My friend Laura has been nagging me to go contra dancing for over a year. Besides my inherent fear of dancing in public, the word “contra” worries me. I’m a little hesitant to do the dosey-do with a Nicaraguan terrorist. “I hear that all the time,” laughs Jeff Spero, one of the “callers” for the California Dance Cooperative’s monthly contra dance in Brentwood.
“The name comes from the French contra dance,” Jeff explains, “Contra may be derived from the American word ‘country’.” Indeed, contra dancing is very similar to country square dancing (which I loathe), but without the cowboy hats, straw on the floor and Toby Keith songs urging the U.S. to kick another country’s ass for no reason whatsoever.
For the past two years, dancers have been coming from as far away as Santa Barbara and San Diego to kick up their heels at the Brentwood Youth House. These traveling two-steppers include computer techs, video editors, construction workers, electricians and even a rocket scientist. So what draws these folks to Brentwood every month?
“It’s really a community, it’s a wonderful group of people,” says Jeff. “Also, the dance is somewhat flirtatious. There’s a lot of eye contact. It’s a safe place to flirt.” As he recounts meeting his wife at a contra dance, it suddenly dawns on me, could this be why Laura has been bugging me all this time? Is this a covert matrimonial effort? Now I’m really nervous.
Before the dance begins, I take the instructional class to learn basic steps like the Dosey-Do. Jeff assures me, “If you can walk, you can dance.” Well, I haven’t quite mastered walking yet, so that’s not very reassuring. Laura takes the class with me, smirking at my ineptitude.
Half an hour later, the regulars start filing in and a band from the Bay area called “Bog” sets up to play. In contra dancing, I’m told some couples move up the line while others move down. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Laura informs me that it is “fun.”
With about 20 dancers on the floor, there are more opportunities for collisions than during rush hour on the 405 highway. As the music starts, it’s amazing how everyone weaves in and out of their lanes with ease and precision. Well, almost everyone.
As I try to steer my way through the different arms, legs and feet, I keep bumping into my fellow dancers. In the beginning, everyone is genuinely nice as we collide. But as the evening progresses I can tell they are making great efforts to smile when I come their way.
Finally, I do get the hang of it, sorta. The dance moves quickly and I realize that it’s not so much a matter of skill, but rather stamina. Sweat pours down my face like weary prizefighter in the 11th round as I try to keep up with an 89-year-old woman who is not even out of breath.
I’m grateful for the halfway break when everyone gets to chow down on some tasty snacks, like chocolate brownies. If only they had brought an oxygen tank, the night would have been complete. I decide the halfway mark is my time to bail, but first I ask Laura how I did on the floor. “You looked like you were prancing,” she sighs, rolling her eyes.
Apparently we will not be getting married anytime soon.