This weekend I had the luxury of attending two contra dances. Saturday was my local dance, and Sunday was the Brattleboro dance. Each dance brought me one unexpected though.
On Saturday, a woman came to the dance who either had a mental disability or was on a lot of drugs. I never tried to talk with her or the man she was with, so I really don't know which one it was. All I know is that her mental cognizance was lacking. Severely. I honestly am not sure if she was aware that she was dancing.
The contra community is definitely different than any other community I have been a part of, or even seen or heard of. There is a sense of welcoming and openness to all that I think is very very rare in today's society. The usual joke is along the lines of: If you know the difference between your right and left, that will help, but it isn't necessary! And the community exhibits so much tolerance of every person who comes to dance. (Obviously there are exceptions, but the less tolerant people are also outside of the usual community-aspect of contra.) Every person who goes contra dancing learned it by going to a dance and having others help them out along the way. Most people are really encouraging of new people because they know what it was like. We've all been there.
But this begs the question: Is there actually some sort of requirement of mental cognizance required for contra dancing? The strange thing was, it was actually fairly 'easy' to dance with this woman as a neighbor. She didn't really move much, and for the one dance that she was my neighbor, it just worked out that the other three of us in our little group could essentially dance around her, and complete all the moves with the appropriate timing. She definitely was not a hindrance to the dance, but at the same time, she was certainly not an asset.
In the same evening, I danced with a man (self-described as middle-aged and over-weight) who came to the dance for the first time after hearing about them for a long time. He was not the quickest about picking things up, but he was having a Blast. In a later dance I was his neighbor, and he made the comment, "I keep getting lost! But I'm still smiling, so I think I'm doing it right!" Exactly! The fact is, he was having a great time, and even though we weren't doing the dance with a lot of precision, we were having a fun time dancing with him. And he was picking up on various aspects of the dance, so it was good to see him making progress, and then to realize that he was making progress. So often he started many dances as a bit of a hindrance to the precision of the dance, but generally that diminished as he started to pick up on what was going on, while at the same time, the smiles and fun he contributed were certainly an asset.
Also in the same evening, I danced with a woman who must be grouped in the category of 'perpetual beginner'. This is the person that has been going to contra dances regularly for a year or more, but still just doesn't get it. It was actually incredibly challenging to dance with her. Since she has been to so many contra dances, she feels confident that she is doing the right thing, when in actuality, she often was not. For example, sometimes she would just start walking off in the wrong direction, and she would get so far away that it was hard to get her back into the right place. At the same time, you could also tell that she was sometimes unsure of where she should be going. She would always have a death-grip when you were holding hands, and it was hard to get her to let go of your hand. And if she was not holding someone's hand, she would start following the closest person who was moving somewhere. Needless to say, I had to somewhat alter some of the dance, so that we could get to where we needed to be. And until I had figured that out, the dance was turning into a disaster. So here is a type of person that it is really hard to get through to, who is often a hindrance to the dance, but can (on occasion) learn parts of the dance or at least smile a little and enjoy parts of the dance.
And I suppose I could go on and on about difference instances of people who are challenging to dance with for one reason or another. And I really think the contra community as a whole values the fact that all are welcome. But should an exception be made for a person who has no mental cognizance? I think if a person was totally drunk, I would definitely not ask them to dance, and probably get frustrated that they knowingly put themselves in a state that makes them unable to 'play by the rules' so to say. But what if this woman didn't have a choice in her state? What if she has a serious mental disability? I guess it would have been interesting to talk to the man who brought her. She didn't show any outward signs that the dance was enriching her life (like smiling, for instance). And perhaps the man knew that she was enjoying herself, and her life was being enriched. If that was the case, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a rare case of close interaction with other people. But from the outside looking in, it looked like a standing person with a blank face that we all moved around. In all the other cases of challenging dancers, I still (most) always felt like I was dancing with someone. With this woman, it never felt like that, and it seemed to never have the option to feel like that. My opinion on this might seem rude, but if no ones lives are being enriched by this person's presence, I don't really think it is appropriate for her to be there. I write the previous statement with care, because it is possible that her presence was enriching her own life, and I just wasn't aware of it. Or maybe it was the man's life being enriched, by being able to do this seemingly normal thing in life, when he might be living a life that is typically very far from normal.
Anyhow, enough on that. On to my second unexpected thought on contra dancing. I realized after the Brattleboro dance that the other people who show up to dance greatly influence my perception of a dance. Up to this point, I had kind of assumed that if you get a good enough caller and band, the dance will be awesome, no matter who shows up. But I learned that this is just not so. Last night I had the privilege of dancing to (seriously) some of the absolute best music and calling. Both were beyond amazing and beyond description with words. However, a good enough portion of the other dancers were just not particularly fun for me to dance with. It didn't even matter if I had a good partner who I enjoyed dancing with, because so much of contra involves neighbors and dancing with the whole group. It is actually kind of surprising that the musicians and caller could keep their energy going strong throughout the night. Usually the dancers and musicians and caller feed off of one another, so if the dancers don't have much energy it is hard for the musicians and caller to keep their energy.
It is still kind of mind-boggling, that if someone asked, 'how was the Brattleboro dance?', I'd have to say "the music and calling were out of this world! but the dance, it was 'meh'."