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Contradance enthusiasts are often asked, "What (the heck) is contradance?" The question draws a gammut of answers, and even after years of dancing it remains hard to respond well to. It's not a square dance, though many of the figures are the same as in square. It's not a line dance, though a set consists of two lines. It is an intricate, moving knot of dancers, in which you and a partner progress down the dance hall and back again, dancing a series of figures with each couple you encounter on the way. It has been called, "A roller coaster ride we make for ourselves."

At its best, a contradance flows perfectly, seeming to lift you into the right spot. At its worst, it is a challenge of figuring out where you and your partner need to be, and getting there in time with the music -- but every old dancer has been there, and occasionally returns there. Either way, the dance is energetic, social, and fun.

How Contra is Danced Today, at Williams

A of the 2005 Valentine's Day contradance taken down the middle of a huge set joined into the figure "Long Lines, forward and back". Student band Rude Cider plays in the background.

Because this is the section most relevant to Williams, it will precede the section on history, but you may wish to read that section before this one to get a fuller picture.

At Williams, Dancing Folk hosts about one dance a month. All these dances have a live band, usually our 'house band', Rude Cider. Once or twice a semester, though, the club brings in a professional band, which adds a whole new level of energy to the event.

After choosing a partner and lining up 'across the set' from that partner, a caller teaches the ~8 moves ("figures") that will be danced by all in the dance, and talks the crowd through these moves while they try them out together ("The Walkthrough"). There are dozens of traditional figures out there, and more being invented, and each dance is a new selection and arrangement of them, but all contradances have one key thing in common: one full time through the dance (64 beats of music) puts you and your partner at the beginning again, only with a different couple to dance with.

This may sound a little complicated, but dancers with all levels of experience can and do dance together and still have tons of fun. Participating demands no grace or poise (these can be added later), and some describe it not as dancing, but as getting yourself to the right spot at the right time, or walking around the dance floor. Unlike just about every other kind of dance you can name, footwork is quite optional: it can be just as simple as walking (preferably in time to the music), but more experienced dancers add plenty of style, finesse, and variations to test themselves and thrill their partners.

The traditonal group-based style of contra and the attitude taken at Williams make learning contra easy here. At Williams, the caller teaches every dance, start to finish, no exception. Dancers of all levels of experience are present at every contra and are welcomed. Unlike couple dances such as swing or salsa, contradance places each dancer in near-constant contact with many other people, and every dancer will dance with everyone else before the end of the dance. It is also the social norm to change partners between each dance, and never to refuse one person's requst to contradance for another's (though there is always a waltz or two you can save for that special someone). Finally, the callers of Dancing Folk have long made it their focus to teach dancing, and err on the side of simple rather than complex in general, planning out a series of dances for the night that progress from easy to challenging. All these factors speed learning for all, and keep the group together.

(A Rough) History of Contradance

The contradance we know was born right around here, in New England, during the colonial days. Major dance communties also developed, and still exist, in Appalachia and Quebec, and today they influence each other through music and dance style exchange. But back in the colonial days of New England, contradance began its evolution from the more formal courtship dances best known today from Jane Austen movies. Like Latin, these old English Country Dances persist, are pleasant, but they are a dead language, with an emphasis on doing traditional dances in an old, formal manner.

By contrast, contradance, the young and vigorous offspring of English Country, is still very much alive and evolving. Once upon a time, the caller of a contra might call out "Longaways for as many as will," and the dancers would respond by making two lines, starting at the caller and stretching back to the "bottom" of the hall. A man would choose a partner and lead her over to the forming "set": a double line of all men in one, and all ladies in the other, partners across from each other. There would have been clapping, vigorous turning, perhaps even whooping and stomping, but much of the old English ways still remained. There were relatively few dances, and they were quickly memorized. Lines were always single-sex, "swinging" your partner was relatively uncommon, and few moves were done with partner only.

Somewhere along the way, those American hicks started to break from the traditions of Mother England, who continued to favor English Country Dance into the Victorian days. Meanwhile, in America, the "improper set" was invented: partners would line up opposite each other, at first in single-sex lines, but before starting the dance the people in every other couple would change places, now forming a set where no one was next to someone of the same sex. This scandalous development was revolutionary: it changed the way dances worked, what moves could be performed, and made male-female contact a guarantee. One can imagine this only stoked the contradance fire. Nowadays, the improper formation is by far the most commonly danced.

Since then, the trend in contradance has been towards more frequent and more intimate partner contact, but inclusion of the whole set has never been lost. Swinging, in which two dancers hold each other and spin quickly around a central axis, was once entirely absent in most dances; now it is now an expected component of a dance, and many dances have dancers swinging for half the time.

If that weren't enough, another formation even more lascivious than improper was invented sometime during the fast and showy "club" era of American contradance. This is Becket formation, invented in the Massachusetts town of the same name and first used in the dance Becket Reel. It is the same as improper, but before the dance partners and neighbors join hands in a ring and turn it 1/4 turn. This places partners on the same side of the set rather than across from each other, which has the necessary result of increasing partner contact even more.

While once the thing to do to meet people and go out with friends, contradances are now dominated by the previous generation and older in the northeast and mid-Atlantic venues I've danced. Dance communities exist all over the country (see this excellent venue database), mostly in the West and East, but anywhere large populations are found there is some contradance. Generally, the larger a dance scene, the more likely you are to find anyone under 30. The future of contradance remains a mystery, then, but it does remain known and loved on college campuses, in many traditional communties, and I hear dances in the Northwest, and I believe in Quebec, draw some younger crowds.

The Music

Contra music (like the dance itself) draws from Irish, Scottish, English, Canadian and American bluegrass traditions, among others. Individual bands drawing from any number of local traditions exist; a Zydeco flavored band has been a guest at Williams, and one New England caller and her band (the Black Kat and The Purelles) have developed "Rock and Roll Contras": dances written to fit to modified pop oldies, such as "It's My Party" and "Good Morning Starshine."

Tunes are usually jigs or reels that last 32 measures (64 beats) and then repeat. Within the tune are two distinct, equal-length phrases each repeated twice (therefore, 16 beats per phrase), the first usually lower in tone and with a narrower range and the second higher and wider ranging, often more intricate and "floaty." Within any one phrase, the first eight beats are usually roughly ascending, the latter eight descending in pitch.

This dependable "skeleton" determines the length of dance figures, and how they are arranged for 64 beats. A contradance figure is most commonly done for 8 beats, some for a full phrase of 16, and some for four beats. Few figures last other lengths of time; it is hard to make odder times fit the music. Dances also are composed with the structure of the music in mind. Some dances are even written to be danced to a particular tune (especually older dances) but the vast majority, and even these old ones, can and are danced to whatever tune the band wants to play. Dances, then, are written with the major turning points in the music in mind: a figure will nearly always change at the end of a phrase, and the mood of the figures will often change halfway through the tune.

The music tends to be quick and energetic. It is a rule rarely broken that contras should never slow down during a dance, though some bands do this rarely to dramatic effect. Melody is almost always carried by a fiddle, the signature instrument of traditional contradance music, but whistles, or guitar, piano, handdrums, banjo, mandolin, woodwinds of all kinds . . . literally any instrument is eligible to have some role in a contra tune.

The Band and Caller

Rude Cider, the in-house band for campus contradances, playing Dancing Folk's 2005 Valentine's Day dance. This incarnation of the band includes a piano (off left), 2 fiddles, a flute, a pennywhistle, 2 guitars, and a caller (far right).

Though there may always be 32 measures on the paper to play, good bands always tease and play with all of this. No good band plays the same tune the same way for the thirty repeats that a dance might last. Rather, they will often play a medley of two or three tunes, switching partway through the dance, and will riff and frolic within a tune, not at all unlike a jazz musicians might: passing a refrain from instrument to instrument, coordinating solos and dynamics, suddenly adding a new instrument, etc. There is no greater energy than what you experience at a good contradance, where the caller has set everyone solid on what they are doing, and leaves the rest to the constant bond of symbiotic energy flowing between the band and hall of dancers.

The caller also works to keep things fresh. At first, he will prompt every move the dancers do, but rather than merely speaking he calls with a calculated lilt to his voice that makes it blend pleasingly with the music. He chooses the wording of his calls to place the important phrases on strong beats in the music. He even chooses the order of his words carefully for clarity, and has a few different ways of calling each move to fill different length of time, and to add variety. Above all, he watches the dancers for the times when they do and don't need him. When they are handling themselves, he is silent; when they falter, he jumps in for a phrase or two, and returns to quiet watchfulness. Traditional contradance does not feature the artful "patter calling" that sqaures are known for; a good contra caller is so good a teacher that no one needs him to speak for long over the music.

There is an interesting division between the callers and the bands. Often, they are booked seperately, and may not even meet each other until the night of. Typically, the band plays what it knows and wants to, and manages the energy level during a dance. The caller picks dances appropriate for the skill level of the group without knowing the tunes that will be played, and is repsonsible for the dancers' experience from start to end. He may change his dances if he sees a new group walk in, he may abort a dance midway, he chooses the tempo that the band plays at and when the dance will end. He is a charismatic, good speaker and teacher with an ability to sense what the dancers in his care need. The band members are sensitive too, but often in a quieter way, and mostly attuned to each other: they work as a perfectly communicating unit, able to make small changes to a tune to great effect, working always with each other and perhaps slight input from the caller.