This might seem to play right into "divisive", but hear me out: it's worth
giving thought in the discussion to the reason some contradancers dislike
squares. Now, i speak as a dancer/caller who has had loads of fun dancing
traditional New England squares at Ralph Page Legacy Weekend, among other
places, and aspire to master the NESD form and add it to my calling
repertoire. Yet i'm acutely aware of the fact that many of my peers among
the GenY contra community aren't as appreciative of squares.
One topic that has come up in several of my conversations with mentors is
the concept of "staying on the mic" (when it's no longer necessary to the
dance) as a bit of egotism on the caller's part. Of course, squares and
contras require somewhat different approaches; a square caller can't "drop
out", and that makes squares less conducive to the trance-dance experience
some young contra folk want to achieve. Additionally, in that
square-dancing is associated at times with Appalachian and "barn-dance"
traditions, it tends toward somewhat different musical ground than some
contradancers (including myself) prefer. (Please note that these are
generalizations, and glaring exceptions aren't hard to find.)
BUT... a big reason why some contradancers feel (to put it bluntly) like
squares are the plague? Perhaps because when we try to explain contra to
those uninitiated in traditional dance, they ask "is it like square
dancing?" And i, for one, shudder at the ensuing task of acknowledging the
very close relation between the two forms while trying to negate whatever
pop-culture caricaturizations of square dance have popped into this
person's head. Please forgive if i speak from partial ignorance here, but
it seems to me square dancing took the brunt of mass culture's evolution
away from traditional forms, and those who want to see contradancing as
"cool" and "hip" struggle to maintain a distinction between the two
(see Don Coffey's "freight train/horse-blinder" comment).
This is a good point to reiterate that i certainly enjoy squares. Jim Saxe
put it nicely when he mentions (to paraphrase) bristling at the implication
that callers choose squares out of motivations other than dancer fun, and
lots of love to Chrissy for the "branches" analogy. It may be instructive,
in smoothing relations between two grand branches of the social-dance
tradition, to consider the more subtle underlying reasons for that
"horse-blinder focus" in the hope that we as dance leaders can address them
Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2012 12:38:24 -0400
From: Chrissy Fowler <ktaadn_me(a)hotmail.com>
To: shared weight <callers(a)sharedweight.net>
Subject: Re: [Callers] Contra / MWSD parallels?
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Oh hooray! Divisive politics are my favorite! (Not) But somewhere in
the SW archives I've already pointed out what a waste of time it is to
point fingers and deride each other. So just a couple other things,
starting with an example.
On David Chandler's note of openness to new experiences, a year or so ago
our dance series celebrated the DEFFA Board (DownEast Friends of the Folk
Arts) and hired a fiddler and several dance callers who were DEFFA board
members. Given the expertise of the callers, the program included a Czech
mixer-Doudlebska Polka, an English Country Dance-Knole Park, a Croatian
dance-Moja Diridika, and several contras (mostly modern compositions).
Because none of the callers considered themselves skilled at calling
squares, there were no squares. In some ways, this program was a first for
public contra dances in Maine.
But (a) it seemed like everyone had a good time (dancers, callers,
organizers, and even musicians who were asked to learn some unfamiliar
music), and (b) it was still delivering our dance's usual fare -- namely,
accessible, fun, traditional social dances, taught & prompted, and danced
to excellent live music. And on the plus side, we were also celebrating
the varied contributions to the world of the board members who serve our
local folk organization - board work that is done, as Linda Leslie points
out, with "good intentions" and "for the love of the art forms."
What I got out of David Millstone's original post was a cautionary note -
asking us as dance leaders (organizers, callers, dancers) to be conscious
of the perils of rareifying or stultifying our social dance traditions
(making them so complex/exclusive or proscriptive/rigid that they lose
their capacity to live on into the future in good health.) So, I got out
of it an exhortation to consider sustainability, but I also got a reminder
that we are connected inextricably to history - this isn't some brand new
movement. It's got deep, strong roots. And it's not a dead form. It's
got branches. And quite thankfully, it's got richness of variety. There's
something for everyone, thanks to the variety of visions of the organizers
who make these dances happen. But at the core it's about participatory
social dance. And I say, the more people who join us in participatory
social dance, the better. (Even if you don't want to think about dance as
positive social change...)
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2012 08:55:09 -0700
From: James Saxe <jim.saxe(a)gmail.com>
To: Caller's discussion list <callers(a)sharedweight.net>
Subject: [Callers] Why I call squares (was Re: Contra / MWSD
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I'm finally feeling impelled to comment on this.
The reason I include occasional squares at events billed as a
"contra dances" is that I have personally had a tremendous
amount of fun dancing them--much of it at events that included
both squares and contra.
I first got into the traditional dance scene in Pittsburgh, PA,
in the early 1980s. The events were mostly advertised as "square
dances" but a typical evening's program might (or might not,
depending on the caller) have included several contras as well.
I believe most of the dancers enjoyed both.
The squares I'm talking about, by the way, were "traditional",
not modern western. I'm sure there was an active MWSD community
in Pittsburgh at that time, and probably there were a very few
dancers who did both MWSD and "traditional" squares/contras, but
it was for all intents and purposes a completely separate activity
and community. My intent in saying this is neither to disparage
nor to praise MWSD, but merely to point out that anyone who cites
anything about MWSD as a reason why contras and traditional squares
don't/can't/shouldn't mix is engaging in a complete non sequitur.
At the square dances I went to, we had no special attire, no
need for separate lessons, and no recorded music. [Yes, I know
that not all MWSD groups require or even encourage the special
attire, and that some MWSD events have live music, but going
into more detail about MWSD here would be a digression from my
main topic.] The dances were every bit as open to the public as
typical contra dances.
As a new dancer, my experience of that mostly square-centric
Pittsburgh scene was that it was as welcoming a community as
I had ever encountered. Dances were often followed by a
well-attended gathering at a local restaurant, or occasionally
by a house party where conversation and musical jamming would
go on into the wee hours of the morning. I don't think the
community was particularly more or less eclectic than the
communities of contra dancers I know of.
I found that squares and contras each offered their own kind of
fun. These kinds of fun were different enough so that when I
moved to California and found a thriving contra dance scene, I
noticed after a while that I was missing the kind of exciting
squares I had danced in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, the
kinds of fun and the skills involved in the two forms were
similar enough IMO that a lot of the same people could (and,
in at least in one community where I had danced regularly for
several years, actually did) enjoy both in the same evening.
In short, the reason I sometimes call squares at "contra" dances
is that I believe they can add a special kind of fun to the
mix. I also believe that most other callers who mix squares
with contras do so for the same reason--because they think
squares can add a different, but not too different, kind of
fun. I'll freely admit that I, and other callers, haven't
always succeeded in sharing this kind of fun with the dancers.
present. Certainly there have been times when I've chosen
inappropriate squares for the circumstances, and times when
I've ineptly taught and called whichever dance I've chosen.
(I'm sure most of us have also had experiences from time to
time with contras that were poorly chosen, poorly taught,
and/or poorly called.) What I bristle at are (a) implications
that the fun I remember having with squares (including at mixed
square/contra events) is a figment of my imagination (except in
the sense that all fun and all memory are mental experiences)
and (b) implications the I or other callers call squares out of
motivations other than dancer fun, such as an abstract sense
of duty to preserve historic traditions or some other notion
of "making the dancers take their medicine".
On Mar 19, 2012, at 12:08 PM, Greg McKenzie wrote:
David Millstone quoted Don Coffee
Modern contra dancing has become a mass "movement" with the energy
greight train, but most of the young people who
so love contras?and
only-- have no idea it is but one component of a larger, very
tradition. This horse-blinder focus rather reminds me of...
Oh dear! Here we go again.
The square enthusiasts are putting forth another tome?complete with
and historical references? about how contra dancers are ?limited?,
?short-sighted?, ?narrow-minded? or just plain ignorant in their views
about the dance tradition that they have loved for so many decades.
This annual tradition of denigration would be humorous if it were
insidious and insulting to people who have dedicated so much to
new tradition that has made called dancing available to so many
would not have otherwise ever tried it.
Instead of repeating the old saws about how bad contra dancers are,
square dance calling friends might consider educating themselves
new tradition that they seem to know so little about. For those of us
dedicated to holding open, public, contra dances for our communities
movement is much more than merely a ?component of a larger, very
tradition.? It is, in fact, an evolution of even older traditions
perhaps, an alternative to the square dance tradition that has
moribund and unavailable to the general public.
For many of us, introduced to contras as our first social dance
one of the defining factors that drew us to contra dancing was the
that it was NOT square dancing and it did NOT require that we attend
separate classes to learn it.
The fact is that contras are attended by a wildly eclectic crowd of
with varied dance experience and interests. Yes, about half of
the hall frequent contras almost exclusively (43% attend contras
almost 40% of those in the hall are enthusiasts of some other dance
and attend other dance forms at least six times a year. About 20%
in the hall are not enthusiasts of any dance form.
(Note that only 3% of those in the hall attend square dances
Square dance calling enthusiasts should consider that the contra dance
tradition might be something different from what you are familiar
from what you *assume* it is. These open, public social events
different mix of people, have a different purpose, and require a
set of calling skills than many other forms of dance. When
callers?unfamiliar with the contra tradition?insist on presenting
formations while presuming to tell the dancers what they *ought* to
it is not surprising that many folks will decide to sit out. It
better to first educate yourselves about who is in the hall before
one of these events. Here is one place to start:
I look forward to an ongoing discussion about the evolution of
and the great contributions it can make to our world. That
be most productive, however, if we start with a clear understanding
it is that we do NOT know.
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End of Callers Digest, Vol 91, Issue 37