I have known for years that there was something countercultural going on in that mysterious building wedged between the library and community pool, but would never have darkened the door had Heidi not said, in her tentative manner, one former hippie to another, "Would you like to try contradancing?"
We showed up on a Thursday evening, our 10- and 11-year-old daughters for buffers; uncertain of our shoes, our apparel, and the protocol required of us across that threshold. We were on time for the informal instruction before the main event-a matter of acquiring the language (every counterculture has its own). Terms like hay (a kind of figure-eight weave), balance (a slight side-to-side shuffling of the feet, more to reinforce the rhythm than anything else), swing (think of a classic waltz hold, but with torque), and allemande (a grasp of hand that I guessed was derived from the French a la main). Vocabulary is halfway to mastery in any field.
You must picture the gathering in that room as resembling the collection of humanity you will see at the Last, Great Gathering, where people will come from East and West, and not many will have had "most likely to succeed" as their yearbook sendoff. Whatever these people are in their other lives, however the world esteems them the other six days and 22 hours of the week, is all irrelevant within these walls. Here the apostle James's admonitions are alive and well: "Show no partiality"; make no "distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts" (James 2:1,4). There are men my father's age, and my son's. There is a 30-something man with one high platform shoe and a limp, in heroic defiance of nature's having saddled him with a right appendage shorter than the left. "Some who are last shall be first."
It's hard to define contradancing, but it starts with you in one line and your partner across from you in a second, and it ends with your probably having danced with everyone in the course of an evening. I have heard stories of newcomers to churches going away with a vow never to return: No one had approached them; no one had remembered the fear of the awkward outsider. Not so at the contradance. My clumsy missteps were forgiven; my ignorant violations of dance etiquette were smoothed over with smiles; my loss of direction was gently corrected, most usually with a discrete bodily cue by a gentleman (that lexical term gentleman applies in this time warp). My dizziness was offered a nostrum-that I take care to look into the eyes of my partner; looking at a fixed point is the only way to avoid vertigo. My overtures to sit it out were countered with winsome urgings and sensible reasonings: "It's only a dance." I felt like a horse in the capable hands of horse whisperers.
Here is something I had no idea of, my generation being the first deprived generation of virtual dancelessness. There is more to what goes on on a dance floor than the sum of the parts and the movements seen from the outside. To dance is to enter into a mystery, to become lost in it and to lose all sense of the world. One wades in unsuspecting of this, executing dutifully the allemandes and hays of the caller, still fully conscious of the room all around. But before many movements one enters a state of altered consciousness. A boorish man (who has never danced) will explain it in terms of endorphins. An analytical person will wax on the social pleasures of unity in diversity-and this is all true enough. But now that I have danced, I know what it is: It is the joy of the dance.
Time flew away, like the temporary and created thing it is. The aerobic afterglow, my racing pulse, the hot beads tracing my spine-none of these was I aware of till we scurried home in the night, like four Cinderellas in danger of incurring the fairy godmother's ire. On Thursday evening I was deep in a tarantella, swept into a "swing" that threatened to make me lose orbit, a man's strong hand on my back the only counter to the centrifugal force of flight.
And it felt like a kiss from God.