Finding Ecstasy...
at the Contradance
by Donna Hébert

Ecstasy is the achievement of the peak experience at anything, a not only
memorable, but a "larger than life" experience that takes us entirely outside
of ourselves. Ecstasy dissolves our boundaries, makes us one with everything.

An ecstatic experience 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 it happens, 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

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 contradance

When you bring that groove to a hall full of good dancers, they give back with
their feet the rhythms that you've just bounced off your bow. From a musicians'
viewpoint, it makes me want to try MORE rhythms and see what they do with
those. And more. And so on.

Playing with other musicians or for dancers completes the energy circuit
necessary for an ecstatic experience to occur. That shared experience creates deep
ties to each other, and has undeniably contributed to the rapid growth in 25 years
of the contradancing community nationwide, from probably 20 contradances
across the country in 1970 to over 400 today.

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 with
whom you shared an enjoyable and deeply satisfying experience.

These simultaneous and interrelated peak or ecstatic experiences 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) in 25 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
tune changes or musical high points, and at the end of the dance.

It's our job to make the dancers holler

When the musicians are truly experienced at having an ecstatic experience
themselves, they facilitate that ecstasy 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, labels it "bad or unhealthy" (sex), or
"illegal" (drugs/alcohol), or taxes it in guilt and pain. 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 an ecstatic experience, and you can
occasionally repeat this euphoria built of rhythm, melody and movement if you
come back and keep dancing to good music and callers.

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 contradance!

About the author: Donna Hébert is a New England contradance and Franco-American
fiddler and teacher whose essays and poetry about the experience of making music have
been published in SING OUT! Magazine, Fiddler Magazine, Country Dance and Song,
The Old Time Herald, and Strings Magazine.

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We live in a culture that denies
ecstasy, labels it "bad" or
"unhealthy"  or "illegal" or taxes
it in guilt and pain. 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.

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