Friday, March 19, 2010

Stepping Forth Into The Unknown

In Day 1 of the Playford Ball Weekend, presented by the Nashville Country Dancers, your humble servant ventures into uncertainty... and finds welcome.

I have a slight bit of nerves as the hour of the welcoming dance approaches. I am in my tricorn and shorts and button-up shirt. I drive up to the Cohn Adult Learning Center -- an old school -- and I have a flashback to the first time I went contra dancing in Tucson or Phoenix.

Uncertainty mixes with curiosity, but I am propelled by a spirit of adventure. I don't know anyone with the group I'm about to cavort with, but I know I can do the dances, and I have not turned down a dance challenge yet. I heard about this event from a flyer that made its way to a TFTM dance in Tucson. This is the first of three days of frolicking. When I read the brochure, I knew I wanted to come here. The hosts encouraged me to make the trip when I inquired. Now, will my expectations be met?

I make my way to the gymnasium, which is decorated with colorful banners hanging from the folded-up bleachers. People are streaming in, meeting and greeting and changing into their dancing shoes. I hope my sneakers will suffice. I don't want to rush back to the hotel for my buckled shoes or ghillies.

I check in with the desk: "Christopher Francis, of Tucson, Arizona." I can't help but mention my hometown.

"Hey, I emailed you!" says one of the ladies who's organizing.

I can tell I'm one of the younger people in the hall. Most of the people coming in are above 40, perhaps pushing 50 or 60. I see a few young faces. I see a few characters, like a lady wearing a barn-dance skirt, or the gentleman who's wearing what has to be long pajamas. I guess that's an inside joke to go with the name of our band tonight: Playford's Pajama, the "Pajama" part coming from the names of the players -- Pam, Jane, and Martha -- two fiddlers and one pianist.

I'm wearing my white-trimmed tricorn, the only one wearing a tricorn. I greet a few of the ladies who are impressed with my chapeau.

"I actually had to re-trim it," I explain. "It had an unfortunate encounter with antifreeze."

"Line up for a contra!" our caller announces, and now is the test. Will I be able to find a lady who will afford me a dance among these kindly strangers? The answer, to my relief, is yes.

We dance a contra -- the Americanized form of English dance, and then another contra. These opening dances are easy, as they should be. Not too many figures or weird moves. Keep it simple. Keep it fun. These folks know how to run a ball.

Both times I find a willing partner... or she finds me. I don't have to look very long or hard. I'll wander about on the sidelines looking for someone, and then as the ladies and gentlemen find their partners and proceed to line up, the ladies in waiting are revealed like the tide washing away the sand.

We dance a square next -- or a "cotillion" as I would like to call it in my British accent. It's a "singing square," where the caller is singing the calls as he calls them. This is where I face my biggest challenges of the evening. A friend has told me that in square dancing there are different levels one achieves through learning so many moves and calls. I never graded myself, but I know square dancing is a lot like chess: it pays to think at least two moves ahead.

Here is the secret: in any kind of set dancing -- English, contra, square, or whatever -- all the moves are supposed to flow into each other. So to do it right, you have to anticipate which move is coming next so you can flow your feet and your arms into it. That's especially true in square dance, where the moves are less repetitive and reaction time is critical. You have to think on your feet. I'm going to allemande my corner and then swing my partner next. Then there's the grand rights and lefts until I get back to my partner, when we're going to do another allemande and head back the other way, grand right and lefting.

Mistakes do happen. I mess up. My partners mess up. My corners mess up. The people across the square mess up. We're getting behind the caller. We're trying to catch up to the caller. This is where I find out the character of this group, and to my reassurance and comfort, we all laugh and dance on, as we should. Confidence inside me grows. I've made a good choice of dancing companions.

"Do not worry," I said before the square dance began to disperse any uncertainty among my set companions. "All of us were once newcomers and we shall return there every so often."

I remember Middle School when we had to square dance in gym class. The guys laughed at me dancing. The girls wished they didn't have to come within two feet of me, much less hold my hand. They would tease, insult, drain all the social grace from the dance. I had to put up with it, because I didn't know what else to do except cry.

Now those days are gone as I grow confident that the ladies are truly enjoying my company, and my dancing skills are suitable, if not exemplary. We do a few English dances, and I go to great lengths to show grace, holding my free hand high, pointing my toes occasionally, and keeping eye contact with my partners.

During the break, a lady introduces me to an elderly lady who's in her 90's and is both dancing and teaching historic dance to re-enactors. She tells me about the dances she's planning elsewhere. I talk about dancing in Phoenix with We Make History. I talk about them a lot tonight: who we are and what we do. Many are impressed I've come all the way from Arizona.

"Tomorrow night," I tell many, "I shall be in my full regalia!"

We dance more contras, more graceful English dances, and another square before closing the evening with a wild contra called "You Can't Get There From Here." It ought to be called, "You're Making Me Dizzy," because it has so many turns and swings.

"You can give me some weight," my partner says. "I can take it."

She wants me to hold her hands tighter as we swing. I oblige. I'm hesitant to do that with a lady, especially given my inclinations towards the grace of English dance, but I give her the weight.

"Was that enough?" I ask after the dance.

"Yes, that was."

Playford's Pajama plays a final waltz, and I quickly find a willing, unattached lady. We are both simple two-steppers. Around us are the real waltzers, spinning and leading and twirling.

"There's a lady I dance with in Phoenix who I lead in sort of a waltz-minuet," I tell my partner. "It's really just a country dance we make up on the fly with me lightly prompting the next figure."

I wouldn't ordinarily subject a newcomer to that, but glancing around at the other couples, they are so beautiful and we are so ordinary, and it weighs heavily on me.

So I separate from my partner, and I begin to lead her: Walk forward in a double. Left hand turn, right hand turn. Set to the right. Set to the left. Turn by two hands. I mix up the figures and lightly call them. It's symmetrical. She picks it up right away. A dozen improvised moves later, we're back to two-stepping again, having shown off enough.

I thank the musicians who will be playing for us all weekend, noting how much I love historic dance and how it's brought me back to GOD, among other things.

"I know it builds community," she says. "But I've never heard about it doing that."

On the contrary, you just did.

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