Yes, you heard me. In the olden days, the one tried-and-true way to connect with friends and meet new people was at a good old-fashioned social dance. Country dances began in England and Ireland in the late seventeenth century, and spread through much of the Western world — including the good ol’ US of A, where, in many small rural towns and villages as our forefathers manifest-destinied across the country, a social dance might be the only time you got to catch up with your community or, you know, find a husband/wife/illicit affair (let’s be real, it’s much harder to talk hanky-panky at church, which was the only other time people generally saw each other).
Needless to say, it caught on like gangbusters — and, like we do, Americans soon evolved our own style of social dance: contra dance. (Other styles include “square” and “barn.”)
Let’s have a look, shall we?
If this looks like your kind of night out, you’ll be pleased to learn that we have our very own Taos Contra Dance. It’s been going on for over two decades (and counting) — and the next one is coming up this weekend. Nate Puffer, who will be calling this weekend’s dance, spilled the beans for us; but first, what exactly does “calling” mean, you might be asking? Essentially, Nate will be hollering out instructions so that you always know what to do next. You know, the “swing yer partner round and round!” guy (although he’s quick to point out that that’s a square-style patter call, not so much a contra call — whoops).
“Contra is a form of entertainment that you and I can create for ourselves, wherever we are, without needing to buy or consume anything,” says Nate. “It is a kind of quasi-ritualistic social event that people in small towns have created to entertain themselves and for hundreds (or more) of years, with a minimum of resources.”
The really good news is that you don’t have to know anything about dance — contra or otherwise — to come and enjoy yourself. All of the dances will be taught on the floor that night. No need to dress any particular way, although “spinny dresses” (Nate’s words, and I agree) are fun for ladies. And don’t worry about bringing a date; the whole point is that you’ll meet and dance with lots of people over the course of the evening. Of course it’s fine to bring a date, or a double-date, or a whole group of friends — this is a scenario to which the phrase “the more the merrier” is extremely apt.
But don’t expect to clump up in a corner with only people you know: “Generally, you dance with a different person every dance,” Nate says. “It’s not only acceptable, it’s totally the norm for everyone to ask each other to dance. So, if you’ve always been awkward and afraid to approach people, go to one of these! Contra allows you to have a lot of contact that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and it puts you in a position to have interactions with people much older than you, and much younger than you,” he adds. “Even if it’s just ‘do-si-do,’ just moving around them, there’s always acknowledgement that the other person is there. Which maybe we take for granted.”
This weekend’s musicians will be Peggy Nelson, Jamie Wells, Richard McCracken, and Stephen Smith. The location of the dance changes over the course of the year, but this one will actually be held in a real-live barn (Rebecca’s barn, off of Lower Ranchitos; scroll down for the details). The Contra team always provides refreshments, but it’s a community thing, so feel free to chip in and bring a dish if you’re culinarily inclined.
Nate left us with some of his favorite caller patter — just a teaser of what you can look forward to on Saturday:
Call your dogs and grab your gun,
Let’s start dancin’ and have some fun.
Swing your honey round and round,
’til the hole in yer head makes a whistling sound.
Promenade on a heel an’ toe
like a bare-footed boy in a frozen snow.
That’s it, that’s all, there ain’t no more,
so promenade right out the door.
Hurry up girls, don’t be slow,
kiss the caller before you go