If you have never tried contra dancing, it will be hard to explain what it’s like. The Mt. Airy group that meets on Thursdays meets in a large room lined with chairs and a few tables. Besides the stage where the band plays and the callers call, it doesn’t have many other adornments.
A beginner’s lesson takes place at 7:30 PM. The dancing itself runs from 8 PM to 11 PM. Once you join the whirling crowd, you enter a different world entirely. It almost resembles a Jane Austen ball: there are couples, steps, turns, promenades, lilting music, and some magical mix of
elaborate yet simple choreography. But even Jane Austen will not do. The energy of the music and the people around you far exceeds the gentle but lulling movements you might imagine in Pride and Prejudice.
The dancers themselves are hidden gems. Mt. Airy Contra makes sure to emphasize its judgment-free nature. All people are welcome no matter what they believe, how young or old they are, how they look, or how they dress. Everyone is invited to take a respite from the outside world and join in the amiable, sociable adventure. It is startling how warm and kind everyone is at contra. The experienced dancers are always encouraging and helpful. The new dancers are often nervous — but only for an instant. They soon find themselves dancing and laughing even if they don’t have the steps quite right just yet. For whatever reason, contra creates a place where camaraderie is inevitable.
About halfway through the evening, the band will take a break — but not before they invite daring dancers for a waltz. This song has no caller to guide the steps, but the veteran dancers are always willing to share their knowledge to help a new dancer discover waltzing. Even the break itself is laden with energy. All the participants are either catching up with old friends or greeting new friends. People scurry around the snack tables to grab a bite or to fill up on water, and it seems like only moments have passed when the musicians start testing out their instruments again and everyone returns to the dance floor. At this hour, you might think fatigue would start to set in, but the music and the movements revitalize you.
Afterwards, many of the dancers will go to a small bar connected to the dance hall to drink beverages and occasionally eat pizza. If you’re lucky, some of the musicians will even set up in a corner of the small lounge area to play music, and many continue to dance. People from all walks of life sit and chat as the evening wears itself out.
After a few visits, the barrier between the everyday and this different world starts to dissolve, and you may begin to realize that life can be full of music and dancing.
Nathan Mark Rudolph