Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why Can't Churches Be More Like Contra-dances?

I’m always struggling to have a life for myself outside the church. When I had a family, it happened naturally. I would go home every day to people who didn’t call me “Pastor Nancy.” But since I’ve been living solo, it’s a struggle. A few months ago I decided to do something about it and I took up contra-dancing. On Monday nights I go to a place not far from my church and dance for a couple of hours with complete strangers. It works for me. It fits into my schedule; it’s great exercise, and a ton of fun. But I’m not sure if it’s given me a life outside the church. For the more I do it, the more I find myself thinking about church. Is this just a matter of, “You can take the pastor out of the church but you can’t take the church out of the pastor”, or is there something about contra-dancing itself that lends itself to church comparisons?

Some of the parallels between a contra-dance and a worship service are obvious. Both involve lots of live music, although in one venue the primary instrument is an organ and in the other it is a fiddle. There is even a person at a contra-dance who fills the role I fill on Sunday mornings as the presiding minister. In contra that person is the “caller”; she or he guides us through the dances. And then there is the matter of the community gathered, which is the whole point of both Sunday morning worship and Monday evening contra-dances.

When I went to my first contra-dance, it took every bit of courage I could muster to get myself there. Stepping into a room of people I don’t know, to do an activity I don’t know how to do, is way outside my comfort zone. As I was struggling through that experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who seem to show up each week at Holy Trinity to worship with us for the first time. I wondered if our church community is as welcoming to outsiders as the contra community, which seems to bend over backwards to make newbees feel welcome.

Learning something new is hard. I don’t do that enough at my age so I forget just how hard it is. And putting myself in a situation where I know I’m in over my head is humbling. For my first few weeks of dancing I was concentrating so much on not making a mistake that I couldn’t get beyond it. I found myself apologizing a lot. But I’ve discovered that one of the big differences between a contra-dance and a worship service is that there isn’t time to stop a dance for confession and forgiveness. In fact, nobody really cares when you mess up. They have better things to do than critique how other people are dancing. The dance moves on, and the steps repeat themselves, so you always get another chance. Everyone wants you to get it right so they’ll do all they can to help you. And if you’re hopelessly confused and continue to fumble through an entire dance, the dance still goes on and people around you just seem to carry you through it.

At a contra-dance, there are people of all sizes,ages,ethnicities,etc. Just the way churches should be, of course. But I don't see this kind of diversity in most churches. More than that, though, it's the level of acceptance that amazes me. You don't choose who you will associate with and who you will avoid at a contra-dance. Everybody dances with everybody. When you're dancing and someone lands in front of you and it's time to put your arm around him and dance, you don't stop to think about how stinky his body odor might be at the moment, you dance with him. That's just the way it works.

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to what’s happening in the community during a contra-dance. At the beginning of each liturgy, er…that is…dance, we’re given a walk-through, so we can all learn the steps. Then the dance begins and we repeat those steps over and over as we progress, dancing with different people each time through. There are some who are creative with their interpretation of those steps and others who keep it basic. But the important thing is that you land in the right place at the right time. Because the dance is all about the community and everyone in the community is counting on everyone else in the community to be where they need to be when they need to be there. Unlike some kinds of dancing where you can just walk off the floor during the middle of a dance, in contra, once the dance begins, you’re committed to stay in it until the end. If one person decided to drop out, it would be a train wreck. The goal of contra-dancing seems to be experiencing joy in community. And, sometimes along the way, there are these transcendent moments when the music is humming and all the feet are stomping at the same time and the bodies are flowing. Together we have created a thing of beauty. I like to believe it’s pleasing to God. And that makes it worship.

I’m beginning to realize that what started out as recreation for me has also become an opportunity for continuing education. I would highly recommend it for other pastors. If you’re paying attention, you could learn a lot about the church by contra-dancing. It might also leave you pondering the question I frequently ask myself as I’m driving home from a dance. Why can’t churches be more like contra-dances?

21 comments:

Unknown said...

Nancy, I'm the wife of a retired Episcopal priest who served as the library director at General Theological Seminary in New York. During our time at General, people sometimes suggested that I might go to seminary and enter the ministry; my reaction to the prospect was both instant and negative.

While we were in New York, I discovered contra dancing and English country dancing and fell in love with both. They gave me a community I had not found at the seminary, provided me with an outlet at once physical, emotional, and spiritual, and helped me grow into a less selfish, more loving person.

Today I am an English country dance caller, leading dances throughout the United States and abroad. I love having the opportunity to help nurture the dance community, working on ways to bring young people and families into the dance, and on ways to help our elders continue being part of the community as they age. And like you, I wonder why can't churches be more like contra dances?

Anonymous said...

Amen! Thanks for writing this. I have thought many of those same thoughts.

~a fellow church-goer and contra-dancer

Marjorie said...

I remember learning at some point that the original Aramaic word for church meant celebration. Contra dancing is seeped in celebration. I think we tend to miss that in church.

Anonymous said...

I used to dance at the GTS in NYC, and still do English country and American contra dancing. True article.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful reflection. Thank you. Wish I had seen it when you originally posted it. I used to be a regular churchgoer, but stepped away from the faith for a variety of reasons a few years ago. Is it any surprise that my involvement in contradance went up shortly after my exit from church? I've been dancing ever since, and loving it. I feel so alive there – the way that I always wanted to feel at church, but just didn't.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I wish, I wish! I love contra dancing--loved it before ministry and still love it. My parents met dancing in the folk revival of a number of decades ago...Unfortunately ministry has taken me somewhere in the country where people don't know what to make of me and my same-sex spouse, confuse me with a guy (not that I care much), and other women won't dance with me. (I prefer to dance the "gents" role, though I will dance the "lady's" role with any guy who is willing to do the same).

One way church IS different than a contradance is that we are more willing to at least talk about our patterns of exclusion...and sometimes even work on them. Even confront those who violate important boundaries of healthy community.

There is a culture at contradances of being able to say no to some people one might dance with. For instance if many of the women agree (among themselves) that a particular man is creepy and hitting on them too much, saying no to him is acceptable. (otherwise saying no to someone requires an excuse like taking a break and then one has to actually take the break).

Juliet from Flint, Michigan said...

Thank you, Nancy. I, too, feel the joy of community, acceptance of one another, and a type of ecstasy that borders on a spiritual experience!

the fiddlin' fool said...

Nancy,

Have you read Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity After Religion? It asks a similar question in a very powerful and convincing way. And she proposes that churches need to put their community first, their behavior second, and their beliefs (as in trust, not the modern definition of belief) last.

Amy said...

As a pastor myself, I hope the answer to your final question is: they can! And so the question is "What do we do to make it so?"

For a start I know I should give fewer sermons about accepting each other in joyful companionship, and design more services to give us an experience of acceptance and joyful companionship.

Lynn Ungar said...

Love it! I've been a Unitarian Universalist minister for 20 years, and in the last few I have come to realize that contra dancing is my central worship experience. You did a beautiful job articulating why.

Squeezer said...

I knew a UU would check in here, somewhere. In the mid-70's I had the pleasure of presenting a Sunday service of traditional New England music and dance, honored by the presence of several of my best contra-dancing and musician friends, at First Parish UU Church, Framingham, Mass. Many of the sentiments that Nancy, and others, here, have made, were included in my “sermon” that morning. The usual coffee hour following the service included an opportunity for all to participate within their familiar community of parishioners. The hall was hoppin', you might say, and it remains a cherished memory to this day. I've been a dance musician for over 40 years, and experienced many and varied dance occasions, including camps, weddings, festivals, children's programs, and even played outside at the MET under a full moon with perhaps near a thousand folks dancing (all I can say it was surreal). The best and dearest friends of my life have resulted from the shared spirit within this music and dance. Guess it's too late to stop now.

Pat Duffey said...

Ever since I took up contra dancing, not two years ago, I've been trying to spread the good word about it and wondering why I feel it's such a joyous endeavor. I have likened it, in my head, to religion...but didn't want to sell it that way. Thank you for having the courage and good sense to do that for us! I agree wholeheartedly!!

Pamela Dolan said...

I don't contra dance, but I love the analogy. I think I'm going to have to quote you in my sermon this week. Thank you for a lovely post!

Tom Schneider said...

I've noticed this resemblance too, but hadn't fleshed it out as well
as you do in this article. Nicely written! As one who can find no evidence for any gods (having looked into all the issues for years), I
enjoy contra and the contra community just as much as anyone and so I
find that it can replace church.

Anonymous said...

Your description of a contra-dance is right on. I've been enjoying them for 7 or 8 years now, and met my wife at one. I turned around to spin the next neighbor as the dance progressed and that's when I saw her face. I stopped participating in church about a dozen years ago, but not for a lack of feeling connected to it's community. I just accepted that I really didn't believe all that stuff. I'd rather read science books. I did enjoy leading the choir for year once though. But I have to say that it makes me nervous to hear contra-dancing referred to as worship. I've never drawn that parallel with it and church or what church should be because dance, not just contras, is a secular activity, social and fun. Worship is about supernaturalism and a top down hierarchy of divine authority. I know, the love and all, but I think there's reasons why church is sectarian in nature and not like a dance.

Anonymous said...

Beth Banks here - Unitarian Universalist minister. The contra dances in our area are often on Saturday night, and going dancing is my reward for finishing the sermon earlier in the week. Yes! It is my communion, and my preparation for Sunday morning.

Anonymous said...

Contra Dance gave me my life back after I was widowed. I highly recommend it!

Anonymous said...

I loved your original blog. Why not have a contradance as part of your service then? There are plenty of fun dances that we callers use for weddings.

Cheryl said...

Hi there, A fellow dancer and musician posted the link to your musing. So glad that you've found contradance. Really appreciate your perspective on it. A few years ago I read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy" and learned that early churches did not have pews, making dancing possible and frequent. Now, there is thought: move the pews back to open up the center space!

Diggitt said...

Lots of UUs and Quakers love contra dancing. There is a connection!

Sheri said...

Great column! I'm both a Lutheran and a contra dancer, which I enjoyed when I lived in GA. Now am in CA in a doctoral program, and need to find some dancing. Thanks for the great reflection.