Over the past couple months, I have somehow found my way into the fascinating world that is Contra.
Unfortunately, as this particular Narnia is found much further away than the wardrobe (my gas meter says it is really light years), my visits have been fairly sporadic. However, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go every week if I could. At least the last escapade will provide me (and hopefully any intelligent individual who has taken the time to read this) enough entertainment until the next time.
To those who have not been acquainted with Contra, by conventional definition, it’s a type of New England folk dance, a 3rd-crazy-cousin-twice removed to the more popularized square dance. Think less of that traumatic childhood camp experience of overcoming the cootie barrier and chinzy cowboy boots and more of the genuine…refined hootenanny. Depending on what scrap of country the dance is held in, there might be a string band throwing out any variety of Old-time, Celtic, French-Canadian, or even Cajun tunes. Beyond this and a few semi-repetitive steps, contra dancing is defined by the undefinable. In some communities, contra is a pastime of past times, but in others, I have heard it been called “an underground society” (by the most inconspicuous and discreet members of course). As Contra and a weekender’s tour of the local moonshiner distilleries are just about the only things to do on the Marietta scene come Saturday nights, Falling River Dance Hall is alive and kicking. I have never seen a place where more generations willingly gather under one roof. Not only do college kids show up, eager to find a date, but also individuals who were present when God created Contra on the 8th day. The hippies, the hipsters, the hillbillies…the Mormons tripping in ankle-length dresses and the wanna-be belly dancers snaking around in midriff tops…the starving actor from New York and the organic farmer from across the hallow…the purists with kilts and patriarchal beards. They are all there. No joke, no exaggeration.
Hiking is another alternative for a Saturday afternoon in Marietta. Falling River is quite suitably nestled beneath Jonah’s Gorge, a state forest laced with its fair amount of trickling water. One of these cataracts, the originally named Rainbow Falls, was a bargaining token to bamboozle two of my not-so-tree hugging friends into a pre-Contra trek up the mountain. Unfortunately, however, up is not a very beneficial direction and a pixelated google image map is not a very valuable tool when navigating a new trail. Almost immediately upon leaving the parking lot, we summoned up the humility to ask directions of the nearest fellow trudger.
It so happened that this particular wooly-faced man was sporting a kilt.
He engaged us in a conversation far beyond where-the-heck-we-were-headed-to, encompassing everything from the threatening clouds above us to the price hike in state park parking, but any mention of unusual outdoor attire was strangely absent from the conversation. We parted ways, but I felt sure we would see him again within the next couple hours.
The best refresher between two fairly strenuous activities in the furnace of a southern summer would have to be a visit to F-mart. This particular landmark is the Grand Central Station of Marietta tourism and is noted in these here parts for serving up hotdogs of absolutely peerless reputation. Peach Ne-His were our preferred poison, but it was difficult enough to restrain our hunger when tripping over mildewed cat food artifacts along the path to the front door. The newpaper articles decoupaging the walls with titles such as, “50 Copperheads Found in Log” and “Rattlesnake Holes Up with Marietta Resident” made the patty sizzling behind the cigarette counter even more appetizing. Obviously, the young couple sitting in a corner (and only) booth picking half-heartedly at their fries thought so too (We would see them again later that night as well). The multi-talented chef/cashier of the establishment at least felt it was appetizing enough to distract three waiting customers while she made sure at least the outside was browned for consumption. It gave us time to inspect the old family photos posted above the cash register, along with a printout of her ancestry.com portfolio. A busty woman perched on the porch of the 1800s homestead looked to be an exact replica of the descendent busy ignoring us behind the counter.
“Just wait a minute, honey, while I finish this burger.”
A couple hours later, she turns around and hustles over to the counter, leaving the still pink burger to its business. Close-up, she still appears exactly like the woman in the photo, except that, unlike her predecessor, she has found it unnecessary to button the bottom half of her shirt. We slide the Ne-His into view and she punches in the price.
“So is this your family? I’m into genealogy and stuff like that…”
“No mam. That’s my husband’s. That’s his great-great granny right…there.” She pointed to her 19th century self.
Well, one does hear that, “you better like your mother because you’ll marry someone like her one day.” I suppose it goes for great-great grandmothers too.
Thankfully, Falling River offers shower facilities, albeit with water pumped in directly from Alaskan ice flows. Right on the other side of the thin oak walls, the band had arrived early and was warming up with a few jumbled jig bits.
I can never say I’ve sung in the shower to live music before.
About 7:30, the greenhorns stumble in for the beginner lessons beneath an inviting plaque with the “MORGUE” spelled out in antique lettering.
The inside of the Lincoln Log structure is just as eclectic with plastic dinosaurs monitoring the announcement table and anthropomorphic moons dangling above the stage between Christmas lights. A Buddha peers down from the rafters beside a rusty plow, and a reminder of Dia De Los Muertos 2012 hangs above the dancers’ heads.
We all joined a wide circle, gripping the palm of our partner and proceed not to sing Kumbaya. Instead, we listened as the caller translated the language of “Left-Hand Stars” and “Gypsies” to something at least a little more understandable. After coming to contra several times, I knew the words, but it was putting them into practice that proved to be a more daunting task.
At 8:00, the regulars began to pour through the door and magnetically drift into two lines down the hall, two couples per square. Others slouch on the ottoman and survey the action as though they were watching their favorite sitcom. The couples in each square introduce themselves, and the more talkative ones, like myself, miss the instructions completely as the reel starts up. While many of the steps are repetitive, the way in which they are placed throughout the dance are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes callers created some dances right on the spot. Usually, the more experienced dancers are a fairly forgiving of the beginners and hold off on the kalidascoping spins and dips expected of the veterans. Some, however, are so talented they can pull a newbie into a dip without them even realizing it. As each square moves on down the line of people, new faces prop up, some that are familiar and some that arn’t. Do-Si-Do with your neighbor! Some are little to close for comfort as they try to stare a hole into your soul and others even more awkwardly fix a vacant gaze over your shoulder (because a glance at your face would apparently scald them). However, we’re all in this together and grin like there’s no tomorrow.
Balance and Swing! There swings the couple from F-mart. They should not be well enough to dance after that meal. Ladies Chain! Here promenades not only one wooly hiker bedecked in plaid pleats, but three in similar attire and yet another guy in a genuine skirt. Circle to the left three times!
Suddenly, a dancer passes out from the heat, the music screeches to a halt, and the caller makes use of his microphone to summon a first responder. The guitarist confesses that he is also a doctor from Atlanta and comes to the girl’s assistance. She’s finally resurrected, and a relative swarm aids her to the courtyard. The fiddle starts back up again, and isn’t interrupted, even when the full fury of a monsoon unleashes outside. If we don’t leave soon, we will surely be marooned at Falling River for the night. However, contra isn’t just something you can fold up and quit before it’s over.
*Some place names have been slightly altered for “anonyminity.”