Ecstasy at the Contra Dance

by Donna Hébert

Ecstasy is the achievement of the peak experience at anything, a not only memorable, but a "larger than life" sensation that takes us entirely outside of ourselves. An ecstatic encounter expands and opens our energy centers, as though pure light is being poured through our bodies and souls. We feel joy and euphoria. If the peak experience is shared, even by only two people, then so is the ecstasy and the deep soul connection it engenders.

When we play music in an ensemble, we build on each other's presence and contributions, however grand or humble, and the community and creativity thus created is far more important than any performance standard. We look for the "groove," the shared rhythmic pulse, playing together in the same place on the beat, listening to each other and making little changes to find that groove or group rhythm, to lock onto it like a heartbeat.

When all or even most of a group find a common rhythm together, they pull the others in as well. Sometimes one person's rhythm is just stronger and everyone else listens and jumps in. One recipe for bringing less experienced players into the groove is to begin with a slow jam session, playing at half speed, each time getting a little bit faster, until the group is playing at dance speed, all without stopping.

Communication among group members is almost entirely wordless, with our hearts and minds attending to the music rather than the busy traffic of life. Listening with "big ears," everyone makes minute adjustments intuitively and joyfully to "plug in" to the groove with the others. Something spiritual happens when we hit that groove. Everyone's happier, our hearts are lighter, we play better, more easily and energetically. It's a solid place, locked into the rhythm of the tune, the pulse of the music we are making. We ride with the melodies and play what they suggest along the way, always listening, always ready to change to fit the needs of dancers. Movement and rhythm are in our bodies while we play. Watch us dance while we play for your dancing, with cause and effect blurred, all coming together, beats synchronized as 200 feet hit the floor - "BAM!"  - as one!

The Nirvana of the Contra dance

Playing with other musicians or for dancers completes the energy circuit necessary for an ecstatic experience to occur. That shared adventure creates deep ties to each other, and has undeniably contributed to the rapid growth in the past 25 years of the contra-dancing community nationwide. Why? What's the secret? I believe that what occurs is that dancers, musicians, and dance leaders have "peak experiences" at the dance as they repeat the figures over and over with new sets of people and old friends, meeting and greeting them as they move up and down the line. As the dancers get the figure down, the caller stops calling, and the dancers can just dance to the music with each other, moving in time together, cooperatively, with common purpose. Afterwards, they are no longer strangers, but people who have shared an enjoyable and deeply satisfying episode.

These simultaneous and interrelated peaks create a bond of good feeling and an affectionate connection to the other dancers, the musicians, the dance leaders, even the hall. It's as if they'd fallen in love. The dancers give each other rides to dances, organize potluck suppers before the dances, and go out afterwards for something to eat. I can't tell you how many dancers I've "married" (played at their weddings) over the years, several of them more than once!

The energy is also heightened by the length of individual dances. Often musicians are called upon to play for dances lasting up to twenty minutes. So everything lasts long enough to build up energy, which often gets released at musical high points, and at the end of the dance. When the musicians are veterans of these emotions, they facilitate that feeling in the dancers. That's our job, isn't it, to make the dancers holler? The best dance musicians know how to watch the walk-through to pick a tune with matching phrases, how to listen to the dancers and know, from what they see on the floor, when to stick to the melody and an unvarying rhythm to help new dancers get into the groove with everyone else, and when to change tunes or punch up a melody with variations.  When the band is hot and really grooving, the dancers pick it up and dance differently, just a little more wildly, shedding more of their daily cares as they respond to the call of the fiddle. I know it's happening when I hear a hall full of taciturn teetotalling Yankees let go of a shout of delight!

We live in a culture that denies ecstasy, yet we still wish for deep connections to each other and want our lives deepened by these joyful experiences. Music and dance are one way to bring them about. The sound of the music - the flute's throaty wail, the insistent repeat of the fiddle's beat, that magical connection between the tip of a fiddler's bow and the tap of a dancer's toe. The look of the dancers, hands outstretched to greet you, smiling, as they turn towards you. The feel of the air on your skin, of momentary touch at hand, shoulder, waist by your partners in this round of the figure. The beat of the feet on the floor in perfect time with the music. The flying-skirted color streaks of twirling women. Sound, sight, smell, touch. Your heart beating in time with the music. Senses combine in bliss.

I've seen it on the dance floor, felt it singing and playing with other musicians, holding hands in a circle of song. Transcendent experiences open us up, while fear shuts us down. From the far side of ecstasy, we see the connections, the fragile web of life and our place in it. We build the bridges between strangers in the community that grows from shared positive experience. Fear buys guns. I'll take pleasure, please. See you at the dance!

Donna Hébert is a Franco-American and New England fiddler and fiddle teacher who also directs In the Groove Workshops  ( and Groove Camp ( Her website is

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