Five Common Myths About Beginning Contra Dancers
by Greg McKenzie
It is a tradition in contra dancing that newcomers learn at regular
dances, not in separate lessons. Experienced dancers know that dancing
with beginners is an integral part of contras. Some do it out of a sense
of duty. Some actually enjoy it. I personally find it to be one of the
most satisfying experiences in contradancing. If you find that
surprising, it may be because you believe one or more of these "myths"
What follows are five commonly held beliefs that I would like to
challenge. Also included are my own "Rules For Dancing With Beginners" to
contravene those myths. My purpose is not to convince anyone to dance
with beginners but rather to help you enjoy it.
Myth #1. "The best location for beginners is far away from the orchestra
where the dancing is not so intense or confusing."
Not true. The best location for beginners is at the top of the center
lines. This is where they can best hear the caller and the caller can see
any problems which may develop. Unfortunately, newcomers are often slow
to find partners and, therefore, tend to congregate far from the
orchestra. Experienced dancers can help by using some forethought and
making themselves available early. Rule #1 is "Have a plan." Don't wait
for a beginner to approach you. Take the initiative and position your
partner where they are not surrounded by other beginners. This means more
fun for them and for you. By helping to mix newcomers in with experienced
dancers--and vice versa--you will be increasing the enjoyment of all
dancers in the hall.
Myth #2. "Experienced dancers can help by explaining the basic figures."
By far, this is the most common mistake. Verbal explanations are often
more confusing than helpful and can increase anxiety by giving too much
information. Almost all of what is dealt with in these efforts at
explaining will be learned during the walk-through with far less effort.
In fact, by offering instruction in the dance line you will be teaching
beginners to look to you for guidance rather than the caller. Rule #2 is
"Do not teach." Your most useful role is to help your partner relax and
build their self-confidence. Even when asked specifically for an
explanation it is almost always better to assure your partner that all
will soon become clear and direct their attention to the caller's voice.
Myth #3. "Experienced dancers can help by correcting errors made by
Negative comments, critiques, or even careful suggestions almost never
help. Help beginners with a gentle and encouraging lead in the right
direction. When talking seems absolutely necessary, express yourself only
in positive terms. Be creative. If your partner is bouncing up and down
during swings compliment them that their swings are getting "much
smoother." Rule #3 is "Be positive."
Myth #4. "When a group of dancers is completely lost experienced dancers
nearby should shout instructions to them."
Rule #4 is "Help only the
one(s) you are dancing with." When a problem develops
nearby--particularly if your partner is involved--it is actually best to
ignore it (mercifully) until it is your turn to dance with the confused
dancers. Instructions from uninvolved dancers will draw the beginner's
attention in the wrong direction and are likely to increase their anxiety.
You can be most helpful by providing a good example.
Myth #5. "Experienced dancers should be tolerant of beginners."
A beginner's greatest fear is that, because of their inexperience, you
will not enjoy yourself. If you are merely "tolerant" their fear will be
realized. Make it your job to relax and enjoy yourself and let your
partner know that you are having a good time. Maintain your sense of
humor, particularly when the entire line crumbles into horrifying
confusion, chaos and hopeless mayhem. As soon as your partner realizes
that you will enjoy yourself--no matter what happens--you will be able to
see them visibly relax. Rule #5 is "Enjoy yourself." Remember that the
greatest compliment you can pay to any dancer is to say that dancing with
them is fun.
This article first appeared in a slightly different form in the Spring,
1987 issue of the Bay Area Country Dancer. As long as credit is given,
this article may be reproduced.
Provided by the New England Folk Festival Association