Care to contradance?

THE music ended. The moving circle broke into a shapeless body of 50 animated people, milling about on the semi-dark, brick mall in front of the library. Around the mall grew young ponderosa pines and deciduous trees. A quarter moon hung above the faint outline of the Sandia Mountains to the east. I had been walking across campus when a melody played by a violin and recorder distracted me. Now I stood beside a pine at a darkened corner of the mall, watching the people.

A vigorous babble of conversation and laughter rose from the group. A bearded man of about 30, his hair in a ponytail, wearing a lurex scarf for a belt, a tank top shirt, and bells on his shoes, spoke to an older woman. Her hair was short and fashionably styled. Children chased each other around the mall. A middle-aged man in slacks and wing-tip shoes laughed with a younger one who wore ragged jeans and torn sneakers.

A woman with waist-length hair, wearing a bright fiesta dress, demonstrated a step for a lanky man in plaid shorts. His thick glasses were secured to his head with an elastic band. The people seemed to represent each social segment of the city.

I left my vantage point for a closer look. A woman rummaged through three tattered suitcases full of cassettes set on a nearby stuccoed wall.

I approached from the shadows of a sparse stand of pines. ``Excuse me. Hello,'' I interrupted the woman at the tapes. She turned to face me. Her smile glowed. I guessed she was about 30. She wore shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt. I asked her about the group.

``We're the Albuquerque International Folkdancers,'' she beamed. ``We meet here every Friday, public welcome, no partner necessary. Like to join us? We'll be starting again in a minute.''

``Uh, no, I was curious, thanks.''

``Karobuska!'' she yelled to the group, simultaneously pushing a button on the tape player with her free hand. ``Come on,'' she said, pulling me toward the people. ``You can do this.''

I became a part of the inner ring of a double circle before I'd realized what happened. Why had I chosen to walk here tonight? I groaned. I'd never been one to dance, preferring to watch, believing myself too uncoordinated for such activity.

A spirited melody swelled from the speakers - a violin accompanied by a concertina, guitar, and soprano saxophone. The two rings of people - men on the inside, women on the outside - began to travel, bouncing and reeling to the Karobuska's brisk rhythm.

The movement transported me. My partner pushed me through the first few steps, then a new partner appeared. My reluctance to dance vanished when I noticed the gent beside me kept stepping on his own toes, too. The circles rotated; new partners appeared. My sight met only mirth-filled faces.

The winded dancers clapped for themselves as the final tone resounded. A woman's voice rang out, ``Syrto!''

It was my original partner. She walked toward me from the tape player. Around me, men and women formed lines and began a dance to an enchanting clarinet tune.

``You did really well,'' my partner said. ``What do you think of all this?'' She gestured toward the dancers.

I wanted to know more. My friend introduced herself as Jane. She and her husband, Gary, had founded the group two years before. ``I just love it - the music, the people, the exercise,'' Jane said. ``But the people are the really special part.''

A chain of people snaked past to the rhythm of the music. Despite their disparate backgrounds, ages, and social status, a sound bond seemed to exist among the group. They were people who visibly exercised regularly, especially their smiles. I noticed they touched one another; they held hands; they locked elbows; they danced with arms around each other. Somehow the combination of rhythmic exercise with physical contact and folk music formed their bond. They shared no other common chord that I could see.

``It's a Greek dance they're doing now,'' Jane said. ``Karobuska, the last one, was Russian.''

Karobuska translates literally as barrel, she explained. But the lyrics sing of a traveling merchant who wanders about Russia selling his wares from a pack on his back. The piece is often referred to as The Peddler's Pack.

Karobuska, the lively music, and the ebullient people and their laughter remained vivid in my mind. I knew I'd continue to dance. My first dance freed me from long-held inhibitions when I realized folk dancing was for plain folks, regardless of their ability to dance. And I saw the opportunity to socialize with people of varied thought and background.

``Bare Necessities!'' boomed a man's voice, announcing the next dance. ``You want to try this one?'' Jane asked. ``It's a waltz.''

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