On Sunday afternoon I hopped in the car and headed up to the Greenwood Contra Dance. Near the end of the journey, I took a wrong turn and found myself traveling an ever-narrowing road through the countryside. Up ahead I spotted a lumbering tractor approaching. Rolling down my window, I leaned out and waved with zeal. After the tractor rumbled to a halt, the driver leaned down and I yelled to be heard over the sputtering engine. He was in his forties and looked both old and young. Wrinkles etched the skin on his browned face and a vintage leather aviator cap was fastened firmly under his chin. He looked at me as if he’d been awakened from a dream.

Ten minutes later, I pulled up to the Greenwood Community Center. The hall is long and lined with windows and wooden benches. Light reflects warmly on the hard wood floor. The band, a couple guitars and fiddles, and the caller preside over the dance from the top of the room.

Nearly everyone was an experienced dancer. I could tell from the way they moved through the complex dances with an easy posture, calling out jokes to one another. My partners guided me through the turns and spins with gentle yet precise movements. When they would swing me, it would feel like ice skating. Some of these people had been coming to the dance for thirty years.

Why do we dance?

Life often seems random and chaotic. Things appear to be out of control. Certainly this view is portrayed in modern literature, music and art. According to many, we toss on a fretful sea, blown about by our own whims and wondering desires. There is no guiding star. So it seems.

A contra dance, however, is not this way.

There is an order in the dance. The rhythm and tempo of the music and the directions of the caller guide us. There are patterns and repetitions. There is symmetry. There is a beginning and an end. Different dancers have different roles. The men do different things from the women. The first couple acts differently from the second couple.

Within these structures, however, variety and creativity spring abundantly forth. Every person executes the steps with slightly different style. Dancers embellish with spins and stomps and flairs of their arms. We freely create and improvise.

Finally, perhaps people love to contra dance because while we dance we are not just individuals but partakers in a communal act of creativity.

At the end of the dance, we applaud the caller and band. We beam at each other, faces red and shining with sweat, and we laugh and talk with ease. Then we pick up our belongings, shout goodnights over our shoulders, and scatter into the night. We know that we will once again find our way back to embrace each other on the dance floor, friends sharing the exuberance of music and movement.

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