Saturday, November 21, 2009


I have very few truly useful talents in life. If you want someone to make lace out of white Airhead candies, I'm your girl. Want a tasteful yet awkward yet kind of hot quadriplegic sex scene? I can do that. Want to insult someone's mother with an X-rated song about her sexual prowess? Done. (Long story). I do, however, have one skill that actually has positive effects in my life: a nearly limitless capacity for embarrassment, (which kind of explains the quadriplegic sex scenes and my hit song "Cobi's Mom"). When I was in France visiting my friend Doc, for example, I had no problems diving right in and butchering the French language (I speak only a bastardized, basketball-focused French, despite the fact that I am Canadian) if it meant that I might fit in with the locals. Sure, I made a fool out of myself 90% of the time (for example, saying "I demand pasta!" instead of "Can I please order some pasta?"), but I did learn a lot of French and I'm pretty sure the locals gave me an A for effort, even if I earned a "WTF are you trying to say?" in execution.

It was this capacity for making a fool out of myself that led me to try Contra dancing last night. My new roommate, M., plays in a contra-dancing band and when she noticed that I have a soft spot in my heart for fiddle music, (I'm Canadian; it's in my bloodstream), she invited me to come along. Contra dancing is kind of like square dancing, but not in squares. The caller teaches the dance and everyone walks through it, then the music strikes up and people dance their hearts out. Have you ever been to a Spirit of the West concert when they're playing "Home for a Rest" and everyone starts dancing in circles and linking arms and swinging each other around? Well, that's what contra dancing is like only more graceful and purposeful and complicated and not fueled by alcohol.

Now, I have a rather ambivalent history with this sort of dancing. I am from New Westminster, which is one of the few places (outside of the U.K, I'd imagine) that still celebrates May Day with folk dances and maypole dances. When I danced the maypole in Grade 4, my maypole got hopelessly tangled, (though I blame this on my partner whose name was Michael Rhodes and about whom, because he was kind of a jerk to me in the way that 10-year-old boys are often jerks, I had invented a truly mean song to the tune of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" that started "Michael Rhodes is like a boat ashore: totally useless," which was the beginning of my career as a writer of inappropriate songs).

Anyhow, there's a reason why the equation of "really tall" + "cannot move her hip in various directions" + "walks like a polio-stricken duck" + "was once forced to dress up as a foam-rubber dinosaur during her jazz-dancing recital as a child, even though I was able-bodied at the time, because I was too incredibly awkward to be trusted to perform the dance moves" does not add up to "should dance in public."I, however, thought, "what the hell? The only thing I have to lose is my dignity and I'm pretty sure that flew out the window when I spent 5 minutes this morning trying unsuccessfully to zip up my boots by going fishing for the zipper with a wire coat hanger."

So, I went contra dancing. When I walked in to the gymnasium and saw dozens of people who were very good at the dances and even had special shoes for the sole (no pun intended) purpose of contra dancing and special skirts (some guy was even wearing a kilt) for the purpose of having more fun while twirling, I wondered if I would be able to participate without the aid of a couple shots of whiskey. I wasn't even sure that I would be able to dance in my jeans (which, because of my anti-ass, generally fall down dangerously low whenever I move) and my runners. Sure, people are nice now, I thought, but it's all fun and games until someone gets a concussion at the hands of a six-foot-two uncoordinated Amazon who do-si-didn't when she should have do-si-do'ed.

I quickly noticed, however, that everyone seemed entirely unselfconscious. No one seemed to mind if someone made a mistake. No one said, "Get your gimpy, uncoordinated anti-ass back to Canada." People were helpful and supportive and not at all condescending and seemed excited about having a new person to dance with. When you've spent three years in a grad school bubble, it's really nice to participate in the larger community and hang out with people from all walks of life. Besides, there were brownies, and I'll do pretty much anything for a brownie.

Also, I'd been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy," the thesis of which is that collective acts of joy actually play a vital role in both our own wellbeing and the health of our communities and that North American society is sadly bereft of these moments of unrestricted movement-based happiness. (There's more to her thesis and the book is actually pretty fantastic if you want to check it out). What would Barbara Ehrenreich do? I asked myself. She would probably bust a move.

So, yes, I hopped right in and tried contra dancing and luckily my roommate guided me through the first dance even when I got lost and/or dizzy from all that spinning. At the beginning of every dance, I was really awkward (surprise) and sometimes accidentally harmed people by slamming into them because I turned out when I should have turned in. And, yes, it is difficult to move in a circle when you cannot bring your left leg out to the side (curse you, detached gluteus medius!) or to the front (curse you, mysteriously not-working hip flexors!). And, yes, I did have flashbacks of myself circa 1992 dressed up in a fluorescent dinosaur costume tripping all the tiny dancing girls with my long, foam-rubber tail.

But, you know what? I actually had a lot of fun. One of the things I really miss about basketball is the combination of exercising while thinking. Basketball is a really brainy game; you make more decisions during one basketball game than you will off-the-court all month. There's something about hopping on an elliptical machine that, despite the happy exercise-induced neurochemicals, feels a little hollow. Engaging your brain while you engage your body is quite fun, especially when fiddle music is involved.

So will I take up contra dancing as my next extreme support? Maybe. My hip was more than a little cranky about being forced into various positions that it cannot physically do, but maybe that's good for it. Perhaps the cure for my hip is a steady regime of dancing, kittens, and mint-chocolate-chip brownies.

1 comment:

  1. I just... can't...

    Remember when we were in school and had to learn square dancing in the gym to that "Goodbye girls, I'm goin' to Boston" song? That is basically my image of you Contra dancing... and yes, you are still nine years old.
    I have a picture of us going to dance the May Poll, standing on a hill, both of our dresses are too short and you are about four feet taller than me. It's really... special.

    Thanks for the laugh at work, but not for the craving for mint-chocolate-chip brownies.

    -- Steph