pictures and videos from the trip.
|Ru San’s Sushi Buffet. Amazing!|
|In downtown Decatur.|
|Another image of downtown Decatur.|
- Wikipedia’s article on Contra Dancing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contra_dancing
- On Contra Dancing Form: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contra_dance_form
- Catapult Showcase: http://www.catapultshowcase.com/