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Contradance enthusiasts are often asked, "What 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
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: on 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 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
Once upon a time, the caller of a contra might call out "Longaway 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.
Section in progress
How things have changed. One line would be all of men, and across from them a line of women only, each man across from his partner for that dance.
Contra music (like the dance itself) draws from Irish, Scottish, English, Canadian and American bluegrass traditions, among others. Melody is usually carried by a fiddle or a whistle, or guitar, piano, handdrums, banjo, mandolin... pretty much any instrument is eligible to play a contra tune. Tunes are usually jigs or reels that last 32 measures and then repeat. They tend to be quick and energetic.