Ten stupid things beginners do to mess up their contradance experience/Sticking to Beginner Friends
4. Sticking to Beginner Friends.
Coming to your first contradance can be a little scary. There are lots of things going on, lots of new people (some of them dressed rather strangely), and they are doing things that seem rather strange. It's very normal and natural to want to cling to your friends, even if your friends are total beginners like you, even if you're both female.
What makes this a Stupid Thing is that there are things you need to learn to have a successful contradance experience, and your beginner friend doesn't know any of those things. There's even a chance that your beginner friend is a slower learner than you are – in fact, contradance isn't for everybody, and it may be a total mismatch for your friend (even if it's a very good match for you). As you learn how to perform a figure properly, you learn how to be in the correct place, facing the correct direction, with the correct hand in the correct position to meet your partner, and it helps reinforce that correct learning if your partner is also in the correct place, facing the correct direction with the correct hand in the correct position to meet you, and that's much more likely to happen with an experienced partner.
The alternative is to be a “zipper couple.” That's the couple that has the dance functioning properly in front of them, and a bit confused and maybe falling apart behind them because they are leaving each set of neighbors a little lost, confused and behind the count moving on with each progression. Zipper couples aren't having much fun, the couples they are dancing with aren't having much fun, and the couples behind them trying to get things back together aren't having all that much fun either.
Contradance is a social dance form – you dance not only with your partner, but with everybody else in your set. And there is a community aspect to contradancing – people don't usually stay with contra if they don't like meeting new people and welcoming them to the community. You will probably run into a few rude, snobby or boorish people along the way, but they are by far the exception. If your beginner friend is dancing in the same set you are (and is of the other gender), you will end up dancing together as neighbors, so you will see each other even if you aren't partners. And, after a night or two of dancing, you'll be experienced enough that you can dance with your similarly-skilled friend if you want to. By that point, you will have already made passing friendships with many of the experienced dancers, and you might find you like spending time with them as you can see your other friends at other times than just dances.
Same-gender Beginner Couples
A word about same-gender beginner couples – they have some unintended and unavoidable consequences you should consider before forming one. First, the positions in contra are gender-linked – there is a men's part and a women's part. These gender linkages are centuries old and have survived all this time because they are useful. There are many same-gender couples in contra-dancing, but these folk have learned to deal with the surprise and pauses that sometimes happen when the other couple they meet tries to figure out which person is dancing which role (see below). If you're just wanting to dance with your same-gender friend for the clingy reasons mentioned above, but intend to dance your own gender's position once you learn your way around, you need to know that the other gender's position dances certain figures differently, so your experience will not be totally transferable to the other position when you get there.
If you intend to regularly dance the other gender's position, it would be better for you to do so with an experienced partner of the same gender for all of the reasons mentioned above and this additional one – as your new neighbors come to you, they aren't going to instinctively know which of you is dancing which position just by looking, and if neither you nor your partner are in the correct place and time (direction, hand, position), it can make that first figure of that progression very confusing, which will add to your confusion and make the experience much more difficult – in other words, you're more likely to be a zipper couple with a same-gender partner who is also a beginner.
(This is all much less true at "gender-free" contra dances, usually sponsored by LGBT groups like the Lavender Contra and Folk Dancers. There are comparatively few cities that have a gender-free contra, and they tend to be coastal cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston.)