Ron Blechner wrote:
With regards to Tony's question about the number
of terms increasing in contra, a question:
I understand that squares used to be more commonly interspersed with contras at dances,
Yes, up until around 1975–1980, most New England series of my acquaintance were either
50/50 or mostly squares. Outside the Northeast, it depended on who a series’ first callers
were and who they learned from. Some series were mostly or all contras, some were closer
to 50/50. It’s my understanding that squares have all but disappeared from many of the
Squares provide so many different moves that they need
special teaching for individual dances. So are modern contras that much different?
It depends on what kind of squares you have in mind. New England squares, by and large,
are based on 19th-century quadrilles and draw from the same very short list of moves that
pre-1970s contras did. (Between 1950 and roughly 1980, trad-revival New England callers
started using a handful of modern SD terms such as “box the gnat,” probably no more than
half a dozen.) Southern squares typically have a dominant figure (like “duck for the
oyster”) that’s unique to that dance, just as the key moves in Petronella and Rory O’More
were unique until the current contra revival. Naturally, a group unfamiliar with a
specific Southern square will need a careful walkthrough (how careful depends on how
complex the figure is; some are simpler than others). In some Southern communities, a
dance set consists of 3 to 6 dominant figures that are called in random order, but 90+
percent of the crowd know the figures by heart.
I can’t think of a square dance tradition that has “many different moves” compared to
contras. That’s a hallmark of modern “Western” squares (aka club squares or federation
squares). I think the modern contra vocabulary, with its recent explosion of terms, is
starting to look more like modern “Western” squares than like either trad New England or
trad Southern squares.
If I need to teach a box the gnat or a square-thru to
a room with a number of new dancers, does it matter whether that move is taught for a
contra or a square?
Not at all. I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong to borrow terms from other dance forms,
or even to invent new terms. But I do worry that the 80 percent of contra dancers who are
neither beginners nor super-experienced will be expected to know more and more terms
without much explanation. Either that or we’ll have to discard an old term for every one
When I started contra dancing in the mid-1960s, there were about 14 terms that an
accomplished dancer needed to know. Between then and 2000, about 14 more were introduced,
about half of them from modern SD. Since 2000, I’ve read about or encountered at least 17
more. I can only hope that the more complex ones are left as dominant figures, special
features of a tiny handful of dances, and not added to the collective vocabulary.
I agree that the contras themselves have gotten more
complex in the past few decades, but the overall choreography over time? I might like to
hear more voices of long-time callers / dancers for perspective.
Not sure what you mean here, Ron. I’m not getting the distinction between “the contras
themselves” and “the overall choreography.” (I do agree that there are many more contras
in general circulation of a type I consider complex; I have my doubts as to how many
dancers prefer them.)
New book: Square Dance Calling (ready Summer 2017)