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'Round Daybreak

Robert Scheer

Swingin' Singles: Soquel resident Kathleen Crocetti cuts a contradance rug with visiting dance partner Dirk Karis of Palo Alto.

Santa Cruz's Contra Dawn Dance happens once a year, and it is known near and far as the best all-nighter in the land

By Traci Hukill

IT'S 2:30 IN THE MORNING and I've had enough. Legs cramping in time to the music, mouth parched, head pounding from exertion, I locate the door and am stumbling toward it when a 60-ish gentleman in a crisp white shirt and suspenders steps up and, with cavalier courtesy, asks, "Care to waltz?"

This man, like me, has been dancing since 8pm and still has five hours to go. He's do-si-do'ed, allemanded and swung his partners 'round, been up and down the line in the contradances and around the square dances to the dizzying tune of the fiddles. But neither perspiration stain nor out-of-place hair mars this hale codger's aspect, and I hang my head in shame and mumble, "No, thank you, I'm a little nauseous just now--"

"What?!" he barks, and--before I can finish stuttering an apology--he turns on his heels and stalks off to woo another dancer, a rosy-cheeked young thing of 50 whose flushed face is charming, not indicative of an emergency like mine is.

My God, I think: The geezers have done me in.

This is contradancing, where silver-haired dancehall veterans join--and frequently outdance--Odwalla-swilling baby boomers and wholesome twentysomethings for evenings of traditional music that have nothing to do with Ollie North.

Chances are you've heard more about the modern version of the all-night dawn dance--the rave--than about contradancing. In this case, bump today's ravers up a generation or two, prime them with carrot juice instead of Mickey's and X, junk the house music and put up a few fiddlers and a caller, and you have a Contra Dawn Dance. Just for grins, throw in a couple of centuries behind the tradition.

A colonial adaptation of English country dancing, contradance traveled to France in the 18th century, where it acquired a few moves and some terminology like "do-si-do" and "allemande." The word "contra" also may have been a French offering describing the way dance partners line up, with men and women across from--or contre--one another. Or, maybe, it could be the way our drawling forefathers pronounced "country." Whatever.

The dancers don't care about etymology. They're here to spin, stomp, laugh, sweat, flirt and finally collapse hours later in euphoric exhaustion, dogs howling and endorphins raging.

House of Mirrors

A DOZEN OR SO OF US making our maiden voyage onto the contra floor assemble for a quick lesson. Dancing a typical contra is like weaving a long, complex braid with your partner, whose moves you mirror on one side of the line. Once you and your partner have completed a set of moves with one pair of neighbors, you move up the line and meet a new couple and start over, weaving the next portion of the braid all over again. The lesson proves invaluable once we join the melée of the first dance.

Armed with a tentative grasp of the basics, we disperse into the crowd and line up for the first song. My partner is a good dancer, tall, lean and fast. He's also patient, for as soon as the fiddles fire up, I find, good readers, that I am a clod. I am cursed with two left feet and I don't remember the pattern. But he swings me around at the right time and sends me twirling into the arms of my new neighbor, who, fortunately, is also a pro, and I soon forget that I probably resemble a pinball out of control.

When I stumble into one of my comrades from the half-hour boot camp, I see a wild look in his eye and we botch our part and laugh, but there's no time to commiserate because this is a fast-moving song.

So is the next one, and we don't get much time to rest. By the fourth dance, I am beet red and out of breath. I have also danced with four different partners--from the tall expert to a frail wisp of a man, from a ruddy Irishman to the sadistic Twirler, whose gleeful spins and swings start the whole nausea business, though I'm having too much fun to worry about it--and I'm slowly starting to realize what this contradancing thing is all about.

None of the couples who walked in together are dancing together exclusively, and I've witnessed one or two longing glances between suspendered men and women in flowered dresses, and even some warning looks between mates. And that's it--no attempts at coitus publicus on one hand, no jealous fits on the other. After all, at a contradance, it's only polite to dance with everyone present. Could you ask for a better opportunity to flirt risk-free?

"It's disgustingly wholesome," laughs Cyndi, a pixieish redhead from Berkeley who's been contradancing for eight years.

Jim Oakden, a Santa Cruz musician whose band The Guppies plays contradances up and down the central California coast, agrees. "People like it because it's safe. No one gets drunk, no one gets hurt," he says. "Everyone has a good time."

Robert Scheer

Dance Fever: Meredith Dyer and Jim Rollins, both of Santa Cruz, whirl and twirl their way through a night of contradancing.

Global Village Dance

GOOD TIMES of the dawn-dance variety happen only a few times a year and draw devotees from Los Angeles to Seattle. The Santa Cruz Dawn Dance, held in February, takes place in conjunction with an East Coast Dawn Dance held in New Haven--a semi-global village dance, if you will. Dancers from out of town stay in hotels, camp in cars and RVs, and crash on hospitable contra couches.

For the truly unprepared, the organizers have thought to provide a Futon Room just off the main hall--if nappers can sleep through the din of laughter, synchronized stomping and the band music blasting from an army of speakers onstage. This is a dusk-to-dawn marathon interrupted only by a midnight potluck, and since the Santa Cruz Dawn Dance has a reputation as one of the best all-nighters in contra, the crowd of 300 has been waiting for it all year.

The food ain't bad, either. A magnificent spread is laid out on long rows of tables when the sweaty dancers thump downstairs to the basement of Portuguese Hall for supper at midnight. The variety of dishes bears witness to the mix of folks at this bash--bowls of tabouli and spicy Thai noodles nudge up against Frito pies and green bean casseroles, while the dessert table groans beneath the burden of gourmet chocolates vying for space with an immense satiny sheetcake, fresh oranges, homemade cookies and cream pies.

Exhausted and famished, we gorge without shame. After all, the fuel for another six hours of dancing has to come from somewhere.

Ah, but the wee hours are what separate the men and women from the boys and girls. Stuffed, we trudge back upstairs to find our ranks subtly diminished. The hour between 1am and 2 o'clock sees a marked increase in floor space as people sit dances out or call it a night. By 3am, about half the crowd remains--an exceptionally fit half, I can't help noticing--and a curious change is taking place on the dance floor. The festive mood of early evening has given way to a more subdued ambiance. People are still smiling, but they're on automatic pilot as the brain loses track of right feet and left allemandes, leaving some long-forgotten contra instinct to take over. The dances that were so challenging at evening's beginning are somehow easier in the dead of night--the trick now is to keep your feet moving.

That turns out to be a challenge beyond my limits. I confess: I left at 3:30 in the morning.

Fortunately for us beginners, contra isn't always this rigorous. The Santa Cruz/Monterey Country Dancers hold dances each week lasting the better part of an evening. The festivities take place in Santa Cruz on the first Friday and third Sunday of each month at Portuguese Hall, and Monterey hosts dances on the second and fourth Saturdays. All dances include a beginner's workshop a half hour before starting.

So how about it? Take a break from the TV or the bar and do some real shuckin' and jivin' at Portuguese Hall--the way folks have been doing it for hundreds of years.

The Santa Cruz Dawn Dance happens on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 8pm. For more information, call the Santa Cruz/Monterey Country Dancers hotline at 479-4059.

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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