By Erik Hoffman
Picture this: You are dancing the man's role, the call is woman's chain. You like to gauge your, "leader role," on your understanding of the experience level of the dancer with whom you're interacting. So, you're thinking, "straight [great] courtesy turn," or, "a twirl or two," but something with connection. The next neighbor woman pulls across and suddenly your hand is thrust upwards and she starts twirling. The first time, you're caught a bit off guard. But the next time, you pull your hand away, and she just spins away, no interplay between the two of you, no connection whatsoever. This scene has happened to me a number of times.
Connection is a large part of why many of us are drawn to contra dance. There is the connection to the phrase of the music, the connection to your partner, and the connection to the other dancers. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy twirling. I've enjoyably experienced it from both sides, as twirler and twirlee, and I will continue to do so. But, for everything gained there is something lost.
What is diminished in twirling is the connection between the two dancers. A courtesy turn is a brief moment of engaging interaction. In a normal courtesy turn, there is a chance to give delicious weight as you engage each others eyes. There is even time to chat a bit. Your bodies are closer together: it's more of a "cuddle." (Some of the best dancers with whom I've had the privilege to dance never twirled, and it felt great!)
As twirls are introduced, this connection diminishes. A single twirl at the end of a courtesy turn doesn't loose much, but the earlier the pivotal hand goes up, the less eye and body contact there is. The extreme is the scenario already described. Not only that, but often, twirling leads to being out of position when the music dictates the onset of the next figure. When that happens, it's rude to the entire set! (It is easy to loose sight of the fact that, when we dance, we are connecting to an entire set. When we get off time with that set, we are loosing that connection, too.)
The decision to twirl made requires the consent of both people, and either can deny it. If the "turner" wants to invite a twirl, she or he starts to lift the joined left hands. If the "turnee" wants to accept, he or she engages in the lift. If not, the "turnee" keeps her or his left-hand low, and a normal courtesy turn occurs. (I use these words, "turner," and, "turnee," because, in traditional contra dancing, there is no leader or follower. Though sex roles are defined, the roles are complete, and everyone knows exactly what to do to carry out their part of the dance. Thus, there is no leading or following.)
The position I promote and follow (with room for playfulness, and mistakes) is first, that, "no twirl," is the default, and second, if a flourish makes you fall behind the phrase of the music, don't do it.