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Bohemian Cotillion: A Valentine's Day Story

In which I go on a date with John Denver! (Not the real one, but close.)


Sunday, February 14, 1988

Most of the time, I ignore Valentine’s Day, but the Thanksgiving I broke loose rewarded me 3 months later by making this one special.

Manfred, the John Denver lookalike I met at the contra dance in Felton Town Hall, phoned me out of the blue and invited me to a contra dance that was to be held in Santa Cruz. It was on Sunday, February 14th.

Of course I gladly accepted! When he called, I had the worst case of the flu; it kept me out of work for 3 days. I rarely get this sick. I hoped like crazy I’d be over it by the time the dance came, a week later. Fortunately, I was.

The weather was very cold; at night, the temperature dipped into the 20s Fahrenheit. I put on a white long-sleeved wool dress I had made and drove to Manfred’s apartment in Santa Cruz.

Me with Manfred, the John Denver lookalike.

Me with Manfred, the John Denver lookalike.

Manfred was a student at the local University of California campus; he was studying for his Masters in Biology. He lived in the graduate student housing complex at UC Santa Cruz. It was a modern wood and glass structure, with lots of large windows and sliding glass doors. When I arrived, he was putting the finishing touches on English muffin pizzas. “These are for the potluck supper at midnight,” he told me.

“Potluck supper at midnight?” I asked, puzzled.

“Yes. This is the annual Dawn Dance. They hold it every year, the Sunday before President’s Day.”

I hadn’t known there was going to be a potluck. “Oops – I should have brought something. Maybe I should run to the store while there still time?” I asked, embarrassed.

“That’s ok, there will be plenty of food. Besides, the people at the dance are extremely health conscious. If they think something is unhealthy, they won’t eat it.”

“Is this dance going to be in Felton’s Town Hall, like at Thanksgiving?”

“No, it’s going to be at the Portuguese Hall in Santa Cruz. Felton has theirs only once a month. Santa Cruz has it every other Sunday night, though this is the biggest one of the year. Palo Alto has one too, on the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Saturdays.”

“I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for telling me.”

Manfred removed the trays of mini pizzas from the oven and let them cool. They were topped with mushrooms and olives. “Vegetarian,” he explained. After cooling, he placed them in large Tupperware containers and covered them. Then we set out in his car to Portuguese Hall.

The dance had already started when we arrived there. The hall was completely full, with 7 long double lines. The dancers appeared to be in their 30s and 40s; the hippie generation. The men wore jeans and t-shirts, and the women cotton dresses with whirly skirts. It was like a scene from the pioneer days, updated to the 20th century. A band sat onstage, playing a lively Irish reel. At the edge of the stage was a coffee pot with Styrofoam cups and condiments; these were free.

The tune ended, and everyone applauded and moved to the edge of the hall. They got different partners and lined up again. Manfred and I joined a line, standing opposite each other. The lines were male / female alternating, with the women and men standing opposite each other. The caller onstage led us into the walk-through.

Contra dance dates back to the 17th century. Originating in New England, it is a precursor to square dance, and is done to the same type of music; Irish jigs, reels, and marches. The dance described here is called, “Hands Off! It’s Hot In Here!” written by Steve Holland.

Contra dance clubs are located all over the US, and in some other countries as well. To find one near you, contact the Country Dance and Song Society at: 116 Pleasant St., Suite 345, Easthampton, MA 01027. Phone: (413) 203-5467. Website:

“Neighbor do si do,” he said, and we walked around the person of the opposite gender, back to back.

“Neighbor gypsy. You guys know how to do that right? Raise your hands if you do.” Only a few people raised their hands. “Everyone look at this couple while they demonstrate.” A couple at the top of the center line sidled around each other, their eyes locked, while the woman swung her long blonde hair. “Ooh!” exclaimed the dancers. I was sure looking forward to doing that with Manfred – except I had to do it with my neighbor, instead. Shucks!

We practiced the gypsy, then the Caller continued with the walk-through. “Men start half hey for 4 by left shoulder.” This meant weaving to the opposite side of the lines. “Neighbor swing.” We did this. “Ladies cross the set, partner swing.” I finally got to swing Manfred! “Right and left through.:” We crossed over to the other side of the set, clasping right hands as we did this, and turned as couples. “Circle left ¾, pass through to next neighbor.” We circled in our groups of 4, then passed through down the line to the next group.

The music started, and we began dancing the moves, working our way up and down the line. When we reached the end, we traded sides, waited out a turn, then worked our way up again. The 64 bar music was enough to cover one rotation of the dance. It lasted 20 minutes, which was long enough for us to go the full length of the line twice. The music ended with a flourish, we applauded, then went to see other partners. Manfred and I hadn’t even made it to the wall when I was asked by someone else.

Video of a contra dance

It wasn’t long before I began to burn up in my wool dress, in spite of the fact that all the windows and doors were open. I could see why everyone was wearing cotton and short sleeves, even with the 25 degree weather outside!

A few minutes before the midnight break, they had a waltz. Manfred and I danced it together. He was an excellent lead, and I was grateful for the ballroom dance classes I had taken at Stanford University, which enabled me to be a good follower.

Then we went downstairs to where the potluck feast was spread out on several long tables. We lined up buffet style, selecting what we wanted to eat. Manfred’s mini pizzas vanished immediately, while someone’s store-bought cookies languished. There were even a couple bottles of wine – at an all-night dance! These went untouched as well.

We sat eating at cafeteria-style tables, talking with those around us. A woman sitting across from me wore a long denim dress with spaghetti straps. “I was wondering if this was too skimpy,” she told me. “But seeing how sweaty you are, I’m glad I wore this.”

I agree!” I responded. “This is only my second contra dance. Now I know better!”

“Only your second? You dance really well!”

“Thanks. I had square dance lessons, that’s why.”

At one am, we began dancing again. They started off with a Hambo, a type of Swedish waltz. Manfred didn’t know how to do it, so I danced with someone else.

After that huge meal, I felt sleepy, so I had a cup of free coffee. I needed another one 2 hours later. By 5am, I was exhausted. Apparently so were a lot of others, because the group had dwindled to two short double lines. I was relieved when Manfred approached me, worn out himself. “Let’s do this last one, then go,” he said. I agreed wholeheartedly.

The dance was “The Zombies of Sugar Hill”. It turns out it’s the one they traditionally do at 5am. Then we left. Manfred drove us through the dark woods up the mountains to his apartment. I wondered how I was going to stay awake for my long drive back to Palo Alto. “Why don’t you stay the night?” Manfred offered me. “Since I have no roommates, I have a spare bedroom.”

“Thank you very much!” I exclaimed, relieved.

Once there, we went straight to bed.

I woke up late morning. The day was cloudless and cold. I entered the living room and saw that Manfred was outside, tending potted plants. I walked out to meet him.

“I’ll be getting my Master’s this spring,” he told me. That’s why all my plants are in pots, because I’ll have to move out then.”

“Are you going back to Germany?” I asked him.

“No, I’ll be staying here awhile,” he answered, much to my relief. “I can do a lot better here financially than I could in Germany.”

“I moved to Silicon Valley to seek my fortune,” I told him.

“And how is that going?”

“Quite well. I currently do data entry, but am taking classes to become a computer programmer.”

“To really become wealthy, you need to own your business,” he advised. “You’ll never get rich working for someone else.”

Except how do you raise the capital? I thought to myself. Plus there’s the whole headache of doing complex taxes and bookkeeping. For the time being, I’d rather work for someone else, save what money I can, and let my boss do the worrying.

Then I saw our reflection in the glass panel; Manfred kneeling over the pots of colorful flowers, I standing over him in my white wool dress, and the clear sky and sparkling blue ocean beyond. I stared, transfixed; I’d never met John Denver, but what if I had, and we were caught together in such a scene?

Manfred suddenly stood. “I need to study today. Would you like breakfast before you go?”

I tore my gaze from the glass. Had he noticed? Perhaps he felt I was going to chase him. “Sure,” I answered, as nonchalantly as I could.

He served me toast and eggs, and sent me on my way. Driving home through the Redwood forest, I wondered how I could keep this going. I definitely needed to send him a gift and thank-you note; politeness demanded that much.

Soon as I got home, I flipped through my photo albums and chose the perfect picture; one of Big Sur with the ocean glittering silver. I got it enlarged, and framed it. The following Saturday, I made a trip to Santa Cruz Boardwalk and stopped by his apartment along the way, leaving the gift with my note on his doorstep since he wasn’t home. He called me a few days later, thanking me, impressed with the picture.

Unfortunately, no relationship came out of this. However, I did become a major contra dance fan. And to this day, that is the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had.

This is the framed picture I gave to Manfred.

This is the framed picture I gave to Manfred.

© 2014 Yoleen Lucas

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