Revision as of 00:48, January 19, 2006 by Jlandsma (talk | contribs) ((A Rough) History of Contradance: finishing)

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

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 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, by contrast, 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, well-known dances. 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 still by far the most commonly danced.

Since then, the trend in contradance has been towards more frequent and more intimate partner contact, but never has inclusion of the whole set been lost. Swinging, in which two dancers hold each other and spin quickly around a central axis, was once entirely absent in most dances or; 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 Becket, MA and first used in the dance the 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 at all. 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.