[Callers] Contra / MWSD parallels?

David Millstone David.Millstone at valley.net
Wed Mar 21 13:21:35 PDT 2012

Dear friends and colleagues,

I sent along Don Coffey's comments in the hope that they might stimulate some  
thoughtful discussion, and that it has. I was not trying to reopen the contras  
vs. squares debate; similar groups have been ripped apart by strong rhetoric on  
all sides of that divide. Nor am I suggesting that contras-only is the problem,  
though I am a fervent believer myself of including some other formations in an  
evening's program, with even an occasional taste of a dance from a different culture.

Dave is correct that the contemporary contra dance scene continues to have a strong  
connection to live music, which MWSD lost for a variety of reasons. And yes, at  
the moment, the contra wave is a strong one. So, too, was the MWSD wave in its  
time, and yet it foundered. Is there anything in that example from which we can  

>  For the square dancers, standardizing dance moves led to lessons on how to do  
>particular moves and a less inclusory dance space. [snip] Moreover, unlike the  
>square dance club community, we have a vibrant live music tradition that is showing  
>no signs of erosion.

I suggest that there are some similar developments in the contemporary contra  
movement as it has changed in recent decades.

Here are a few data points to consider. I'm taking as my reference point the dance  
programs when I started in the early 1970s. This was the previous time of great  
expansion for contras, starting with the young people who turned out in droves  
at Dudley Laufman dances throughout New England.

* There were no events billed as "experienced dances" or "for experienced dancers  
only." I suspect that many of you see these in your dance community today. The  
square dance boom started with an activity that had been open to all, and gradually  
developed into levels/programs (Basic/Mainstream/Plus/Advanced/Challenge) as some  
dancers wanted more mental challenge than an open community dance could provide.

* There were no dance medleys. Many callers today pride themselves on including  
a medley as part of their programs, and we certainly see folks flocking to medleys  
at events such as NEFFA.

* Folks danced to traditional tunes. Today, with contra jam bands, there are some  
who enjoy dancing contra-style  figures to music that doesn't have the traditional  
AABB structure and, in some cases, they're dancing more to a beat than to a melody;  
this is similar to some of the changes in MWSD. And with the appeal of techno  
contras to a small but growing subset, folks may be dancing to popular recorded  
music, not to live bands, echoing another development in MWSD. In some cases,  
the music does not follow the traditional 32-bar structure so there is not the  
melodic hook to tell folks what to do.

* There were no classes for beginners/newcomers. Traditional squares also had  
no classes; people just showed up for the dance. Modern square dancing introduced  
the notion of attending a series of classes to learn basic figures. This started  
out, decades ago, as six lessons and now in many locations is 36 weeks. Many contra  
series went from no lessons, to perhaps a ten-minute introduction, and now many  
series offer beginners' workshops of half an hour, 45 minutes, or even an hour.

* The "basic figures" that one would meet in an evening was much smaller, so the  
learning curve wasn't as steep. Off the top of my head, I came up with this list  
of figures that one can now meet on a contra dance floor that weren't in common  
contra dance usage 40 years ago:

      box the gnat
      California twirl
      cross to a wave (aka "pass the ocean")
      gents' chain
      half figure eight
      hey for four
      hey for three (with one couple acting as a unit)
      ricochet hey
      lady round two, gent cut thru
      Mad Robin
      Petronella twirls (only seen in the eponymous dance)
      Rory O'More waves (ditto)
      ricochet hey
      rollaway with a half sashay
      slide left
      square thru
      swat the flea
      swing thru
      weave the line
      zig zag

(Amazing that we young folks back in the day managed to have a great time dancing  
without these figures!)

Compare these phrases to commands such as "circle left" or "forward and back"  
or "left hand turn." Yes, contras back then had their share of jargon that is  
still with us-- "balance and swing," "ladies chain," "right and left thru," etc.  
My point is that there are more figures now that dancers are expected to know,  
and the words themselves don't make clear what one does. Compare them with the  
vocabulary that MWSD created, phrases that in and of themselves don't tell dancers  
where to go: "Load the Boat," "Ferris Wheel," "Relay the Deucy," etc.

In addition, the only Becket formation dance was the Becket Reel, aka Bucksaw  
Reel. There wasn't much happening on the diagonals, and virtually all dances had  
folks staying within their minor set, whether it was duple minor or triple minor.  
That's part of what made Bucksaw so distinctive and exciting-- wow! Left diagonal!

Let me be very clear. At most of the events I call at regular dance series, I  
program mostly contras. (Heck, I've called entire programs with nothing but duple  
improper and Becket formation contras!) I am not saying that each of these items  
bulleted above is in itself A Bad Thing. I have called at experienced dances and  
have organized my own "for experienced dancers" events. I'll be calling in at  
least one of the NEFFA medley sessions, as I do most years. I have offered beginner  
workshops, though it's certainly not my preference. I have called entire evenings  
using recorded music; my iPod is loaded with great tunes. And all those figures  
I listed? Every one of those can be found on dance cards that I use. I love the  
contra scene even as there are some changes about which I am less sanguine.

SharedWeight is a group of callers talking to one another. I take it as a given  
that we are all interested in keeping the dance traditions alive and healthy,  
though we may have different ideas of how that can best be done. As callers, I  
think it's worth pondering these developments and keeping the MWSD experience  
in mind.

David Millstone

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