You, a lanky and unpracticed male dancer, are trying your best to spin your partner. You don’t know her, and she may be old, or your age, or younger, in a flowy dress with a nametag on her breast. Her age is irrelevant, because she is more experienced in contra dance than you are, and she knows what it is to be properly spinned. Just as you strain your nerves and break a sweat trying to spin her smoothly yet forcefully enough so that she will be neither uncomfortable nor bored, she reminds you of the great unspoken rule of the dance: eye contact.
You associate extended eye contact either with eager MBA types and their matching, classroom–trained handshakes or, otherwise, with women trying to seduce you. But neither Dolores nor Maggie is trying to seduce you—she’s trying to have fun. Too bad you, infected with fear of awkwardness and contempt of sincerity, cannot give in; you don’t return their wide–eyed stares.
Contra dance, an exuberant, mental and physical intensification of square dancing, has seen a revival in the past forty years. Spinning is the highlight of the New England folk dance, and when you (the male partner) do it, you lead her by the hand, your other arm firmly supporting her by the small of her back: once, twice, or three times, to the beat. Bodies brush, and with necks craned back, it’s time to smile and stare. The ladies’ looks vary in tone but never in form; averted eyes signal a beginner. You klutz your way through each number mumbling unwanted apologies, and every time you spin your lady, you offer, at best, periodic glances at her forehead. Contra dance provokes the urban liberal’s masculinity–inferiority complex— even when it happens in the Village.
Churches often contain unexpected surprises: eccentric or radical priests, eclectic congregations, innovative community service programs, drug ring stomping grounds. The Church of the Village on 13th Street organizes a weekly Saturday night contra dance, including a live band with fiddles and hearty MCs in overalls. The crowd mixes displaced country old–timers with aged West–Siders who prefer this to aerobics. Youth looking for a wholesome social scene also attend. Recently, Columbia undergrads have discovered this downtown treasure, infusing it with overpriced jeans that sometimes tire of dance instructions prematurely. Still, the ironical humanities majors are welcome here—it’s time we learned to look a woman in the eye.
ALEXI SHAW is a senior majoring in Russian literature & culture.