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Dancing in Unity 

Contra-style community building

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The dance floor was good-naturedly rowdy. "Allemande left!" bellowed the guy on the stage. He had a microphone, but the fiddle player, accompanied by booming guitar and muscle-lunged harmonica, was so engrossed in the reel that the caller had to shout to be heard. "Now swing your partner!"

Uh-oh, I thought. I'd decided to experience contra dancing last Sunday, and as I stumbled, skipped and spun my way through impossibly fast-moving dances with several dozen strangers at the Petaluma Women's Club, I'd become so dizzy I considered slipping out the back. It would have been so easy.

What kept me on the dance floor were two things which happen to be essential to community-building: first, the others were depending on me to fill my role in the dance matrix; and second, there was so much genuine empathy for my "beginner's dizziness" and so much encouragement about my progress that I felt happy, even with the inner-spins. Funny how positive, kind people can help you feel included and make you want to do better. That's community.

Contra is an American tradition that has been kept alive over the years by small groups. You can't do this dance alone; there's no app for it. Instead, people have to gather physically in a room with a caller and musicians, and they have to cooperate with one another. The structural symmetry of the dance makes each individual necessary, participating, as they are, in a healthy community.

"When I dance contra, I feel held by the energy of the group," explains Laura Feibush, an East Coast visitor at the Petaluma contra dance. Feibush, who dances contra frequently in Princeton and Philadelphia, says contra dancing connects people. "It was great to be able to come across the country and know exactly how to do the dances, because they're all the same," said Feibush. "Contra dancing is a unique way of connecting to someone you've never even met without talking to them. Even people you haven't met can be friendly and welcoming."

Cathy Irwin, a contra dancer for more than 18 years, is on the board of the North Bay Country Dance Society. "We have a membership of almost 200 people," says Irwin. "And we would love to have more young people come. Students get discounts, as do those who have hardships." Members pay $10 per dance, and nonmembers pay $12. "That price is great for live music," says Irwin.

I'd say it's great for connecting joyfully with strangers in community.

For more, see www.nbcds.org.

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