An Aesthetic of Contra Dancing
The social interaction within the choreography of a contra dance is a major component in differentiating a "good" dance from a bad one. Does one interact predominantly with one's partner or with the other dancers in the set? Is the interaction primarily one-to-one, or is it with a group of people? Is it satisfying or frustrating? Good social interaction feels satisfying and appropriate to the dancers and includes a balance of opposite sex and same sex, one-to-one, and group interactions. An example of a dance with good social interaction is Bob Dalsemer's dance, "Pedal Pushers." The dance is in the improper formation, and begins with the men doing an "allemande left" once and a half around, and then picking up their partners in a two person "star promenade." The two women then "gypsy" around each other and come back to swing their partners. That "swing" ends in a circle of four with a "balance," a "pass through, " and a single file "promenade" around the circle of four. The men then turn around and balance and swing their original neighbor, who is behind them. Bob Dalsemer points out the social interactions in this dance:
I didn't even realize how good some of the neat qualities of the interaction [are] in that. For example, the men in the first part of the dance are so fixated on their partners that they've forgotten who their neighbor even is, so that when they turn around at the end of the dance, it's sort of a surprise, to find out who's going to be there....The men get to interact with each other. The women get to interact with each other. There's a "partner swing" and a "neighbor swing." (Dalsemer 1990)
John Krumm, a dance caller and choreographer from Audubon, Pennsylvania, gives an example of a negative interaction in a dance, in which the choreography leaves one's partner slighted:
One dance that Cammie Kaynor wrote, I forget what it was, had you doing things with a group, and then gent number one took his neighbor down the center and back. And Fred Park pointed it out to me...and he said, "I can't do that. It's insulting my partner!"...It's one of the most intimate figures, and you're doing it with someone else....I think in choreography you can attend to social matters like that. (Krumm 1990)
After thinking about social interaction in dance for some time, Krumm came up with four levels of intimacy in contra dance figures. First are "getting-to-know-you figures" such as a "balance," or perhaps a "forward and back." Next come the athletic figures like doing an allemande twice in eight beats. Third are the impersonal figures, such as "stars" and "circles," which are neither athletic nor intimate. The last group is made up of the intimate figures:
"Swing" was definitely one, but also "gypsies" are almost too intimate, so intimate that...people put a mask on and then, you know, make them impersonal. Going "down the center and back" I found was a very intimate figure—with my partner. (Krumm 1990)
Using this scheme, Krumm wrote a circle mixer, "Reconcilable Differences," that has a social plot in which the interaction with each new partner begins with getting-to-know-you figures, includes a visit to the previous partner, and leads up to a "swing" with that new partner. We will look again at social plot in the discussion below of the concept of "story line."
There is no one "best" mode of social interaction within a dance. Some dances focus more on partner interaction and some focus on interaction with the group. Most "good" dances have a mixture of both. Pete Sutherland explains that the social dynamics of different dances provide one means of giving variety to an evening of contra dance:
There's a balance in every dance between some interaction with your partner and some interaction with some or all of the other people immediately adjacent to you in the set. And as long as that's kind of the statistical average for the evening, then I think everybody will be happy, and you can go to extremes in either direction from there, and have a dance where you do everything with your partner, basically moving down with all the other people acting as kind of wallpaper around you, ever-changing wallpaper, or dances where you don't get to do all that much with your partner. (Sutherland 1990)
Common one-to-one interactions in contra dancing include figures done with one's partner, figures done with one's neighbor, and figures done with a dancer outside the minor set such as one's "shadow"—the next dancer of the opposite sex down the line past one's neighbor, who stays in that position throughout the dance (hence the term "shadow"). A dancer may interact with any of these others at various levels of intimacy. Some degree of social plot may be achieved by having one's partner disappear into a neighboring group of four, and then reappear later in the original group.
Interacting with a larger group of dancers in a figure has some special qualities. Figures in which several dancers hold onto one another are excellent for teaching new dancers to dance, because it is much harder for a beginner to get lost holding onto others in a circle or a line. The recent incorporation of "heys" and "gypsies" in addition to the "dosido" has resulted in dances where there is less physical connection between dancers, which makes them harder to learn for beginners. Group moves in which the whole room is moving together, such as "lines forward and back," or "down the center four in line," remind the dancers that they are dancing with a whole community of dancers, and not just with their little subsets of four or with their partners. This is also true of the "balance," because of its sound. When the whole room balances in unison, the result is a very satisfying stomp. Group moves and balances enhance the feeling of community in the room.
There are not as many figures in which dancers dance with others of the same sex. In the "ladies chain" the two ladies pull by one another, and many dances also incorporate same-sex "allemandes." On the other hand, some contra dances do not include much same-sex contact. Contact between women is more common largely because of the frequent use of the "ladies chain." Dance interactions between men is on the rise, however, with the composition of dances that include men's "chains," and even "swings" between men.
The term "story line" is frequently used by dance composers, and it implies some sort of narrative quality to a dance sequence. As I pursued the meaning of this term, I found that it was conceived in several ways by the composers, conceptions that overlapped and enriched one another. Some saw "story line" as referring to an actual plot within the dance, something along the line of starting with one's partner, flirting with one's neighbor, and being reunited with one's partner at the end of the sequence. Tony Parkes describes this concept:
I think one of the most important things about a contra is that it have a good story line, that the dance seems to go somewhere. One of my favorite lines is that a lot of dances these days seem to start with "happily ever after," and end with "once upon a time." For instance, I think that a dance flows better in just social terms if you start by more or less flirting with your neighbor, and then end up with a good solid "swing" with your partner, and maybe a "down the center and back" to cement the idea that you're with your partner. (T. Parkes 1990)
Others saw "story line" as referring to a kind of ease of movement, not unlike "flow," a sort of physical feeling or aesthetic. Becky Hill and David Kaynor elaborate on this aspect of "story line":
The dance "Boomerang" is a complex dance, but beginners can do it, because it just flows and flows, and your hand is where it needs to be...whether you like it or not, at the right moment. And the right foot is there whether you like it or not....That's what I think a good story line is. (Hill 1990)
It's hard to just come up with a snap definition of [story line], but I think that when you teach something like a "promenade" across, a "courtesy turn," and a "right and left back" across, you're talking about movements and destinations that are really easy for people to conceive in their own minds. (Kaynor 1990b)
A good story line is also characterized by the dance being easy to remember. A dance that is hard to remember is said to have a poor story line:
To me story line means several things. It's partly social interaction. It's partly body flow, body mechanics, where you're not called on to make any sudden awkward turns....If I have a new dance...I won't look at it when I'm calling....If I can't remember it long enough to call it to the people, then they're going to have trouble with the story line. Obviously it doesn't hang together the way a really good dance should. (T. Parkes 1990)
"Story line" I found to be a very elusive concept with many overlapping interpretations, and yet there was general agreement among dance composers and callers on which dances in fact exhibited good story lines and which did not. The concept seems to include a blend of social and physical ingredients, captured by the single term, "story line." Choreographer Dan Pearl sums it up:
The story line...has to do with the way the bodies are moving on the floor...and the way that feels; the peaks and valleys of energy that you're expending; the speed that you're traveling; who you're working with; all those things, like various ingredients to a dish. No, you can't really say that this particular ingredient—the allspice, the pinch of allspice—made this dance, made this dish what it is. It's not any of those things. It's all the ingredients, and the way that they're combined. And the way that they're served and the garnish. (Pearl 1990)
Another element in a good dance has to do with the degree to which the dance moves conform to the expectations of the dancers. An unexpected move can be exciting and can be a successful gimmick in the composing of a dance, but more often it is disorienting and will disrupt the flow of an otherwise successful dance.
Some combinations of figures have been used traditionally more than others, and dancers come to expect these combinations and to expect them to occur in a particular order. If the order of such figures is reversed, it feels uncomfortable to the dancers. Gene Hubert offers an illustration of this:
There're certain things that over the years have traditionally been connected together, like in New England they typically do a half "promenade" followed by a half "right and left." So if you do those two together people will remember it fairly easily. But if you do the opposite order, people will have a real time with it. And it's not that it doesn't flow in one way better than the other, but there's a lot of force of habit involved. (Hubert 1990b)
Dancers not only have learned to expect figures to occur in a certain order, but they have also become accustomed to figures lasting certain lengths of time. A figure that is significantly shorter than usual will be a problem to the dancers, who tend to overshoot the next figure by remaining in the short one too long. Gene Hubert gives an example of this phenomenon:
"Halliehurst"...has got a place where you do an "allemande" that's like about half to three-quarters of the way around. Contra dancers are kind of used to going at least once around, preferably more. To do something that's only half or three-quarters, they have a strong tendency to go too far. (Hubert 1990b)
Dan Pearl describes a similar instance in which a short "allemande" is a problem, not only in physical terms, but in social terms as well. The choreography contains the following sequence of moves: after a "balance" in a wave, the men and women promenade separately single file around, and then turn and come back to their neighbors with an "allemande right" halfway. Then the ladies allemande left halfway into a "partner swing." Dan speculates that some of the problem that resulted was due to an expectation of more interaction on the part of the dancers:
Ninety percent of the time...the ladies kind of overshot. They missed their little appointment in the center to turn by the left....Maybe it's because people wanted to do a little more interaction after that long single-file "promenade."...You make a little investment in the interactions you have with people as you dance, and you want something back. And just that teeny weeny little hand turn wasn't enough to fulfill the contract of interacting and smiling and giving weight....It's just like you touch down and you fling them away like a piece of garbage. And people wanted more than that, and so I think that's why that dance didn't work. (Pearl 1990)
Another kind of expectation that the dancers have relates to the direction in which they must face or move in order to execute a particular figure. Caller Peter Bixby taught his dance "Cloudburst," and found that the dancers had a little trouble with the "contra corners," because they had to approach it from a slightly unusual angle:
[In "Cloudburst"] the "contra corners" is a little bit different because the women come in from the opposite side of the inactive [man] than they're used to coming in. (Bixby 1990)
Beginners are less confused by the unexpected, because they don't have the experience that leads to the formation of expectations. Experienced dancers, on the other hand, have developed habits of dancing which, when contradicted, lead to confusion. These habits can be changed, of course, and they are continually being changed as the new dances change character and take on new figures and new combinations of figures:
I never used to like coming out of a "swing" and then doing an "allemande left" with the next person up or down the line. But that's kind of catching on these days, and I've learned to like it. (Hubert 1990b)
The expectations of the dancers evolve as the tradition evolves, and they provide a counter force to innovation by keeping the rate of change relatively slow. Expectations take many forms, including expected sequences of figures, lengths of figures, directions of movement, and social interactions. The dance composer who creates a dance that contradicts any of these expectations is taking a chance that the dancers may have trouble. As with the other elements of contra dance aesthetics, however, a balance is important. Using a move that is contrary to the dancers' expectations may be just the spice that will make that dance exciting and memorable, provided that it does not go too far.
How a dance fits with the music leads to a very important cluster of criteria for a good dance. The dance figures must fit with the musical phrase; they must be danceable at the tempo being played by the band; and care must be taken in the way figures that require more speed and energy are arranged to fit into a given fragment of music.
Of primary importance is the fact that the movements called for in the choreography of a dance must be possible to execute in the time allotted for them by the music. Tom Hinds gives an example in which the time allotment is a problem:
One person in our area wrote a dance where you circle left once and a half and pass through, and you were to do that in eight counts. That's obviously bad,...unless you're into sprinting. (Hinds 1990)
Having established movements that are possible to dance within the allotted music, the next consideration is that the dance figures be phrased to conform with the musical phrases. We have seen that the reels and jigs most frequently used for contra dancing are made up of four eight-bar phrases, which are arranged in the form AABB. Many contra dance figures also fill an eight-bar phrase, or half of an eight-bar phrase, and dance composers feel that these figures should fit within one musical phrase rather than overlapping two musical phrases:
The phrasing of the really good dances is always unequivocal. That means it's completely clear to anybody who knows about contra dancing how many counts each figure takes. So there's nothing in it that's mushy or not certain....If you took half a dozen callers who knew their stuff, they would all agree exactly what the phrasing is, and where each figure fits. (Hubert 1990b)
Sometimes dance movements will be put together in ways that are ambiguous, using sequences in which one figure may be either lengthened or shortened, depending on the interpretation given to the dance by the caller or by the dancers:
Now you'll see dances occasionally where you'll do something like circle left once and a quarter and "box the gnat" and "pass through." Yeh. It'll work, but nobody's really sure where everything fits, you know, and even if the caller's sure and tries to tell the dancers, the dancers won't get it at least half the time. (Hubert 1990b)
Unclear phrasing in a dance can be handled in a number of ways by the caller. One way is to make the length of each figure very clear in the teaching of the dance, and prompt that figure at the right moment throughout the dance. Another way is to choose music in which the phrasing is not emphasized, making the unclear parts less confusing to the dancers. Steve Zakon communicates with the band about a dance with indefinite phrasing:
I will say to the band...here's a chance to play one of those tunes...that just kind of flows, and there isn't that bump at the A1 [the first A phrase]....You can't even tell you switched to the B part. Because that's what the dancers will be doing. (Zakon 1990)
Most contra dances can be danced to any number of different jigs and reels, which gives the band great flexibility in what they may play. Phrasing a dance to conform to the musical phrase is one of the things that makes this interchange of tunes possible:
What makes a good dance is one that fits easily into the phrase and can work with many tunes, where you're not turning to the band and saying, OK, I have to have a tune that is weird in this way to fit this weird dance. There's some standards that should be met, and one of them is using up sixteen beats [eight measures] for a bunch of moves, and then being kind of done. And then starting a new sequence of sixteen beats. (Zakon 1990)
Bernard Chalk told me that he found dancing across the phrase unique and interesting, and not only had no objections, but very much liked the effect. He may not be alone in this opinion:
I did a particular dance...[with] a "dosido" figure in it that does it one and a half times, and it makes it unique, because you're actually dancing across the phrase of the music....Now to me, that is unique. And I've spent my life searching out dances that are just that unique and that special. (Chalk 1990)
He was, however, most decidedly in the minority on this question.
There are a couple of figures for which the location within the musical phrase is important. One of these is the "balance." A "balance," according to my informants, should come at the beginning of the phrase, on the strongest beat, because it is an accent in the dance and should correspond to the accent in the music:
It's always preferable if "balances" come at the beginning of the phrase. Of course you can do them anywhere, but it...drives the musicians crazy if there's a "balance" in some weird spot, like half way through, or at the very end of the phrase. (Hubert 1990b)
The other figure for which the placement in the musical phrase is important is the "swing." Dancers have a tendency to swing to the end of an eight-bar phrase, and if the choreography calls for a four-bar "swing" during the first half of such a phrase, the dancers have trouble stopping in mid-phrase and going on to another figure. If a four-bar "swing" is in the second half of an eight-bar phrase, on the other hand, the dancers will stop more or less on time:
[Discussing Dan Pearl's dance, "Brimmer and May Reel"] I just find it's intellectually just one notch beyond what I want....One of the real challenges, it has a "swing" with neighbors, which is half of the first A. After eight beats [four bars] they have to stop swinging and do a "right and left" across....and for a lot of people it's logical to have a "swing" go 'til the end of the musical phrase. (Kaynor 1990b)1
The choreography of a good dance should not only be phrased to match the phrasing of the music, but the "balances" and "swings" should be appropriately placed within those phrases.
Tempo is another consideration for a good dance, a consideration that is not inherent in the choreography, but which is nevertheless related to the dance-music fit. It is the job of the caller to make sure that the musicians do not play too fast for the dance in progress. A dance that has many short moves, or a dance for which it is important that the dancers be on time to make it work, will require a somewhat slower tempo than a dance in which there is plenty of time to execute relatively simple figures. Pete Sutherland speaks as both a dance musician and a dancer, in summing up the question of tempo:
I still have some reconciling to do as a musician and a dancer. I enjoy playing just a little faster than I enjoy dancing. I really trust a caller to be in charge of that sort of thing....Sometimes I'm aware...that I have played...a little too fast...and the caller didn't say anything, and I wonder why didn't they, and that takes them down a notch in my estimation. Or if I'm a dancer, it takes them down about three notches....That's the caller's job, to be the clutch between those gears, keep things at the right tempo. (Sutherland 1990)
Another way to look at the fit between dance and music is to examine the ease with which a given sequence can be danced in the time allotted by the music. Dance composers sometimes describe this quality by using the terms "forgiving" and "unforgiving." Larry Jennings, in his book Zesty Contras, defines these terms as follows:
FORGIVING: Most contras are sufficiently simple that the dancers can conveniently regroup, even after a major mind lapse. Some relatively difficult dances or dance fragments also have this property of easy recoup; they are forgiving. (Jennings 1983:10)
UNFORGIVING: Not favoring quick and easy correction after a lapse of mind....In extreme cases an entire set may become disorganized beyond recoup. (Jennings 1983:12)
In a good contra dance it is important to have some sort of alternation between forgiving sequences and unforgiving sequences. The forgiving sequences act as buffers between the unforgiving ones, so that if dancers have trouble or get behind during the latter, they are able to recoup during the former:
[A dance] has to be comfortable....It has to have a combination of forgiving and unforgiving figures. If a dance has only forgiving figures, it doesn't have any oomph to it....If a dance has only unforgiving figures, then it's a rat race. You have to have a combination of the two....The forgiving figures are the buffers in between the unforgiving figures. (Sannella 1990a)
Ted Sannella gives an example of a sequence of figures that is unforgiving, and a suggestion of how to alter the sequence by inserting a buffer between the unforgiving figures, making the dance comfortable for the dancers:
"Circle left" once around...you need eight counts to get around. It's the minimum amount of time. So if a caller says "circle left eight counts," and then he says "right hand star eight counts," you've given the dancers two movements right after each other which have to be done in sixteen counts. If one or two of the dancers are slow in getting into the figure, or don't quite get around, they're going to be late....Now if the next figure is also an unforgiving figure, like an "allemande left on four counts,"...you've got a rat race, people running to try to catch up. But on the other hand, if you put a "dosido" in there somewhere,...which can be done in six counts,...and then you put the "right hand star" in there, they'll finally catch up....So this is a big feature of choreography. (Sannella 1990a)
One could, of course, compose dances in which the figures are all forgiving, but there seems to be a draw in the unforgiving sequences, something that dancers enjoy and find challenging:
It's kind of nice if at least one part of the dance is a little snappy...really makes you hustle and work a little bit, as long as you don't carry it too far. A lot of the really good dances have one spot in it where you've really got to hustle a little bit....I think in the beginning I didn't realize that. I would write off some dances that I thought were too unforgiving, and [they] would turn out to be fairly popular dances. (Hubert 1990b)
Dancers like to innovate as they dance, and they will often make a sequence either more forgiving, if it is hard to execute in the time allotted, or less forgiving, if they are bored with that section of the dance. A good dance should have places that are sufficiently forgiving so that the dancers can improvise, adding their own flourishes to the basic structure of the dance.
In summary, a good dance must work well with the music: the figures must be possible to do in the time allotted; the dance figures must be phrased to fit the musical phrase, with "balances" and "swings" properly located within the phrases; the tempo of the music must be appropriate to the level of difficulty of the dance choreography; unforgiving sequences must be buffered with forgiving ones, to keep a dance comfortable and to avoid a "rat race;" and there must be time and places in the choreography for the dancers to improvise.