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?