(Excerpts from Wisdom: A Love Story)
Contra-dance: that’s how I—a fifty-two-year-old single divorcée—spent my Thursday nights. It was an easy way to be social without having to be part of a couple. I didn’t teach on Thursdays, so I had plenty of time to get ready. Once a week I put on a long swingy skirt and drove to the Concord Scout House, swapped my clogs for leather dance shoes, and stashed a water bottle near my coat. I’d need it. Contra dance is very demanding: you and a partner travel up a long row of other paired dancers, weaving and circling—and maybe clapping and stomping—as you travel back down. The most fun is the balance-and-swing, a move that starts with a step toward—“squaring with”—your partner, followed by wild twirling that, if done properly, generates a kind of centrifugal force around an invisible axis. It’s as if you and your partner—someone you do or don’t know—meet on a plane inhabited by dervishes. You will fail, or you will fly…and the flying is other-worldly.
There were some men whom I avoided—the shufflers—and others I deliberately sought out. The ones who were athletic and playful, and who looked directly into my eyes the entire time. They could say it was to avoid getting dizzy, and it was, but really it was because you could gaze intensely and often seductively at a partner without the attendant worry of “Is this a date?” or “Is he coming on to me?” The gaze was an anchor that said, only for the duration of the dance, “I’m yours.”
But before any of that—before the opening strains of the fiddle and guitar or the applause for the band, before the hall had warmed and the abandoned sneakers and boots began to pile up, before the caller told us to “bow to your partner”—came that moment when I stumbled awkwardly around, trying not to look desperate but secretly despairing that I might be left out. Because sometimes there were not enough men. Or some of them came with a girlfriend or wife and reserved that first dance for her. And some of them were elderly or wore skirts, or were so tall I couldn’t reach them.
Less often, one or two of them were right in every way, even if they were middle-aged and self-assured in a way that said unequivocally that they had lives and were there solely to dance. If I got a dance with such a partner—Victor or Ernie or David or Frank—afterwards I would step away, flush with the thrill of having leaned into a man’s arms, already a little melancholy that the delicious dance was over and I would have to search for a new partner all over again.
It was the same feeling I had unstrapping my leather dance shoes at nine p.m., after the closing waltz, and sliding my feet back into bulky clogs that now felt like boulders. Out into the cold night I went, wistful, solo, already thinking about next week’s dance, the ringing silence inside my cold car louder than the music that had filled the dance hall only minutes before.
The week ahead lay like an obstacle course between me and what seemed like an island of light and joy, the rare couple of hours when I felt like I might still be lovely, might still be a woman.
My favorite moment in a contra-dance was the break, coming about half-way through, when the long contra lines would clear and the floor would open up. Suddenly the very non-partner-y dance became a ballroom venue, and men and women drifted around the floor as delicately as snowflakes, cautiously searching for that smile of recognition from the person who hoped you were free for a waltz. There were no words, just the eager joining of hands and flitting over the floor to find a spot airy enough to twirl in.
I was a graceful dancer, my clumsy lessons with Miss Duff notwithstanding. “Oh,” a new partner might say, as if the hand he placed on my back were reading Braille. “You’re a dancer.” Another time a woman standing next to me on the sidelines said the same thing: you’re a dancer. How do you know? I had asked, and she said, “It’s in the lengthening of the spine. And the way you respond to music. And sometimes it’s in the collar bones as well.” That last part sounded a little weird, but I knew just what she meant. A dancer elongated the neck as if it were a graceful pedestal for her head. Swirling around the floor was like trying to keep a vase on that pedestal; you had to turn your body first and follow with your head.
The leader might be the engine of the waltz, but the follower interpreted.
Eventually I moved on from Thursday night contras to Mostly Waltz Sundays, a one hour lesson followed by ninety glorious minutes of waltzing to live fiddle and piano. Sometimes I attended the lesson, sometimes not. I had figured out that so long as I could keep up the footwork, if I had a good partner, I didn’t need to learn the moves. A good partner would get me back on track if I messed up.
That worked for most variations: cuddle, skater’s position, and underarm turns. But there was one position the steps of which almost deliberately pitted the dancers against one another.
In country waltz, the woman leads with her right foot; as she faces her partner, she steps forward toward his left foot. Meanwhile, he steps forward with his right toward her left. In other words, the partners mirror each other. A firm frame is the building block of this move, until the man pushes on his leading hand so the woman can duck, or twirl, or step away from him.
Saw-tooth waltz is more complicated and just what it sounds like: the zig-zag angles of a saw-blade. Instead of stepping toward the foot opposite her, the woman steps to the left, in front of her own left foot, and twists away from her partner. He meanwhile is also twisting to his left the same way, right foot over left, away from follower. They no longer mirror one another. And yet—counterintuitively, as they have not dropped hands or called it quits—they are still a dancing unit. Because the next step—each partner’s left foot stepping in front of the right, and each partner twisting to the right as well—brings them back together. In this way, they are zigging and zagging, stepping away from and then back toward each other, breaking away and returning, breaking away and returning.
To get it right, the woman has to pay attention. She has to get comfortable with the tension of moving against and then toward her partner. And she has to allow herself to be led.
To get it right, the man can’t be too rigid. He can’t try to strong-arm his partner and lead by force. His art is that of persuasion.
Both must accept the inevitability of resistance, but also its limits. Without limits, there can be no waltz.