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
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
cross to a wave (aka "pass the ocean")
half figure eight
hey for four
hey for three (with one couple acting as a unit)
lady round two, gent cut thru
Petronella twirls (only seen in the eponymous dance)
Rory O'More waves (ditto)
rollaway with a half sashay
swat the flea
weave the line
(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
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
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
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