The dance of compromise

“It’s good for your body, good for your soul and good for your mind. It’s really fun, and you make lots of new friends—and sometimes find the love of your life!” So says avid contra dancer Katie Good.

The joy of contradancing is definitely contagious, and this traditional folk form has taken Asheville by storm, thanks to an incredible surge of interest by young people. The Old Farmer’s Ball at Warren Wilson College has become the week’s most anticipated activity for young and old alike. “I challenge myself to become a better dancer, and I make it a point to try to dance with people I wouldn’t normally dance with,” notes Good.

Temporarily relocated to the Fairview Community Center while Bryson Gym is being repaired, the Old Farmer’s Ball is a mélange of sights, sounds and all sorts of people. From teens to seniors and dreads to grey heads, the contradance community is an exercise in diversity.

Warren Wilson student Rachael Fairbanks experienced her first dance at the college. “It’s a really good exercise in opening your heart,” she reports. “Young people bring a sense of zest and life to an otherwise wrinkly dance.”

From 8 to 11 p.m., the floor never stops shaking. Dust swirls overhead while the dancers spin, swing, dip and stomp in a banjo-picked frenzy. Some choose to take it slow; others seize the chance to practice their tango, swing or salsa moves. The energy is pure human connection: all the dancers on the same train, sweating, shouting, seldom stopping.

More than a dance, it’s an adventure. “We push the boundaries of what contradance is,” says Suz Ayliffe of Asheville. “We’ve taken the reins and made it our own.”

Over the past few years, the contra community has grown significantly; dances are packed, and space is an obvious issue.

Size, however, hasn’t been the only problem. While the young folks provide an undeniable energy, some of the more conservative dancers find it overwhelming. In fact, the dual issues of safety and respect seem to recur each week. But is this just an overreaction, or do young dancers need to re-assess their behavior on the dance floor?

MJ Taylor, an enthusiastic 55-year-old dancer who serves on the group’s board, empathizes with both sides. “Most of [the older dancers] are so grateful! In many parts of the country, there are very few young people in the contra community. Without youth, contradancing would eventually disappear. Of course, the crowded conditions, which are often blamed on the youth, have driven a lot of older people away from our local community, and they are missed. When it’s very crowded, people often get an elbow where it doesn’t belong, and there is a vocal—but tiny—minority who believe it’s the youth. Unfortunately, it’s the older people trying to dance with as much energy as the youth who hit me most often. … It’s hard to ‘own your own space,’ even when you are young and skilled.”

And while the spotlight has tended to focus on the young, Taylor says some members of the older crowd also need to show more respect. “I am … unhappy with how hard it is to make some men understand that if the woman they are dancing with is young enough to be their daughter, they ought to treat her as though she is their daughter.”

At the same time, if the younger crowd realized the importance they hold in the local contradance community, maybe they’d become a little more conscious of their behavior as well.

“I think we’ve had mixed reactions,” says young dancer Ayliffe. “I know there are a number of older people who are appreciative of the fact that [young people] are so active on the scene. On the flip side of that, there are definitely some more conservative dancers.

“Politically speaking, everyone on the dance floor comes from a different walk of life. We come in with very little clothing, sweaty and all over each other occasionally, and I know they react to that. We’ve definitely gotten some snotty remarks—at least I have—from the community, but it’s few and far between.”

The more seasoned dancers may not like everything these young people contribute, but there’s no disputing their skill. “I think they’re surprised at our level of expertise,” says Ayliffe.

On the dance floor, the conflict generally stays under control, but elsewhere it’s a different story. The board of the Old Farmer’s Ball, which makes decisions concerning all things dance-related, includes both young and old, but the younger folks feel they’re straining to be heard.

“On the dance floor, [the older dancers] have been really warm and welcoming. But as far as policies go, I think they’re a little bit threatened. They definitely don’t take young people seriously,” says Kristin Pandolfi of Asheville.

Ayliffe agrees, adding, “While they appreciate everyone’s input, there are probably key members who have been at it for a long time who still feel like they need to exert that [seniority].”

So does our local contra community showcase democratic practices and values, or is something as pure and good as contradancing slowly being overshadowed by power struggles and elitism? And as young people, what can we do to change this?

“We have a responsibility to continue this for generations to come,” Warren Wilson student Sara Slaughter declares. “I don’t think some of us have really recognized that responsibility yet.”

[Lane Emmons is a creative writing major at Warren Wilson College and an avid contra dancer. To learn more about the local contra community, go to www.oldfarmersball.com.]

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One thought on “The dance of compromise

  1. As a formerly avid contradancer for over 15 years, I really enjoyed this article and the issues it raises.
    I stopped contradancing in lart part because the danceform changed over the years.
    Let me state right up front that I’m not saying change is wrong. In fact all dance forms tend to change and evolve with time. It’s a natural progression as newer younger dancers join in.
    I’m sure the contradancing I did in Asheville and all over the southeast in the 1980’s and early 90’s was quite different than the contra dancing in New England states in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Having said that, my perspective was that ContraDancing ceased to have the attributes that attracted me in the first place….dancing together as a community on the floor and adapting to the flow of entire group on the floor at any one time. There’s nothing more satisfying (to me) than everyone dancing together in harmony with the music and with each other.

    In my later years of dancing (in the late 90’s) the dancers seemed to be more concerned about expressing their own individuality and “expertise” as opposed to blending as a single dancing unit with the full dance hall.
    Contradancing became a blend of swing dance, salsa, and for lack of a better word (hootchie kootchie dance).
    Those dance forms are great fun…but tended to distract from the feeling of cooperative group dancing which contra dancing once had.
    It’s hard to describe, but those who have danced “traditional” contra dances will know exactly what I’m talking about.
    I’m glad to see that contradancing is alive and well and growing in this area.

    I salute and support the evolution of contra dancing and dont begrudge the changes. I just dont enjoy the changes (and bruises).

    Don Talley (age 50)
    Black Mtn NC

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