Barn Dancing – So Much Better Than Your Last Date Night

photo by A. Martinelli

Dave Harvey of NYC Barn Dance calls at Jalopy

The last time my husband and I had a date night we did the same thing we usually do. We hired a sitter, had dinner, and went to a movie. Here is an excerpt from dinner.

“We’re out of compostable bags.”

“I know. I have to order them from Amazon.”

“I think the garbage men hate emptying the compost bins.”

“Yeah, there is a frozen brick of food scraps that hasn’t come out in weeks.”

“We’ll have to hose it out in the Spring.”

“Now we’re wasting water resources cleaning out the compost bins.”

“You can’t win.”

Then we spent a pretty penny on movie tickets and babysitting to see Hail Caesar. Neither myself nor my husband can tell you a single thing about that movie. Was it good? What was it about? Save it. I have no idea. We both fell asleep as soon as Clooney appeared. We paid nearly $80 to sleep in a movie theater.

Suffice it to say, we are not good at date night. It’s a common problem for couples who rely solely on the predictable dinner and a movie routine. Not surprisingly, studies show that couples benefit from experiencing new, exciting activities together. Sadly, I was fresh out of ideas, that is until a friend of mine recommended we go Barn dancing. The suggestion made my brow furl, much like yours may be furling right now. “What is Barn dancing? Is it country line dancing?” I asked.

“No.” She said, “It’s great! It’s square dancing. It’s Sense and Sensibilities with banjos. It’s Appalachian Jane Austen with fiddles. You know, I think we’ve really lost the art of social interaction through dance and this forces you to interact.”

I furrowed the other brow. I wasn’t quite sold on the Jane Austen pitch. The last time—the only time—I’d ever square danced was in 5th grade P.E. For many of you, gym class is the only point of reference for square dancing, but in Canada and New England, it is fairly popular. It is called Contra dance, which refers to the French word for opposite, since you are opposite a partner. It did originate in the land and time of Jane Austen, developing from English country dances brought to the US in the 18th century. As Contra dancing Americanized, it adopted our less formal American demeanor and incorporated Irish and African influences particularly in Appalachia.

Now I still wasn’t sold, but I figured it had to better than the Hail Caesar date. So we traded the $15 cost of movie tickets for a $15 Barn dancing cover charge. We arrived at Jalopy at 8:30pm for a quick tutorial with Dave Harvey of NYC Barn Dance. Dave is the caller, an MC who leads the group through the evening’s sequences. He ran us through the basics, terms like promenade, swing, and do si do. He explained the importance of giving your partner resistance by leaning away. When he uttered the word centripetal force, I realized he looked like Captain Mal Reynolds of Firefly. In fact the stripped-down, dimly-lit ambience of Jalopy with its exposed brick walls and beams, old church pews on rough-hewn wood floors, and strings of lights could have been a set for the futuristic cowboy sci-fi show.

The lesson seemed short, but Dave assured us this was all there was to know. I asked him if he grew up with contra dance. Dave laughed, “No. I was more likely to be slam dancing to Bad Brains. I picked it up in college, in Maine.” Still skeptical that I was unprepared, I commented on the footwear of a more experienced Barn dancer. She had on sneakers. I had on low boots. I asked if my foot wear was ill advised. She said she learned her lesson the first time out, “Barn dancing is a serious work-out.”

As people trickled in from the bar next door, the scene became 1 part Firefly and 2 parts Gilligan’s Island. I noticed how young and female the crowd was. The uniform for the 20 something was a tight country gingham blouse and tighter jeans. Think Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. More couples did eventually show up, but still not enough Gilligans for all the Mary Anns. Such is life in New York. A hint to any single Gilligans and Professors—barn dancing just might be the place to find a Mary Ann or another Gilligan for that matter. Of course, the gender designations of “ladies and gents” used by the caller are not strictly applied.

When we had enough people, Dave and the band got down to business. We formed two rows and began with a French Canadian dance that required significant amounts of concentration as rows of couples bridged arms, alternating over and under. Any shred of self-consciousness vanished immediately under the threat of losing one’s head. There was so much laughter. So many mistakes. So much bumping into people. When Barn dancing, you will touch strangers. Strangers will touch you and you don’t have time to care! Everyone is smiling and there is no time for pretense. You just have to grab a person and go.

But Barn dancing is more than its sense and sensibilities. It is actually a board game of people—a fantastic brainteaser that forces you not only to recall choreography, but to interpret that choreography in all four directions with constantly changing partners. It was oddly refreshing to be limited in this way. Occasionally, sequences allowed for a person to go freestyle in the center of a square. Otherwise, there was not much room for virtuosity because you are just completing pattern after pattern as teams. Even the experienced barn dancers would get confused and mess up.  When my group successfully completed a dance, I shared a sense of pride and relief with total strangers. I don’t remember the last time I worked through a problem with new folks on the fly. All in all, it was very socialist. Rest assure if Bernie Sanders is elected, you’ll all be Barn dancing. I can see the bumper sticker now—Barn Dancers for Bernie! I hear they love this stuff in Vermont!

By intermission everyone was sweating profusely, as the woman in sneakers first warned me. Everyone headed out to fill their jelly jars with water or grab a beer, knowing they’d have to keep their wits about them because the sequences get harder as the evening goes on. You can always head to Jalopy’s bar when the dancing overwhelms you, as we soon did. Needless to say we had a great time—much better than the last date night. We didn’t discuss compost bins once.

For future Contra and Barn dance gatherings, check NYC Barn Dance, as well as Brooklyn Contra and Country Dance New York.

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