Wonderful Waltz

Wonderful Waltz

By: Richard Anderson

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 8, 2008)

 

Author’s Note:

While reporting for this piece I learned to be patient and allow the story to reveal itself, rather than allowing my own ideas to guide the process. I initially thought this would be a story about the egalitarian, communitarian principles of contra dance and how they represented a left-over bit of 1960s idealism. But my reporting showed me that this wasn’t the story. The story was about two people in love whose whole relationship played out through contra dance. I never would have set out to write a piece about a married couple and their hobbies, but that’s the story I found–all I had to do was stay out of the way.

– Richard Anderson

 

Frances and Mitch Harris treasure these five minutes. They have plodded through the evening, trading partners and sharing laughs, surrendering to the spirit of community dance. Now they get to dance alone, together.

Frances and Mitch follow this routine every other Friday at the contra dances they have attended together for 11 years. This is where and how they met – at a contra dance in the Phillips Recreation Center in Urbana – same building, same room. He was a bachelor. She was divorced. A decade later, they are married – and still in love.

“I always really liked dancing with him,” Frances says. “And I still do.”

Frances and Mitch are happy. Their home is clean and comfortable, handsome and dignified. They go to temple and volunteer around town. They have made it as a married couple.

Frances and Mitch are older and busier than when they started dancing together. On Friday nights now they are tired and usually leave the dance early. But that’s OK. Contra dance will always be the melody that keeps the time of their romance.

“I kind of like the randomness of it, how it all works,” Frances says of contra dancing. “All of a sudden you’re in somebody else’s arms and it’s like magic.”

During the first half of the 20th century contra dance thrived mainly in New England. Since the 1960s, it has spread across the United States to big cities and smaller communities like Urbana. Contra is similar to square dance in its use of intricate patterns directed by a caller. Contra dance evolved from “longways” English country dance, in which male and female partners form long lines opposite one another.

Couples execute a series of simple moves – spins, promenades, do-si-dos – with each other and with the couple next to them. Then both couples shift in opposite directions on the line and repeat the same moves with another couple.

****

Contra dances are always accompanied by live music, and tonight’s band has come from Chicago with guitars, mandolins and fiddles. Most contra dances involve long sets, around 10 minutes, that gradually increase in pace. But the last dance before intermission is always a waltz .

And Frances and Mitch waltz only with each other. The fiddles take up a slow, melancholy tune. They loop around again and again in three-quarter time, guiding the dancers with the beat. Normally, the caller directs the dancers’ movements. But nobody needs a caller for a waltz . The dancers can feel it – just step and slide and one-two-three, one-two-three. The fiddlers drop their instruments to their laps and harmonize:

There’s more pretty girls than one

more pretty girls than one

every town I rambled around

there’s more pretty girls than one.

The lyrics make for an unlikely accompaniment because for this couple there is no more wandering. For Mitch there is only Frances, and for Frances there is only Mitch.

Tonight is “Hawaiian Shirt Night” (wear one and admission is half-price). Mitch sports an untucked purple shirt with a white floral pattern. He always wears jeans when he dances.

He is 46 with a bald spot beginning to creep outward from the crown of his head. His face is boyish and round. He keeps his graying beard thick. Mitch wears eyeglasses on a face that always remains serene on the dance floor. He’s been contra dancing for more than 20 years.

Frances has been contra dancing since the night she met Mitch. She is 55. She wears glasses, too. Her face is all rosy cheekbones. It’s a young face with few lines. It’s a face that giggles and grins. Frances keeps her dark hair in short layers around her face and neck.

Tonight she wears a black blouse, black skirt with white checks, and black tights. She and Mitch both wear sneakers with customized rubber soles for dancing. He is taller by a couple of inches, and she tilts her head upward to meet his glance.

Frances and Mitch are feeling the dance. They step and slide – one-two-three, one-two-three. On step three, they pivot and change direction. A dozen other couples zigzag around them with varying degrees of accuracy as the band continues its ballad:

Mama talked to me last night

She gave me some good advice

She said, ‘Son, you’d better quit

this old ramblin’ all around

and marry you a sweet little wife.’

****

Frances and Mitch met in the fall of 1997. The last three years had been difficult for Frances. She and her husband of 19 years had divorced in 1994. Frances worked as the librarian at University Laboratory High School in Urbana and raised her sons, Simon and Daniel.

“I remember just real insecurity about pretty basic things,” she recalls. “Like how much would groceries cost, or actually, more basic than that, just the trip to the grocery store, getting everything loaded into the car, brought in and put away. I mean a lot of those things that used to be done together.”

The loneliness was crushing, especially on nights when the boys would stay with their father.

“That was pretty awful because the house was cavernous and empty and weird,” Frances says.

Yet she shuttled the boys to school and music lessons, paid the bills and took care of the house. She didn’t date for a few years but then began thinking about companionship again.

“It was definitely in the back of my mind that this might happen, but it was also just about getting out and seeing people,” she says. Her sons didn’t make up for the lack of affection. “They were not cuddling anymore.”

Then a friend invited her to a contra dance where she met Mitch, who was not at all familiar with Frances’ world of family and kids.

“You were raising kids,” he says as he and Frances sit close on their living room couch. “I was raising my IRA.”

Mitch grew up in Newton, Mass., and studied biology at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he started contra dancing.

“I remember when I first ‘got’ waltzing. I was dancing with this tall African-American woman at Grinnell, maybe 6 feet tall, and she just swung me around until I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.'”

After college, Mitch entered his “wandering days.” He had biology-related jobs in South Carolina, California, Oregon and Colorado, where he earned a master’s degree at Colorado State University. Mitch contra danced everywhere he went. He moved to Urbana in 1991 to work for the Illinois Natural History Survey (he now works for the U.S. Geological Survey) and began looking for a contra dance group.

“That was probably the first thing I did.”

Mitch and his new contra dance friends would dance for hours every Friday night and then go for beers. Contra dancing gave Mitch his social life and his dating life. He grins and shifts in his seat when asked how many contra dancers he dated.

“Let’s just say ‘a few,'” he says. By the time Mitch met Frances, he was in his mid-30s and had never married.

“I guess I was still young, but it was getting toward the time it would be nice to meet someone,” Mitch says. “I kind of just waited for things to happen. But they never quite happened. I probably made a mistake by leaving the East Coast where all the Jewish girls were.”

Then he saw Frances and asked her to dance. She mentioned her sons and was relieved that Mitch seemed unfazed.

Later at the dance, he strategically mentioned that he would not attend the following week because of the Jewish high holidays.

Frances, who was raised Jewish, was not observant at the time and joked back, “My mother probably wishes I was staying home for the high holidays.”

Mitch is a member of B’nai B’rith, the national Jewish fraternal organization, and Frances knew her mother would be happy.

“When I got married I was still rebelling. I was a child of the ’60s. My own Jewish upbringing was pretty hit-and-miss. And I had a lot of resentment about it. So, I was actively rejecting it.”

A few weeks after meeting Mitch at the dance, Frances and her sons returned home to find the red light on the answering machine blinking. The three of them listened together. It was a message from Mitch, asking her out for the first time.

“You are too old to date!” 13-year-old Simon exclaimed. “And button your shirt all the way up!”

On their first date, Mitch brought Frances chrysanthemums from his yard. They went to see Chinese dancers at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

“OK, I just have to know,” Frances asked Mitch, “how old are you?”

The nine-year difference didn’t scare him off. Frances also wasn’t scared off at intermission when they bumped into one of Mitch’s former girlfriends, a contra dancer. They survived the moment, and Frances became Mitch’s new contra-dance girlfriend.

****

The waltz continues, and Mitch moves with controlled grace. He is not fancy and he wastes no movements. Some dancers dip and skip. He remains upright and his face remains tranquil. Frances dances with a perpetual grin.

She approaches dancing differently than Mitch. He counts and visualizes the patterns. Frances feels the rhythm and takes her cues from the music.

“When I started talking to people at the dances,” Frances says, “it seemed there were more than your usual number of programmers or science types. And I’m not that way at all. For me it’s much more intuitive.”

“Yeah,” Mitch says, laughing, “I’m part of the science crowd.”

Somewhere between Mitch’s left brain and Frances’ right things worked out.

“It was just really comfortable right away,” Frances remembers. “We were cut from the same cloth.”

Mitch doesn’t remember when he knew that Frances was “the one.” Things just flowed. Frances remembers him sitting on the floor with Simon, helping her son with his math homework.

Two years after their first dance, Frances and Mitch were engaged.

In May 2000 they were married.

Frances and Mitch still love to waltz with each other, and only each other.

****

They have slid to the corner of the hall, next to the stage. The band brings the melody around once more to the chorus:

There’s more pretty girls than one

more pretty girls than one

every town I rambled around

there’s more pretty girls than one.

Mitch and Frances are all smiles. They step and slide – one-two- three, one-two-three. The fiddle signals the last note. Frances and Mitch move a beat or two after the final note and glide to a halt. They are still clasping hands. He leans over and kisses her cheek. The dance is done. Frances and Mitch go home, together.

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