Drop in for a Dance Lesson
Clark County Square Dance Center
Where: 10713 N.E. 117th Ave.
• Ballroom dancing with the 16-piece Swing Street Glenn Tadina Band, 8 to 10:30 p.m. the second Friday of the month, $10. Joseph and Julieann Platt lead lessons from 7 to 8 p.m., $5. 503-769-5598 or swingst.com.
• Square dancing, 7:30 p.m. first and third Saturdays, $5. Caller Jim Hattrick leads beginner and mainstream lessons, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays, $5. 360-573-5886 or happy-hoppers.com.
• Round dancing lessons with Dorothy Lowder, 3 to 6 p.m. Sundays; $5, first lesson free; 503-232-7544.
Hazel Dell Grange No. 1124
Where: 7500 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave.
• Contra, 7:30 to 11 p.m. second Friday of the month; $7, $5 for ages 65 and older and 12 and younger. Free instruction starts at 7:30 p.m.; 360-750-0113 or contra-van-wa.org.
• Square dance with the Buzzin’ Bees, first and third Saturdays, $6. Round dancing begins at 7:30 p.m.; nainstream square dancing begins at 8 p.m.; 360-833-0879 or betoops2000@netsc...
• Silver Stars Square Dance, 7:30 to 10 p.m., second Saturday of the month, $5; 360-600-1804 or http://sugarqs.co...
• Silver Stars Square Dance, 2 to 4:40 p.m., Sundays, $5; 360-600-1804 or 503-619-6427.
Where: 4520 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
• Zydeco dancing, 7 to 9 p.m. Sundays, free; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fisher’s Grange No. 211
Where: 814 N.E. 162nd Ave.
• Country line-dance lessons, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays, free.
People bundled in coats, hats and scarves trickle into the Hazel Dell Grange hall on a Friday night in December, breath visible in the brisk air.
Dozens of people — including many who never met before — are suddenly joining hands and turning in a traditional dance pattern.
After 30 minutes of contra dancing, everyone has shed their outerwear, the doors are opened and the fans run full blast.
On a different dance floor, two strangers waltz together as a vocalist croons a big-band ballad.
Those are just a couple of the local options for people looking to flaunt their footwork or who are just taking their first halting dance steps.
Contra is an energetic New England social dance from the colonial era that's loosely related to square-dancing. Its growing popularity in Portland has trickled over to Vancouver. About 40 people show up at the Hazel Dell Grange to contra dance, some veteran dancers and some novices, like myself.
Master dance caller David Kaynor, of Seattle, flashes a big smile and tells everyone to pair off. My partner is middle-aged with a mustache, glasses and a voice reminiscent of National Public Radio hosts.
Step-by-step, we practice the sequences for the dance and, to my surprise, it's easy to learn. Although we have partners, the dance works in groups of four. Each pair in the group has slightly different steps and progresses down a line of dancers in opposite directions. One way or another, you end up dancing with everyone in the room.
I can handle the basic moves. Holding hands and walking in a circle. Doing a do-si-do. Walking in figure eights. Making an arch for people to walk under.
It's "synchronized chaos," dancers say.
Whenever I make a mistake, my partner corrects me — and repeatedly reassures me he's not trying to be critical, just helpful.
The Seattle-based folk band Creekside provides the evening's tunes with woodsy harmonies of banjo, mandolin and piano. It's music that evokes memories of bonfires, camping and the third installment of the "Back to the Future" trilogy where Marty McFly and Doc visit the wild west.
The dancing, likewise, feels energetic and lighthearted, even when I get turned around or misstep.
"The fun is in the mistakes," says Jack Newtovant, 68, of Portland. He started contra dancing in 1980.
But it all goes downhill when we start to "swing." Swinging involves spinning your partner around in a circle. After several rounds of spinning, my stomach churns and it feels like a nail is driving through my skull. To ward off dizziness and nausea, dancers advise me to look at my partner while we swing.
If it feels too weird to look them in the eye, look at their ear, they say. Look at their chin.
It's a difficult task, given that the room appears to be spinning.
In contra, there's no stopping, except when you make it to the end of the dance line. Whichever couple is at the end takes a break for a minute until they're woven back into the line and another couple steps out for a break.
If I just make it to the end of the line, I'll be alright, I think. But what if I don't make it? What if my queasiness ends up all over my partner's Northwest Folklife T-shirt?
Finally, the music stops as I reach the end of the line. A cushioned bench welcomes me, a refuge from retching, and right as I sit down and cross my legs I hear the dreaded words, "Would you like to dance?"
Of course I would. I go through the whole line again. My new partner is a lot younger, early twenties at most, and spins me even faster. He quickly learns that I do not like to be twirled.
I'm going to pass out. I am definitely going to pass out.
But the end of the line. That beacon of hope, that raison d'être, that light at the end of my tunnel vision. It whispers to me "don't quit."
When the music stops and the dancing stops, I can barely see straight.
If you get past the motion sickness, contra is quite beautiful. From above, you would see people turning and holding hands, weaving in and out of one another as though they're being sewn together. That's the point, I suppose. By the end of the dance, you've touched everyone in the room. You hold a stranger's hand, look into their face and spin with them.
And suddenly the stranger isn't so strange anymore.
I nod to my partner and head for the exit — only to be stopped by someone who would like to waltz with me.
The man doesn't heed my warnings that I may get sick unceremoniously and without notice. Yet waltzing (or, really, being dragged around the room by my partner) is a welcome reprieve from swinging.
Dancers reassure me that after a couple of contra dances, the nausea goes away.
I recommend contra for someone with a strong stomach who doesn't mind touching or staring at strangers.
Bring some water, comfortable shoes and a swingy skirt if it suits your style. And for goodness sakes, look at your partner while you swing.
Waltz with me
Inspired by the stomach-soothing effects of waltz, I decide to give this style of ballroom dance a whirl at the Clark County Square Dance Center.
Nestled between a horse arena and a large field off Northeast 117th Avenue, the dance center is a place you might not even notice as you drive by. But, on the second Friday night of every month, about 100 people show up to ballroom dance to live music.
Joseph Platt has been teaching dance for 35 years, and it shows — he's a thorough, gregarious instructor, who knows how to make newcomers feel welcome on the dance floor. He'll pull you in for a hug even if he doesn't know you and introduce you as a friend even if he's unsure of your name.
The waltz is a partner dance, so he divides the students by gender. He teaches the gents the basic box step while his wife, Julieann, shows the ladies their counterpart.
Waltz moves to a three-count beat, known as three-quarter time, that creates the dance's characteristic rise and fall motion. The dancer's feet never really leave the ground, but they'll rise up on their toes and back down on the heels in time with the one-two-three beat.
The motion makes you feel like you're on a ship, says Ernie Inclan, 61, and his wife Tina, 62. Years ago, they actually waltzed on a ship and felt themselves moving with the waves.
After mastering the box step on our own, we select a partner. Mine is a newbie who trips over my feet a few times and says he's here because a friend dragged him. After a few minutes, however, we both fall into the rhythm and find ourselves gliding, albeit slowly, around the room. Waltz is surprisingly easy to learn, even for someone who's never taken a dance lesson.
It's more about the way you move than the movements themselves, Platt explains. The waltz isn't bound by the box step. He shows us how to linger and gingerly step backward and forward on the floor to move more naturally with the music. Wearing heels can help, he says.
We add a move where the woman is slowly twirled around in a six-step circle. It feels graceful, elegant and above all -- romantic. There's a reason waltz is commonly used for the first dance in weddings.
"Most waltz music is a love song," Platt says.
The 16-piece Glenn Tadina Band from Stayton, Ore., plays big-band music from the '30s, '40s and '50s, accompanied by vocalists Kathy Stanton and Ken Willeford. It's sweet, slow music that makes your heart skip.
When Debbie Reynolds' "Tammy" plays, I get a chill up my spine. Something about the music and gliding across the floor makes me want everyone I love to be there, dancing with me.
Does my lover feel
What I feel
When he comes near?
My heart beats so joyfully,
You'd think that he could hear.
"Isn't it a magical feeling?" Platt asks.
Yes, it is.
The gestures of the dance feel very thoughtful; the men give the ladies a light push when they want to twirl them, and the ladies exaggerate their hand motions in return. I can't help but feel transported to another time and place full of romance and simple pleasures. I imagine my fellow dancers, most of whom appear to be around retirement age, are revelling in a memory of a time when they felt much like I do right now.
I recommend waltz for anyone wanting an introduction to the many styles of ballroom dance or for couples with upcoming nuptials.