An Aesthetic of Contra Dancing
The aesthetic consideration of dance usually brings to American minds images of ballet or modern dance performances rather than participation in folk dance. For many of us the term "folk dance" conjures up thoughts of ethnicity and traditionality, where a good dance is one that is in some sense authentic to a tradition. In this chapter we will consider contra dance as an aesthetic form, exploring the qualities of contra dance choreography that make a given sequence pleasing and enjoyable to those who dance it.
There have been two major lines of inquiry in the study of aesthetics (see Ingarden 1986). The objective approach focuses on the search for qualities inherent in the object itself that make it aesthetically pleasing to an audience. The subjective approach focuses on the creative act of the artist and the experience of the "receptor," i.e. the person or persons who experience the object aesthetically. These lines of inquiry have also been considered together, the core of the investigation being the encounters between the object and the artist, and between the object and the receptor. The emphasis in these discussions has been on the audience: the onlookers or spectators.
Examining the contemporary contra dance from an aesthetic point of view is problematic for a number of reasons. First, there is no physical object to be examined, unless one could consider the card on which the dance is written as such an object. Clearly, however, this card is not "the dance," but merely a blueprint from which the dance can be created. What, then, is the "object" that is under consideration? It is important here to draw a distinction between the sequence of figures that comprises the dance in an abstract sense, and the actual performance of a dance on a specific occasion. In Chapter 2 we focused on the dance event, exploring the roles played by the caller, the musicians, the program, and the physical environment in the success of a dance. Here we will examine the dance sequence itself as an aesthetic form, while not losing sight of the fact that the aesthetic experience is influenced by more than the choreography.
A second problem in the aesthetic consideration of contra dance is that this activity is participatory, rather than being a performance for an audience. The receptors are the dancers themselves, and they are essential to the creation of the dance sequence. Multiple receptors are in fact necessary, since there must be enough dancers for a set.
A third difficulty lies in the fact that the aesthetic is often regarded as primarily a contemplative activity rather than one experienced through physical activity. David Best, in his book Philosophy and Human Movement, refutes this idea:
Now it may be that a concern with the arts and the aesthetic is largely contemplative, but I see no reason to deny, indeed I see good reason to insist, that one can have what are most appropriately called aesthetic feelings while actually performing an activity. There are numerous examples, such as a well-executed dive, a finely timed stroke in squash, a smoothly accomplished series of movements in gymnastics....For many, the feelings derived from such performances are part of the enjoyment of participation, and "aesthetic" seems the most appropriate way to characterize them. (Best 1978:111-112)
Best examines aesthetics as an aspect of physical activity, suggesting that the aesthetic is by nature nonfunctional, that the purpose of aesthetic movement cannot be separated from the movement itself (101ff). For example, in gymnastics or figure skating—sports that Best calls "aesthetic sports" (104)—the purpose of the movement is intimately connected to the movement itself. By contrast, in a football game the purpose of the movement is to make a field goal, and the movements used to achieve this goal may vary. Best's interpretation of the aesthetic, in its inclusion of an aesthetic of physical activity, seems most appropriate to our understanding of contra dancing.
In this chapter we will consider an aesthetic of contra dancing from the perspective of the dancers. A "good dance" will mean a dance that is fun for the dancers, that feels physically good to dance, that is preferred by the dancers over other less "good" dances, and that has proven its worth through its acceptance and survival in the wider contra dance community.
The question of what makes a good contra dance is a complex one. We have seen that many of the factors that distinguish a good dance from a bad one are not even related to the choreography, but have to do with who is teaching the dance, how well the dance is matched to the skill level of the dancers, how good the music is, how hot the temperature is, and other contextual factors. The very same dance may be hugely successful on one occasion, and may either fall apart or be boring on another.
There are, however, choreographic elements which serve to separate the "good" dances from the bad in the minds of dance composers, callers, and dancers. In my interviews I tried to get at these aesthetic criteria by asking my informants the question, "What makes a good dance?"
In the interviews, the adjectives "good" and "great" were the most used in describing an aesthetically pleasing dance. Other adjectives indicating levels of goodness, such as "excellent," "fabulous," "superb," and "wonderful" were also used. Some descriptive words indicated the appearance or character of a dance: "beautiful," "charming," "elegant," "graceful," "lovely," "pretty," and "sophisticated." Other informants described dances they liked according to how it felt to dance them, using the terms "comfortable," "enjoyable," "exciting," "fun," "interesting," "passably entertaining," "satisfying," and "worthwhile." Another category of terms used to describe a good dance pointed to qualities of specialness in a dance, terms such as "cute," "cool," "neat, " and "special." Still other adjectives referred to the level of popularity enjoyed by the dance in question: "hot dance," "incredibly hot dance," "quiet applause type dance," "real yahoo type dance," "red hot dance," "a winner." One can infer from this list that an aesthetically pleasing dance is one that looks good, feels good, has an element that is unique, and consequently has been widely disseminated.
Dances that are not aesthetically pleasing were also described by a variety of terms. Some of the adjectives used were alternative ways of saying "bad" and included words such as "bad" (the most commonly used term), "crummy," "less than ideal," "lousy," "loser," "rotten," and "God-not-this-one-again type dance." Other adjectives indicated boredom: "bland," "boring," "dreary," "ho-hum," "indifferent," "repetitive," and "tedious." A third category of terms for bad dances indicated that the dance was either uncomfortable to do, or that the mechanics of the dance didn't work very well: "awkward" (nearly as popular a term as "bad"), "a bomber," "clunky," "physically awkward," "uncomfortable to do," and "snarled up mess." These descriptive phrases indicate that a dance is not aesthetically pleasing when it is boring for the dancers, awkward to dance, or choreographically unsuccessful.
The responses given by my informants in answer to the question "What makes a good dance?" can be divided into a number of clusters of criteria, each of which I would like to discuss in some detail. These clusters include the "flow" of the dance, the choice of figures and formations used in the choreography, the complexity of the dance, the social interaction that takes place within the dance, the degree to which the dance moves conform to the expectations of the dancers, the fit of the dance to the music, the physical activity level of the dance, and the quality of specialness or uniqueness exhibited by a dance.
The most common short response to the question, "What makes a good dance?" was "good flow." The concept of "flow" seems to refer predominantly to the transitions between the dance figures rather than to the figures themselves, and it relates to how smooth these transitions feel to the dancers. Here are two summary statements from my informants that give an idea of what is meant by this term, "flow":
Good flow means that each transition is easily maneuvered and rewardingly maneuvered. (Jennings 1990b)
If the dance is smooth, it means that the transition from one figure to the next is easy to achieve. You do not ever have to turn the hard way. You don't ever have to stop, literally stop in your tracks, and backtrack to do something else. Everything flows into the next thing, so you are eternally walking forward. (Park 1990)
The term "flow," as used by my informants, has both physical qualities which have to do with the laws of physics, and nonphysical qualities which have to do with the expectations of the dancers and the degree to which they perceive the dance as "making sense."
The physical component of "flow" concerns the motion of the body. In a dance with good flow the dance sequence avoids transitions where the dancer must change his or her momentum suddenly through either a change of direction or a change of dancing speed. ("Suddenly" is an important qualification, since many dances have either a full stop, or an assisted change of direction through an "allemande" or other strongly connected figure performed with another dancer.) If such a change of momentum is easily anticipated and can be done comfortably, it may not disrupt the flow of a dance. An example of a comfortable change of momentum might be the change from a "circle left" to a "circle right," a transition which is common and anticipated and for which dancers have learned to adjust their footwork to make it smooth. An example of an uncomfortable change of momentum might be an "allemande left" followed by a "circle left," in which the dancers must change from a forward counterclockwise motion to a sideways clockwise motion, requiring both a change of body position and a change of direction. Bad flow may also result from movements that are difficult because the hand that is needed is not free. Steve Zakon gives an example:
We just finished a "swing," now the men allemande right. Well where's your hand at the end of the "swing?" It's behind the lady. You can't get there. (Zakon 1990)
The nonphysical component of flow has to do with the internal logic of a dance and seems to overlap the concept of "story line," which will be discussed below. This component is related both to the expectations of the dancers, and to the "social sense" exhibited by the sequence. To "balance" with another dancer and then swing him or her feels comfortable, both because it is a common and therefore expected combination in contra dancing, and because the "balance" serves as a kind of greeting prior to the more intimate "swing." To balance one dancer and then swing another does not feel comfortable, both because it is rarely done and therefore unexpected, and because it feels inappropriate to greet one dancer and then swing another. These ways of feeling comfortable are not related to the actual motion of the body.
It is possible to have too much flow in a dance, especially when the choreographic sequence includes a lot of circular motion. A dance with too much flow can leave the dancers either disoriented or dizzy. Ted Sannella comments on this phenomenon:
Dan Pearl wrote a dance called "The Rendezvous," which is a beautiful dance. It flows beautifully. But the only thing wrong with that dance is that you're continuously going clockwise throughout the dance, and after you do the dance like ten times through, you're dizzy....By the end of the dance your mind is just going clockwise. (Sannella 1990a)
In the composing of contra dances with good flow, conservation of momentum is an important principle. The movements work better when one takes advantage of the momentum already established in a previous figure, because the dancers do not have to work as hard to perform the dance. In particular, when rotating figures move into other rotating figures, the direction of rotation should not be reversed. Gene Hubert elaborates:
If you're going to have a circle on either side of an "allemande right," it should be a clockwise circle, which means "circle left"....And "allemande left" means that you're going around the other direction, which is basically "circle right" direction. So "allemandes" and "circles" work together that way....And "swings" to "circles" and "circles" to "swings" are the same deal. A "left circle" is a basically clockwise movement, and a "swing" is a clockwise movement. They go together real naturally. (Hubert 1990b)
The conservation of angular momentum may produce acceleration and deceleration within the dance. For example, going from a "circle" into a "swing" involves an acceleration of movement, because as two dancers pull closer together for the "swing," the conservation of momentum results in their going faster, an exciting and pleasing effect.
One way for the dancers to change directions without disrupting the flow of the dance is to use assisted changes of direction, as noted above. An "allemande," for example, can be used to send two dancers in the opposite directions from which they came, without their having to stop or turn around. Dan Pearl gives an example:
"Anniversary Reel" by Ted Sannella has a deal where the actives go down the center while the inactives come up the center, and you allemande with your next neighbor by the handy hand, and you immediately return to your original neighbor. So it's like you're using the next one in line like a pole....It's an assisted change of direction, and that kind of muscle tension in contra dancing is fun. (Pearl 1990)
The dance composer must be careful in the use of the directions "right" and "left" if the dance is to flow well. If many dancers are doing a movement together it is not likely to be confusing, but if a single dancer must make a split-second decision between right and left, some dancers will be confused, and the flow of the dance will be disrupted by their hesitation. John Krumm has noticed this problem:
I find there's a lot of right and left anxiety on the dance floor, a lot more than anybody imagines there is....Thirty percent of the dance floor will be confused by simple right and left hand things. They'll have to think. If you put right and left together a few times in one sentence, you can confuse fifty percent of the floor. Or if you have different things doing right and left, like put your left hand on your right shoulder and face left, then you confuse almost everybody. (Krumm 1990)
Another guideline offered for the composing of dances with good flow is that the last move of a dance must flow well into the first move. This is because when the dance is actually performed by the dancers, the dance is repeated perhaps fifteen times, and the transition from the last move to the first one becomes just as important as any of the other transitions. Ted Sannella emphasizes this point:
People, when they're writing a dance, sometimes they start at the top and they go to the end. And they don't think about what happens when you go from the end to the beginning again. You may have a dance that flows beautifully all the way through until you get to the end, and then the last figure doesn't flow into the beginning again for the next repeat. (Sannella 1990a)
The last principle of flow discussed by my informants comes out of the problem of too much flow discussed above. In order to avoid a dance being disorienting or dizzy, the dance composer needs to insert moves which do not revolve, to break up the circular flow of a dance which contains a lot of "swings" and "circles." Straight line movements such as the "forward and back" figure or a "down the center and back" figure will serve to break up a dizzying circular flow, as will any kind of "balance" figure.
Flow, then, is an important element in the aesthetic evaluation of the contemporary contra dance. It is a quality primarily related to the transitions between the figures of a dance. These transitions are a central concern of the contra dance composer today and are in many ways more important than the figures themselves.
There are some figures whose inclusion is considered important in the making of a good dance, the primary example being the "swing." Contra dancers today expect at least one "swing" in a dance, and many are disappointed if a dance provides no opportunity to swing with one's partner or at least with one's neighbor:
I like to write dances where you swing your partner....And if you can get a "neighbor swing" in there too, that's great. I mean that's what we're here for. We're here for those "swings." (Pearl 1990)
In terms of the hard reality of what the general dance crowd wants, you can't get away with many dances in a night that don't have "swings." (Kaynor 1990b)
The "partner swing" is usually considered the most important, if there is to be just one "swing" in the dance. Steve Zakon explained to me why this is so:
I tend to have dances where everybody swings their partner. Sometimes it's just the actives swinging, but sometimes everyone is swinging their partner....If I just lined up with someone, it's because I enjoy dancing with them, and I want to interact with them. And my favorite way to interact is to swing. (Zakon 1990)
Although the "partner swing" is probably the most popular, a "neighbor swing" helps dancers relate to the other dancers in the set, encouraging interaction with the group as a whole. Gene Hubert emphasizes the importance of the "neighbor swing":
If at all possible I like to have "neighbor swings" in dances. I think that's real important to what dancing is about, and the whole social interaction that goes on. (Hubert 1990b)
Dance composers see some figures as "better" than others, in terms of the character of the resulting dance. This is true for Larry Jennings, who is a promoter of "zesty dancing," a concept described in Chapter 4 (Footnote 8, page 77):
The [good] dance would feature...the zestyfigures which are "swing," "allemande," "circle"...and then intermediate would be "right and left [through]" and "ladies chain." And then "long lines forward and back." And then less important is "dosido."...It depends on context. (Jennings 1990b)
Most composers are not this explicit about the figures that they use, but they do tend to use the more connected figures—figures in which there is muscle tension between the dancers—because they facilitate good flow.
Today's contra dances frequently include figures borrowed from other traditions. The "hey for four" and the "gypsy" have been incorporated into contra dance from English country dance, and figures such as the "four-leaf clover," "box the gnat," and "grand right and left" (around the whole set) have been borrowed from the square dance traditions. Figures performed on the diagonal, and fractional figures (e.g. "circle three-quarters") are also common in today's dances. These borrowings and innovations make the dances in which they are used more memorable, and serve to differentiate them from the older traditional dances.
The formation of a dance is also related to the making of a "good" dance. Although a good dance can come in any of the contra dance formations, the most popular one today is the improper formation. The term "improper" once referred to a less common variant of the more dominant proper formation. The term lives on despite the fact that the improper formation is now dominant. The once common proper formation is more conducive to dances in which the roles of the active couples and the inactive couples are unequal, and consequently it has lost popularity. Today's dancers prefer more balanced roles, for which the improper formation is better suited. Steve Zakon elaborates on this point:
There's certainly a lot more variety from the improper formation of a lot of things you can do, you know, just right out from the first call. There're so many things you can do with someone of the opposite gender below you that wouldn't come to mind if it was someone of the same gender. (Zakon 1990)
Having men and women alternating on the sides of the set puts the dancers in the best position for symmetrical moves that allow everyone equally active roles.
Becket formation, in which partners begin the dance on the same side of the set, is also being used for contemporary contra dance composition. Because it is less familiar than the standard proper and improper formations, it is not as much used, but as David Kaynor points out, the possibilities are there for many new innovations to develop:
It's getting kind of easier to try things in Becket lineup. It just seems like there's a little bit more room now. Not everything has been done. (Kaynor 1990b)
Other formations are also being used by contemporary dance composers, notably Ted Sannella's triplets, which were described in Chapter 4. Still, the improper formation is by far the most popular with today's contra dancers, because it facilitates a balance of activity between the odd and the even couples.
Most dance composers agree that a good dance need not be complex, and that some of the best dances are the simplest. One of the reasons for this is that a complex dance is usually more difficult to remember, which means that the dancers have a harder time doing the dance, and the caller must continually prompt throughout the dancing. Prompting interferes with the direct connection between the dancers and the music. It is also true, however, that dancers enjoy a challenge, and an occasional complex dance can be a real hit. The terms used to describe the difficulty of a dance reflect these different perspectives. Dances which do not require a great deal of concentration to learn and perform are described as "automatic-pilot," "almost do themselves," "easy to absorb," "logical," "straight-forward," and "tame." Some dances that are complex are described in ways that indicate the difficulty of learning them: "confusing to do," "disorienting," "heavy-duty," "needlessly confusing," "overwhelming," "requires too much thinking," and "tough"; others are described with words that suggest that complexity can be exciting and intellectually stimulating: "brain-teaser," "challenging," "intellectual," "mentally taxing," "mind-bending," and "super challenging."
The term "piece count" is used by some dance composers to indicate the difficulty of a dance. Larry Jennings defines "piece count" as:
...an estimate of the number of dance fragments which an "average" dancer must keep in mind to visualize the entire sequence....Dances with only four or five pieces rarely give trouble, while a dance with nine or more usually requires close attention. (Jennings 1983:89)
A "piece" does not necessarily correspond to a "figure," since some sequences, such as "circle left and then circle right," can be remembered as one unit by the dancers.
Many dance composers touted the virtues of simple dances:
[Dances should be] not too contrived or too complicated in the construction....where you can have time to visit with people and you're not so concentrated on what's coming next. (Breunig 1990)
I look at most of the dances that are either classics already, or destined to become classics....By and large they're all relatively simple dances. And I guess most of them these days have a piece count of between six and eight....Good dances are almost always simple, the real classics, with a few exceptions. (Hubert 1990b)
One reason for keeping the dances simple is that everyone is there to have fun, and dancing should not be perceived as a chore by the dancers. George Marshall points out that simple dances also leave more room for the dancers to improvise, because they do not need to concentrate so hard on the choreography, and because the dance itself has more spaces within which improvisations can fit:
There's a lot of freedom of movement. I mean you can do a lot of different things and still be within the bounds of the dance....Less so with the more choreographed dances that people are doing now, though....People tend to not have as much opportunity to improvise, because there just isn't time. (Marshall 1990)
Another major justification for keeping the dances simple is that the dancers need to be able to remember them as they dance. After a dance is taught the caller usually prompts the dance until it seems like the dancers know it; but if a dance is quite complex, the caller must prompt the whole way through, and the dancers do not have the opportunity to relate directly to the music without the intervention of the caller's voice:
All the time the voice is going, the music can only be really background. It can be real exciting background music potentially, but it's going to be background music until that calling stops. (Sutherland 1990)
The best thing I can do is have implemented it all so well that I've stopped calling and it happens. And I think the highlight of an evening for people is when they really mesh with the music and with all the other dancers. And personally at that point I think the caller shouldn't even be calling anymore. I mean it's down to music and dancers. (Zakon 1990)
Dance composers agreed that some dances are easy to remember, and some are not. It was harder to pinpoint the factors that differentiate the two. Roger Diggle described "forgettable sequences":
They're not necessarily bad dances. The figures flow nicely enough, but you're messing around with a lot of common transitions and maybe doing something a little unusual about the order of figures, and so people are always in this "what happens next? I can't, gee I just can't remember this part!" and maybe in two or three parts of the dance, over and over again, you're feeling, "oh gosh, what happens now?"...[On the other hand] there're some dances where you bore through them and you just don't forget ever what happens. Everything feels like it fits nicely and it's obvious what's going on. (Diggle 1990)
Most composers agreed that a dance with good flow and a good story line was easier to remember than a dance with poor flow or a poor story line. It was, however, difficult to pin down this relationship more precisely. It seems likely that the ease with which a dance can be remembered is related at least in part to its conformity to the expectations of the dancers, as well as to the ease of physical movement within the sequence.
One specific aspect of the choreography did emerge, however, as contributing to a forgettable sequence. If a dance uses a figure more than once, the dancers will be confused about which occurrence of the figure they are dancing. If, for example, there are two "half ladies chains" at different places in the dance, a dancer will forget which one he or she is dancing and not be sure what comes next. The "swing" seems to be an exception to this, since a dance with more than one "swing" usually involves swinging with different people, in different places in the set, for different lengths of time, or in different contexts (e.g. following a balance or not). Dan Pearl and Gene Hubert discuss repeated moves:
I've seen dances kind of fall apart when you have two "forward and backs" in the dance, and you don't know whether—is this the "forward and back" where I then circle left, or the "forward and back" where I pass through or swing my neighbor? (Pearl 1990)
You want to avoid using the same figure more than once if at all possible, with the only real exception being swinging. It's nice if it can be a different kind of "swing."...An example that works nicely is maybe "circle left" and swing on the side, and at the end of the dance maybe "forward and back" and the actives swing. So you have two "swings," but they're in very different contexts, so the dancers don't get them mixed up as far as which "swing" I'm in now. (Hubert 1990b)
Steve Zakon has written a dance called "Which Circle Is It?" which calls attention to the problems of using a figure twice. By using this feature essentially as a "gimmick" and thus concentrating the dancers' attention upon it, he has produced a dance which works in spite of the duplicate circles.
Although dance composers want their dances to be easy to remember and not confusing for the dancers, they also find that dancers enjoy a certain amount of mental effort. A group of dancers may get a good deal of satisfaction out of mastering a difficult sequence:
[It may be] a challenging dance where the joy of the dance is in the mastery of teamwork and cooperation that, wow, we pulled this challenging thing together! (Edelman 1990)
Dancers like a certain amount of adversity. They want to feel they've accomplished something in overcoming it. (Hubert 1990b)
How does one create a dance which has some challenge in it for the dancers, but which does not leave the dancers confused or disoriented? Several dance composers mentioned the need for balance between these two aspects of a dance. The best dances will provide a challenge for the more experienced dancers, but will do it in such a way that a beginning dancer will not get hopelessly confused. Bob Dalsemer brought this to my attention:
I tend to look for dances that have some interest, that have maybe a twist on some of the basic figures, something that's a little bit different to keep the experienced dancers happy, and yet have a lot of the basic substance of contra dance style there to let the beginners learn. (Dalsemer 1990)
Gene Hubert elaborates:
"Yankee Reel" is like that, where Ted Sannella came up with actives swing above and then face down and swing below without stopping swinging....To really do that and do it well it takes a real experienced dancer. But at least beginners can do it, and they'll get from one "swing" to the other. [It] may be horribly awkward and look awful, but they'll always get there. (Hubert 1990b)
He also suggested to me that in a good dance with a challenging sequence of figures, there will be some sort of reward for completing the challenging sequence on time, such as a "partner swing" or a particularly nice transition of some sort. Such a reward will encourage dancers to master the more difficult parts in order to enjoy a precisely-timed "balance" or a long "swing."
In summary, the good dance must be relatively simple, but without foregoing the possibility of a challenge within the sequence. It must be easy to remember so that the caller can step out and leave the dancers dancing to the music. Sequences of figures that are of particular interest to experienced dancers must be placed in a context in which the beginning dancer can recover from confusion without causing the set to fall apart. It is a matter of balance—enough complexity to be stimulating, but not enough to cause the dancers problems.