Contra dancing and Community

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Loyd D. Rawls

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Dec 30, 1999, 3:00:00 AM12/30/99
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A few months ago, a subscriber to this newsgroup asked for discussion
of this question: why do you dance? At the time, I was not inclined to
examine dancing philosophically, but recently I discovered that I needed
to define just what it is about contra dancing that has turned this
overweight, middle-aged secretary into a contra dance 'junkie.'

Part of the appeal of contra dancing, for me, is its sense of community.
Nice folks get together once or twice a month and dance with each other.
It's as simple as that, and as profound. The kind of contact you get
from dancing is something very rare in today's society. Where else can
you hold hands with or put your arm around people without worrying about
the "message" you're sending? Certainly not in the workplace! We work in
"cube farms," and isolate ourselves at computer terminals. Innocent
physical contact, especially between the sexes, is scrupulously avoided.

Contra dancing breaks down the barriers that keep us isolated from
others in our daily life. You learn that it feels good when an entire
roomful of people moves in time with upbeat music. Hearts pound;
breathing accelerates; feet stomp in unison. You put out your hand, and
someone is there to take it. Over and over again. All the way down the
set and back. You learn to trust, and to welcome interaction with each
new person along the line. This is how you become part of a dance
community.

As you dance with the members of your community, you develop good
feelings for them, and tolerance for their foibles and rough edges. It
doesn't matter how people dress or how old they are, what color they
are, or whether they went to college; contra dancing is very democratic
that way. Everyone does the same dance, to the same music. Sweat
happens. But you're sweating too; it's a natural part of vigorous
dancing, and you learn to live with a certain amount of wetness and
"ripeness." Dancing is playful, like being a kid again, running flat out
with your buddies and then collapsing in happy exhaustion.

Do I believe contra dancing is always perfect? By no means! We live in
an imperfect world, and dancing is no exception. After you've been
dancing long enough to gain some experience, it's easy to fall into
negative thinking because dances don't always go the way you think they
should. Sometimes there are so many beginners that it's hard to keep a
dance from falling apart. Sometimes there are too many men. (Too many
women do not pose a problem; they just dance with each other. It's hard
for men to do that). Sometimes you have to sit one out. Sometimes the
bands or the callers get in a rut, and all the dances start to look and
sound the same. My response to these glitches is to get out there and
dance! I remember how I felt the first time I was swept up in the music;
I hold onto a playful attitude (dancing is fun, not rocket science), and
I dance with the beginners until they "get it" too. Above all, I
appreciate and enjoy my dance community-without them, I wouldn't be
dancing at all!

Now, I'd like to pose the question to the rest of you: we all talk
about our dance communities, but what does that mean to you? How does
'community' happen? Just by dancing together, as I've suggested, or is
there more to it? Do you, as organizers and dancers, consciously attempt
to build community, or does it occur by happy serendipity?

May all your dance communities enjoy the best of times in the Year 2000!

JoAnne Rawls
Virginia, USA


Bob Stein

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Dec 30, 1999, 3:00:00 AM12/30/99
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In article <386B7913...@erols.com>, "Loyd D. Rawls"
<ldr...@erols.com> wrote:

} we all talk
}about our dance communities, but what does that mean to you? How does
}'community' happen? Just by dancing together, as I've suggested, or is
}there more to it? Do you, as organizers and dancers, consciously attempt
}to build community, or does it occur by happy serendipity?

I'm going to post a letter I wrote for our local folk newsletter about
community. It's a bit long, but it shows how I developed my sense of
community over time.

-Bob S
===========
Community
(written for Heritage newsletter 3/2/97)

I have been a folk dancer for 25 years. I have played music for folk
dancing for 23 years. In both roles I have experienced and
participated in many types of folk dancing: International, Israeli,
traditional squares, contra, Cajun, Swedish...and on and on and on!
Dance and music are a significant part of my life and will most likely
remain so.

All of the above is an effort to establish my credentials as a
creditable commentator on the word łcommunity˛ and how it applies to
dancing. Not that I am an expert; while I have participated in the
dance community for many years I remain mystified as to why and how it
all fits together...

So what is this thing called Ścommunityą? Is it some nebulous concept
bandied about by callers, dancers, and musicians at workshops? Is the
number of potlucks, outings, birthdays celebrated, friendships,
marriages, children that are generated from oneąs local dance? Is it
just the dance itself? Is it the łcool people˛, or the łnerds˛? And
what about the different dance types: is the contra dance community
similar in structure to the international folk dance community? Is
community defined by geographical location, or are we all part of one
world-wide dance community? And if that is so, how does one hold a
potluck for THAT? And what about the communities-within-communities?
One can speak of the community of dancers, of musicians, of callers, of
organizers. And what about the discrete groups of people who come
together as social entities WITHIN each type of dancing‹do they define
what a community is?

Hmmm....I keep asking questions, and instead of narrowing the focus of
this concept, I seem to have expanded it to the limits of infinity. It
seems that I can only rely on my personal experience, and that is where
I will start.

łDance community˛ has meant many things to me over the quarter-century
that I have been involved in dancing. When I first started out, the
dance community was a refuge from an uncertain and unhappy college
experience; I found joy and movement and music in international folk
dance. These things helped alleviate the stress in my life and helped
me become more alive and confident.

Later on, łdance community˛ meant a year-long party playing and dancing
to old-time music and Southern squares. It was hanging out with
friends until all hours, playing tunes until dawn, dancing every
weekend (This was in Pittsburgh in the mid 1970s‹we didnąt have dances
on weekday nights with the frequency that occurs now!), communal
dinners, and playing in bars. Nothing had to be organized; events
seemed to just be created out of thin air. A church would offer a hall
for free to use for a monthly dance, a person would call up and say
łCome on over and bring your instrument ł for an all-night music and
dance party. We formed a community of people who fed off of each
otherąs youthful energy and love of music and dance.

In the early 1980s, łdance community˛ meant łwoodshedding.˛ It was
sitting down and painstakingly learning the newest and most difficult
clogging step, or traditional banjo or fiddle style, or big-circle
dance. It was going to Augusta, or Brasstown, or Ashokan. It was
hours listening to ancient recordings and trying to duplicate
traditional stylings. We were drawn together by our common thirst for
knowledge and mastery.

As the mid and late 1980s came around, łdance community˛ for me meant
the company of my fellow musicians. It was playing every weekend,
going to festivals, getting hired in łbig-name˛ arenas: Boston,
Washington, San Francisco, Seattle. I started traveling out of state
and playing farther and farther from home. We musicians started to
sound like rock stars when we talked amongst each other: this dance
was unresponsive, that one they whooped and hollered all night, they
really liked that hot medley we laid on them! We started competing
with other bands‹are we as good as___, will the callers hire us? Will
the dancers like us? Heady times...yet I felt alittle isolated from
the dancers. I was on stage, they were down there, and when I did
interact with them it felt artificial and awkward. łYou actually
dance?˛ People would ask me when I was down on the dance floor: as if
I was some exotic species only known for one thing: playing music. In
some ways, while I enjoyed the attention, it was the least łcommunity˛
feeling I have ever experienced.

Now, łdance community˛ means łstewardship˛. I donąt mean that in any
lofty sense, just in the fact that I am a member of the Thursday Night
Dance Committee that organizes the Thursday contra dance at Glenside,
and I feel a sense of responsibility towards the łcommunity.˛ I
realize that dances donąt just happen anymore, they take a great deal
of planning, energy, coordination, and preparation. I now have a long
and integrated view of the community. And that view takes in some of
the common threads that make up my different community experiences
throughout my life.

łDance community˛ means people working and playing together to create
an enjoyable, musical, and movement-filled experience that is both
meaningful and joyous. It encompasses many things: the social
interactions‹the friendships formed, flirtations, romantic liaisons,
etc; the need to move and play; the discovery of and the enjoyment of
music; the creation of a learning community (so that people may
discover the history, ethnicity, and complexity of dance and music and
experience the personal growth inherent in learning these new things);
and other intangibles that I would be hard-pressed to describe.

All communities, whether they are neighborhood, or religious, or
political, or dance, need to be nurtured. They need constant attention
or they will grow stagnant and disperse. Communities will change over
time, and they will exhibit varying amounts of cohesion and vitality as
time goes on. But the basic existence of the community will remain
viable if people are willing to put energy into maintaining the
institutions and activities that make that community unique.

I think that (to paraphrase a very over-used saying) it takes a
community to raise a community. It is the simple, individual acts that
lend vitality to any community. One does not need to sacrifice huge
amounts of time to do a community deed. For the dance community, I can
thing of many things that would qualify as simple acts that would help
give the community łoxygen˛:

*Volunteer to help clean up at the end of a night of dancing
*Have a dance party at your house once a year
*Ask a new person to dance, or show a new dancer a basic step
*Volunteer a service (running off flyers, researching sound equipment,
carrying equipment, storing equipment, offering rides to and from the
dance, etc.)
*Learn how the sound system works at your dance and volunteer to help
run it for an evening
* Take money at the door
*Musicans: ask dancers for input on: tempo, phrasing, etc.
*Callers: ask dancers for input on teaching techniques, approach, etc.
*Dancers: Listen to the music, the caller, the teacher
*Organize a potluck dinner before a dance
*When things go wrong, and the evening is not perfect, smile
*When things go right, and the evening IS perfect, smile
*Feel joyous and pass that on to the next person you dance with

Simple acts most of them, and yet, taken together they help not only to
nurture community, but to define community. After all, we are all part
of the community we dance in!


--
Bob Stein, squeeze at voicenet dot com (Reply by using this e-mail address in
proper form)

Jerry & Sally Cunningham

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Jan 1, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/1/00
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JoAnne Rawls wrote:

> Part of the appeal of contra dancing, for me, is its sense of community.
> Nice folks get together once or twice a month and dance with each other.
> It's as simple as that, and as profound. The kind of contact you get
> from dancing is something very rare in today's society. Where else can
> you hold hands with or put your arm around people without worrying about
> the "message" you're sending?

Yes, I think guilt-free touch is a very important factor of dancing.


>
> As you dance with the members of your community, you develop good
> feelings for them, and tolerance for their foibles and rough edges. It
> doesn't matter how people dress or how old they are, what color they

> are, or whether they went to college; contra dancing (and IFD--shc) are very democratic


> that way. Everyone does the same dance, to the same music.

> I appreciate and enjoy my dance community-without them, I wouldn't be
> dancing at all!

This is the key, I think. Appreciate and enjoy the community. "What is
the sound of one hand clapping?" In a dance, we are all part of
something bigger than ourselves. Sure, we can walk through the steps,
but without everyone taking part, it's not the beautiful whole it is
meant to be. One person can't sing a chord, and one person can't do a
contradance or a folkdance. It takes all of us. If I'm comfortable
with the dance, I love to look around the room and see this "whole;"
I've been accused (!) of zoning out, but what I'm really doing is
stepping outside the picture in my mind and drinking it all in,
appreciating each person there for his own contribution of dance and of
self and of friendship.
>
> Now, I'd like to pose the question to the rest of you: we all talk


> about our dance communities, but what does that mean to you? How does
> 'community' happen?

I can't be sure that other people appreciate the whole the way I've just
described my own appreciation. I think awareness and appreciation go
hand in hand.

> Just by dancing together, as I've suggested, or is
> there more to it? Do you, as organizers and dancers, consciously attempt
> to build community, or does it occur by happy serendipity?

I think I try to build it, but what I really do is try to increase
awareness of it and let the appreciation of community grow from that.
And I think my best tool is my own example. I don't "zone out" to
impress anyone; it's what I do, and if people notice it, they know why.

Thank you for a very thoughtful question, JoAnne. All the best in the
year 2000--

Sally Cunningham, Montana, USA

Loyd D. Rawls

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Jan 2, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/2/00
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Thanks to Bob Stein and Sally Cunningham for their insightful responses to my questions on
community. That's exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping for! As a relative newcomer to
any kind of dancing (1-1/2 years), I'm still mystified and enchanted (my children would say
'obsessed') with the richness and diversity of our dance communities. Through dancing, I've
made some wonderful friends, with whom my path would never have crossed otherwise.

I think Bob was onto something when he mentioned a "world-wide dance community." Before the
Internet, this would have been an absurd idea, but newsgroups and usenet have made it a
possibility. No, you can't hold a potluck, but you can still get to know one another through
this type of forum and through e-mail. Then, meeting and dancing with members of your online
community feels just like a family reunion!

Sally, your practice of appreciating the whole is something I've not been able to do yet, but
it is a goal of mine. So far, while dancing, I do well to concentrate on my partner and my
minor set. But when standing out at the top or bottom, I think I do get an inkling of what
you mean.

Any other thoughts on community would be welcome!

Your online neighbor,
JoAnne Rawls


Kiran Wagle

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Jan 7, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/7/00
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Bob Stein <squ...@voicenet.com> wrote:

> All communities, whether they are neighborhood, or religious, or
> political, or dance, need to be nurtured.

> ...the basic existence of the community will remain


> viable if people are willing to put energy into maintaining the
> institutions and activities that make that community unique.

Indeed. And I believe that it will NOT remain viable if people don't
put energy and effort back into it--especially into the very things that
they drew from when they joined the community.

It's easy to think of the organizational tasks as the important
contribution (and they are important) but jobs such as (for example)
showing up on time and staying through the end of the dance are far more
important IMO.

The dancers who show up, dance with all kinds of people in all parts of
the room, stay through the end of the dance, come back next week and go
out to the after-dance gathering are the ones who're doing the real
work, the work that makes organization necessary.

(Never mind the work it takes to insure that one doesn't end up in the
situation of at least one long-time dancer and poster to this group who
says "I can't invite any of my friends to the dance--all my friends are
already dancers, or have already tried and disliked it.)

It seems to me those jobs simply aren't being done by the long-time
dancers with as much vigor as they need to be.

~ Kiran "and post to USENET too already, no matter how often you've read
that %*($*&#*($ thread already!"

--
<http://www.io.com/contradance/> 1628 5th St NW Wash DC 20001 (202) 483-3373

Jerry & Sally Cunningham

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Jan 7, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/7/00
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Kiran Wagle wrote:
> It's easy to think of the organizational tasks as the important
> contribution (and they are important) but jobs such as (for example)
> showing up on time and staying through the end of the dance are far more
> important IMO.
> The dancers who show up, dance with all kinds of people in all parts of
> the room, stay through the end of the dance, come back next week and go
> out to the after-dance gathering are the ones who're doing the real
> work, the work that makes organization necessary.

I do the organizing I do for selfish reasons--so I have a dance to go
to! If other people get to come along for the ride, well, the more, the
merrier! And I agree--the people whose main contribution is their
unique presence have done as much to make the dance as anyone there.
The lady whose smile brightens any room; the man whose energy could
power three generators; the adult who graciously dances with children.
All the people who come make our dance community. Even the occasional
visitors who just sit and enjoy watching.
We are there to dance, and joy is the by-product.

Sally

Loyd D. Rawls

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Jan 8, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/8/00
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> We are there to dance, and joy is the by-product.
>

That's it, Sally! Thanks for expressing what I have felt over and over. Or, as
someone awhile back said on the thread about why we dance, "I dance for the
possiblilty of ecstacy."

JoAnne Rawls

M. Alan Jenkins

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Jan 10, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/10/00
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Or, as one of our local dancers is fond of saying, "I dance for my own amazement,"

Alan Jenkins
Bartlesville, OK

alanjenkins.vcf

Marla Wilson

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Jan 14, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/14/00
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oooh that's so good!
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