“One of us is tired this morning, but one of us is really tired,” I say to Roger as I walk into the milk barn at dawn. I find him standing in the manger leaning on a hayfork, oddly stationary for this time of the day when there is so much to do.
“I know which one I am,” Roger replies.
“When did you get back home?” I ask.
“Trish and I didn’t get back until after midnight, but it was a good night, we really enjoyed ourselves.”
“You worked all day and into the evening, you had a quick dinner and a clean up and then at 9:30 you go out. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Oh, I’ll be fine today and tonight, but tomorrow around mid day, it’ll hit me. I’ll be good for nothing. When I’m moving it’s not so bad but as soon as I stop that’s when it hits me. I was moving last night though. It was fun.”
There are only a few things that could get Roger out of the house at night. One is a calamity on the farm; that didn’t happen. The other is dancing, contra dancing to be specific. It was the fourth Friday of the month, dance Friday, and Roger and Trish were out the door.
Contra dancing, also known as New England folk dancing, started in the 17th century in England as country dancing. It then migrated through France where it picked up some steps from the dances of the French court –Contre Danse– and then sailed to the New World to settled in New England. Contra dancing became popular throughout the country in the mid 19th century but it soon lost favor to square dancing. Except, that is, in the stubborn states of northern New England where it has remained popular to this day. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have never been good at following trends.
Contra dancing is like a folksy, overly friendly version of square dancing. In contra dancing couples face each other in two long lines and move through the line dancing with all the other couples until at the end of the 5 to 10 minute dance a couple will have met every other dancer on the floor but ended up back with the lady or fella they started with. The music is live, usually Irish or Scottish or American jigs or reels and the progression of each dance is ‘called’ or choreographed by a dance caller. There are no costumes or stylized routines, single dancers are welcomed and encouraged and laughter and gaiety are mandatory,
In Vermont, folk dances have been as much a part of the fall, winter and early spring seasons as harvest, splitting wood and maple sugaring. And like these, dances are better done among the community with the help of others. In a time when darkness means the day is over and doors are locked, when families surrender to television or separate to their own cyber-companionship dances bring people together. Perhaps it is the inherent isolation and hardness of winter when roads are difficult and temperatures are worse that forces people to seek out the company of others to stay reasonably sane. Or perhaps it is just the dogged stubbornness of New Englanders who refuse to let a bit of a blizzard keep them from their pleasures. Whatever the reason, if it is the season, Roger will be dancing.
He comes by this honestly. “We used to go dancing all the time,” Hugh tells me, his voice suddenly animated. “We’d dance in the basement of the church, at the Tinmouth dance hall on the pond, wherever we could. We used to walk a mile and a half down the road to the east and the people would clear out the bedrooms and we’d dance upstairs.”
“When did you ever have time to dance? Your father was pretty strict I hear.”
“We’d leave the farm around 8:30 after milking and started dancing around 9 or 9:30. We’d finish at 1 and be back in the barn for milking at half past 5. I was always here for milking.”
“I bet you were. You still are.”
“There was a German girl in town –Ooshee we called her, her real name was Ursala. She was a real nice woman and a helluva dancer. I’d meet her at the dance and soon enough her husband would get drunk. Then she and I would dance all night- we had a helluva good time.”
Hugh doesn’t dance anymore, at least not with his feet, but I am sure he still dances in his dreams, looking for Ooshee and space on the floor.
It’s an earlier dance Friday and I go to out to see what this dancing is all about. I find Roger on the dance floor, washed, shaved and beaming like a brand new penny in a pocket full of old change. I can’t remember if I have ever seen him without any hint of the farm on him. Dare I say he looks normal; a dairy farmer in everyday day camo.
The dance is help in the Tinmouth Community Center, a beautiful building with a hardwood gym floor and a portable stage at the far end for the caller and musicians. Two basketball rims and backboards hang from the walls and a kitchen with iced tea, cider, cookies and brownies clustered on the counter. There is no price on any of the goodies just the request for donations.
Most of the people seem to be locals dressed in blue jeans and baggy sweaters and long flowing skirts for the ladies. Ages range from 7 to 75 and there are a surprising number of young folks; older teens that are doing something so uncool it is cool. Four musicians sit up front- a violin, a squeezebox, a mandolin and a guitar- the reels are rousing, the jigs joyous.
When I first watched a contra dance it appeared more chaos than control but with a little study it is not so hard to give focus to the blur of swirling bodies. If you watch the beginning of each dance, especially if there are lots of new dancers the dance floor looks a bit like a demolition derby in socks and plaid shirts. But as the dancers learn the steps through the repetition of dances the demolition part diminishes and a dazzling synchronicity rises such that the floor appears more to be a single troupe rather than a gathering of individuals.
I take my first steps on the dance floor with Trish as my partner. I feel as out of place and conspicuous as I did my first morning in the milking barn. My steps are unsure, my apprehension extreme, my abilities diminished. I might as well be a linebacker at a quilting bee or a ballerina at a tractor pull. My partners, though, be they wary woman now or cautious cows then tolerate my missteps. In both cases I end up with my head spinning.
When done by experienced contra dancers, the matched movements of swings and passes and the ever-changing couples are mesmerizing. It is like watching many-colored human pinwheels of all shapes and sizes turning on the winds of reels. Some of the folks, especially the young folks just follow their own muses- dancing dervishes- twisting and turning to the beat of their own making. But most are dedicated dancers and they flow through the dances, the couples, the night with practiced ease.
For Roger contra dancing is his escape from the farm and his touchstone to the community. What I find interesting is of all the outside groups he could’ve joined- snowmobile or motorcycle clubs, Rotary, firemen- he choose not the familiar extension of his isolated existence but the opposite choice. And yet when I think about it the ritualized patterns he traces on this hard gym floor are not that dissimilar to the ones he traces twice a day as he milks and goes about his chores. If you watch him milking- the shuffles, the turns, the working down the lines- it is a contra cow dance without the fiddle, squeezebox and guitar. With age-old patterns he moves through the days, the seasons, the years; two steps, a twirl, a shuffle and a glide
Between dance sets, I head for the entrance on the way to my car and my bed. I am tired and I can think only of sleep. I stop at the door to look back at the dancers still on the floor. A slow waltz is being played, though most of the dancers are on the sidelines resting aching feet or getting a quick brownie or drink of cider. I see half dozen couples out on the floor moving with patterned steps to an old squeezebox tune in the yellow light of the hall. Roger and Trish are among them, arms entwined, dancing to the music of times long ago.
I watch as they move around the floor, keeping time to their own rhythms, own ways, own love. It could be Hugh on the floor or even his father Delos- the tunes, the steps, the feelings the same. Soon enough a new dance will start and people will crowd back on to the floor but for now I see only Roger and Trish alone, together. Two steps, a twirl, a shuffle and a glide; turning together through the night, through the seasons, through the years.