What the Catholic Church can learn from my contra dance community
Joyous melodies in 4/4 time compel the assembled to their feet, which move in synchronized steps. As a lifelong Catholic, this collective motion has an inherently liturgical feeling to me, a concerted act of praise and gratitude for the life we share. Walking into this space, dozens of people make eye contact, smile and greet me by name. I am made to feel that this gathering is better for my presence in it.
But this space is a gym, not a church, and the act is a contra dance, not the Mass. A live band of volunteer musicians plays from the stage, and up to 100 people throng the dance floor on a Monday night. Paired dancers progress up and down long lines, following the instructions of the caller, swinging and do-si-doing their way to the far end of the gym. By the end of the dance, I have interacted with every person in the set of lines.
Contra dance is a social dance, performed in sets of lines rather than as atomistic couples, and its synergy depends entirely on the strength of the group’s dynamics. What is irresistibly attractive to me is the way that social dances and folk music form community, transforming the most diverse group of people into a cohesive whole. Within my contra community, five generations are well represented, with young people and elderly people freely dancing in pairs. On a weekly basis, the group includes immigrants and refugees, people on fixed incomes, those who identify as L.G.B.T. and people with a wide variety of disabilities. This is the most demographically diverse group of people with whom I regularly interact, and the joyful act of dancing together has integrated us. As with any community, we have to work to resolve tensions that arise, and we are prone to imperfection, but we continually try to grow and improve.
Social dances and folk music form community, transforming the most diverse group of people into a cohesive whole.
At a time when religion is viewed with the skepticism accorded broadly to institutions of power, I was recently reminded that the root of “religion” is the Latin verb religare, meaning “to bind together again,” and that liturgy is an act of binding the faithful together universally in worship, in the form of praise, penance and petition. Monday night contras bind my community of dancers together in a way that echoes how Sunday Mass binds Catholics together into mystical communion with the church in the Body of Christ.
Yet, for me, the mystical communion extended to Catholics through the Eucharist so often lacks the concrete signs of unity that I experience at a contra dance. As an adult in the church, I have often felt isolated and unknown at Mass, with no one in the congregation greeting me by name or inviting me to share their pew. Eye contact is avoided; people arrive and leave quickly with no social interaction. Families stick to themselves. Activities outside of the liturgy are often stratified to target specific age groups or phases in family life and sacramental initiation, so I do not often experience the intergenerational dynamic that I find to be so fruitful. I wonder how others view us sometimes, whether people may be curious to learn more about our faith but find themselves intimidated by the formality of the liturgy or by a projection of piety that leaves them feeling inadequate.
The mystical communion extended to Catholics through the Eucharist so often lacks the concrete signs of unity that I experience at a contra dance.
When I try to explain to friends what is so inviting about the contra dance community, I always return to the fundamental value of hospitality. It drives every interaction at a dance: New dancers receive name tags so that experienced dancers can intentionally seek them out as we pair up for each dance; dancers change partners after every dance so no one is left out; every talent is valued equally and viewed as a vital contribution to the occasion; dancers adjust their movements in order to invite the full participation of dancers with disabilities; preparing and sharing food is part of every gathering. While the two dance roles are often still called as “ladies” and “gents,” persons of any gender are welcome to dance either role with any other person. Any attire is acceptable, from workout clothes to blue jeans to skirts for women or men. People are welcomed with genuine warmth and feel free to be fully themselves in this space.
Hospitality extends beyond the initial welcome to sustain the longevity of a robust community. A member of the band who had heard that I play guitar recently gave me his music book so I could learn some of the popular tunes and sit in with the band sometimes. An informal collective meets monthly to teach new people how to call dances and hone their skills in a friendly and affirming space. People are invited into new roles and into greater responsibility for the community. This can include opening the gym, taking charge of the snack break, serving on the governing board or volunteering with special initiatives such as teaching children or participating in a therapeutic series for veterans with P.T.S.D.
I want us, as parish communities, to find ways to extend an enthusiastic welcome to all who walk through our doors.
Healthy parishes have similar activities for preparing the sanctuary, serving as lectors, catechizing young people, receiving adults into the church and forming a pastoral council. I have seen in the pews those note cards that I can fill out to indicate if I am interested in participating in one of these ministries. But it is hard to take the initiative at a place where I am an anonymous presence, disconnected in every concrete way from the people with whom I receive Communion.
I am not suggesting that every parish should use name tags at Mass or that a communal meal should follow every liturgy. I would not want to replace the reverence of the Mass with the endorphin-fueled exhilaration of a contra dance.
But I do want us, as parish communities, to find ways to extend an enthusiastic welcome to all who walk through our doors. I want everyone standing in the pews of our parishes to feel known and cherished as individuals and to feel that they can be fully themselves before the Lord in our church. The presence of Catholics who have historically been marginalized in the church needs to be not simply accepted but celebrated because they bring unique experiences that enhance our unity. The gifts of all should be valued equally, for as St. Paul says, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12).
We should find ways of approaching one another that invite full, active participation of all who are gathered. Our mystical communion must truly bind us together again into concrete community.
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I appreciate so much your highlighting the communal gifts of contra dance. I’ve experienced the same. I think there is a lot for the church to learn from the embodied experience of communal dance. But, just to make a note- I’ve also experienced a rigidity and judgement at contra dances. Often newcomers feel intimidated and if they aren’t skilled can feel like they irritate the more skilled. There are gifts and rough edges in every community. I’m glad that you have found a healthy hospitable community. In most situations where someone is exploring a new practice whether it be Mass or a dance - it is good to “keep coming back” and not be put off by the strangeness and new ways that are intimidating at first.
I feel the same way about our Orangetheory Fitness Studio - welcoming to everyone of every age and walk of life. Most important, I totally believe in the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ. But in addition, I wish I could transport the welcome, unity and support members feel at Orangetheory to more of our parishes, so I very much identified with this writer. Thank you.
Greer, just like you took the initiative to join the Contra Dance group, and have benefited from the relationships and interactions, taking the initiative to volunteer at your parish will be a blessing to you as well as those who benefit from your help.
As a liturgical theologian, I am delighted to see your understanding of the difference between the theory and practice of liturgy. One of the underlying problems is that people do not understand that liturgy is COMMUNAL prayer. For too many, prayer is something private, and that was supported in the long era when clergy "said Mass" and laity "attended" but did not participate. The dancers come for a group activity while too many Catholics still come for a private activity in public. There is still too much done FOR them instead of BY them. There is amateurism is the proclamation of the Word that your dancers would not tolerate in your musicians even though both groups are volunteers. There is too much time spent waiting for things to happen or just observing what others do instead of time participating in the action. There is not enough time spent explaining how things are supposed to work. Both the clergy and the laity are present out of obligation instead of out of joy for the activity. This can all be changed in a parish, but it requires intentionality and a willingness to work for the good of the whole experience instead of avoiding work, rejecting criticism for the sake of improvement, and accepting that people are supposed to get both spiritual and emotional support out of the liturgy. Let me know if you know a parish which would dare to study and apply these concepts.