A Secret Handshake


It only took about two minutes into my first official Contra dance before I realized just how much I fucking loved it. People said I’d probably like it, but of course I didn’t believe them. How could I, until I tried?

It only took about one minute into my second official Contra dance to remember how much it felt, possibly, like a drug.

Not that I’ve even done all that many drugs.

But I think this feeling was like a drug; of watching people and leading and being led and corrected and counting to eight and swinging just a little bit and eventually remembering the steps without having to think so hard about it; and having safe, consented, constantly-changing body-contact with one quarter of the room, nearly all of whom I hadn’t introduced myself to and we make eye contact because that’s exactly the thing they tell you to do to avoid losing our equilibrium as we spin about the room; of helpless falling in love with the permanently smiling eighty year old grandmother as equally as the fifty year old cross-eyed and somewhat overweight gentleman who just happens to be dancing the female part on this song, and in eight bars they move on to another partner and so do I, but in another sixty-four bars I discover again those same eyes with her same wrinkled but beautifully smiling face again and don’t have to say a single goddamn thing but just smile with my cheeks and eyes and move around because the steps aren’t forgettable once I’ve contra’ed yourself through the line once, but it still being totally okay to make a mistake and miss a few beats. That was really something I couldn’t have even guessed about.

The eye contact.

Every set of eyes, ultimately, the same. Looking at me, too.

Well, sometimes.

Not everyone seemed so keen or at ease with the whole eye contact thing. Or even the tensive push-pull position that would have made all those junior high school slow dances slightly less awkward. Some dancers were soft with their hands and lithe and seemed barely there. Like really they were forty five degrees rotated into another dimension, thinking about something else or trying to count by threes maybe. Others dancers were so clear eyed and the steps so mind-numbing in their straight-forwardness that in course of one song she’d already asked me about my writing but I just couldn’t even know what to say it’s about because I’m still counting to eight in my head. “It’s about this; counting to eight in my head.”

And today? It’s about empathy and experimentation.

And inside of that realization is the difference between indirect observation and direct experience. If I sat on my hands on the chairs lining the side of the hall and watch free spirited dancers in squares and fours and do-si-do’ing and swinging their partners and try to write about it. If I’m judging or doubtful or afraid, I’m no really comprehending anything. The stereotype perhaps, of its old-time Appalachian origin, got in the way.

Got in the way, for too long, of discovering the magic eye contact. And whatever drug-like side effects in which it seemed almost categorically impossible to not just feel a profound sense of empathy for everyone I met and danced with. That somehow here, on a temporary dance floor, for a small donation, I could feel like I learned more about who someone really was if I just paid attention in those ten or fifteen seconds then perhaps I might otherwise in ten or fifteen hours of conversation. Maybe it was an illusion, but it sure felt real.

It’s like one of these perpetual personality tests that I keep noticing is actually everywhere, everything, for everyone. But here, while a supposedly big deal on a microphone standing next to a fiddle and a mandolin and a guitar playing in four-four is telling me how and with whom to move next, everything about everyone was immediate and everyone was exactly the same.


I could read about the effects of an LSD trip, or read about the heartbreaking effects of a lost love, or even try to write about the effects of sitting and breathing ten hours a day for ten days in a row. But to actually feel it? To understand? To know? To be?

I just had to try it. That’s literally the only way. You have to try.

But here’s the thing I’m more unwilling to just consciously stream about; there’s a move, called the courtesy turn. You take your partner’s left hand in yours and they place their right hand behind their back palms facing back and you place your palm on theirs, like in a secret handshake, and they walk around you. Every time that move is called and my right palm meets another and I pivot on my heels, I have feel as if I’ve been doing it for decades, not hours or months. Centuries. Or that I’d be doing it for decades. It’s tough to tell which direction sometimes. It’s always to the right.

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