The population of the contra dance communities has altered since the early 1970s, and this change in social makeup has been accompanied by changes in the social dynamics of the dance event. One major difference is in the sheer numbers of people that are involved in this kind of dancing today. Bob Dalsemer suggests that this has been a mixed blessing:
I think one of the biggest changes over the last fifteen years...has been the growth in numbers of people. And I think that's had a large, large impact. I think there's a danger that we may and do suffer from our success. (Dalsemer 1990)
Today's dancers represent a wider cross-section of the population than was true earlier in the revival, when many of the people interested in contra dancing were those who were seeking alternatives to modern life, by going back to the land and by exploring their roots in tradition. Now there is less of an interest in "tradition" per se. Bob Dalsemer surmises that most dancers today view contra dance primarily as a contemporary form of social dance, rather than as an activity rooted in the past:
There's not much concern about whether it's quote unquote "traditional" or not....That definitely counted for something in the good old seventies, you know, part of the back to the land and back to the earth, and Mother Earth and Mother Nature and all that....That was an important catch word. This is something that people before us did. This is something which we are linked to, some past reality, even if it's a reality that we and our families never shared....But not any more. People are coming into it purely for social reasons. Hey, this is a good place to meet people....People don't even know what to call it in Baltimore....They call it, "oh I go folk dancing." (Dalsemer 1990)
Many of the dancers in the 1970s were involved in the folk music revival and consequently were familiar with traditional tunes, and they came to contra dancing with this familiarity. Some of today's new dancers are not only unfamiliar with the dance, but they are unfamiliar with traditional music as well:
[In the 1970s] I would say that about, easily three-quarters of the people that would come to dances were people who were already involved in the folk music revival and were familiar with traditional music of some kind and had that in their ear. And they found out, hey, I can dance to this music that I really like! But nowadays we have people coming in to the dances who have no background at all in dance or music, either one. (Dalsemer 1990)
Another important change in the dance population has been the increase in the number of dancers involved in technology. This is most likely a reflection of a change in our country's population as a whole, as technology has become more important in our society. Susan Elberger observed:
There're more techies, and it's a reflection of demographics. The high tech industry built up over the last ten years, and it's perfectly appropriate for a dance community, or a subsection of a community, to reflect the larger community. (Elberger 1990)
This change in demographics may also contribute to the popularity of the more complex "high tech" dances that are being composed today.
As the core of the dance community gets older, the dancers that come into the activity are aging as well, since people tend to join groups that reflect their own age and interests. Younger people are being brought into contra dancing primarily in areas where there is an active effort to recruit new dancers. Many of the people who began dancing in the 1970s are home with their kids now, and the dance remains largely a singles scene:
As a singles scene it tends to work that, you know, the singles come, and then they meet somebody, and then they get married, and then you don't see them again—unless they get divorced, you know, and come back. (Dalsemer 1990)
The average level of dancing skill in the dance population has increased. In the 1970s, when I started contra dancing, a larger proportion of the dancers were learning the tradition and consequently there was more teaching going on at the dances. The same people tended to come every week, and the group made progress together. Now beginners comprise a smaller proportion of the dancers and are given proportionately less attention. Mobility has also increased, and in many places participants change from week to week, making long-term teaching less practical.
The increased size and diversity of the dance community has led to changes in the dance events themselves. In urban areas there is more choice in dance events now, because there are more of them, and therefore there is less of a need and sometimes less of an attempt to build community feeling within a particular dance group. Susan Elberger describes this change as she has experienced it:
Where I started, there was the one dance a week, and if you wanted to dance, you went to that dance....And also since it was a smaller community, you knew people who lived farther away....When newcomersstarted to attend the dances, there was a much more concerted effort at bringing them in and integrating them into the community. (Elberger 1990)
With dance events larger and the participants less consistent, there can be less attention paid to beginners and to the community as an entity.
Bigger crowds have necessitated sound amplification in some dance halls, and in other halls the use of a sound system has become habitual whether it is needed or not. Dudley Laufman has been a part of the New England dance scene for a long time and has seen this change:
People are used to having a loud sound. They're used to the amplification and the thumping guitar and the bass and the piano and an accordion....And they're used to having it amplified. And they're used to having it amplified well and loud...even if it's not needed....And they're used to being able to make noise. (Laufman 1990)
Amplification of the caller's voice means that the dancers are less likely to quiet down during the teaching, because the caller can be heard despite the noise on the floor. Amplification of the music means that the band can be farther away from the dancers and still be heard. Even with amplification the music may lose its immediacy in a large hall:
You go to a big dance like Glen Echo on Friday night, if I was a new dancer going in there, I couldn't tell you what the music was on the stage. You can't hear it. You kind of hear something going on up there, but you can't hear what the music is. You can't really appreciate the music. (Dalsemer 1990)
The presence of larger crowds has also affected the genres of dance available at a given event. Because the caller is forced to cater to a wide range of skill levels with a group too large for the giving of significant help to individuals, that caller finds it easier to focus on a single genre of the social dance traditions. Consequently there are dance events at which there are only contra dances (or some other genre) included in the program. Bob Dalsemer saw this happening at his own dances:
Because you're dealing with large groups of people and quite a wide range of abilities...the types of dances that are being called is narrowed down. I mean this happened to me....When we were twenty, thirty, forty people at the most, we did this broad range of stuff, you know: English and Playford and traditional English and American....You had plenty of time to teach. You didn't feel rushed....And then as the group got larger, I decided that it would be much easier to leave the English as a separate thing....And so as the group got bigger, I narrowed my focus. (Dalsemer 1990)
These changes in the dance events have resulted in new concerns socially as well as new concerns choreographically. This chapter will examine seven areas of concern that were voiced by my informants: dance as sport, elitism on the dance floor, the difficulty of integrating beginners, leadership concerns, gender issues, changes in dance style, and the increasing focus on the individual at the expense of the community.
I would like to clarify at the outset that these concerns apply predominately to the larger dance communities in urban areas. There are many local dance communities in which the dance remains primarily a social occasion, where beginners are welcomed and the community as an entity is of great importance to its members. The dance community in Bloomington, Indiana, where I have danced regularly, is one of these.
Most of my informants voiced the concern that the contra dance event has become less an occasion for socializing, and more an occasion for physical exercise. As soon as one dance is finished, the dancers line up for the next one, with very little pause for socializing in between. We have noted that the dances have become faster, more vigorous, and more complex, and that there is an ongoing demand for new and more challenging material. The increasing physical challenge of the dances seems in part to be a reflection of the fact that many people get little exercise during their working day, coupled with the general concern today for health and fitness:
There's a trend in the country to celebrate the physique....Sex in advertising is a huge idea these days...the idea [of] aerobics as an enterprise, sports equipment as a product....We have a society here in America that celebrates a trim figure, that celebrates things that you can do to lose weight, or to stay fit, to keep your heart up....So people are coming to dance communities for that reason. (Park 1990)
This trend can also be discerned from the clothing worn by the dancers. When I started dancing, participants tended to dress for a dance party, wearing nice looking dresses and shirts and shoes. There is a growing trend today to wear sports clothing—shorts, tank tops, sweat bands, tennis shoes—and even to bring a small towel with which to dry off once in a while, and a change of T-shirt:
I think a lot of people come to the dance wanting it to be physically demanding....They've got their T-shirt and their shorts,...often got a towel with them, or a head band, a sweat band of some kind, and they look like they're, you know, going out to run or play tennis or something when they come to the dance. (Dalsemer 1990)
Beth Parkes described an instance where someone showed up at a wedding dressed for aerobics, because there was to be a dance as a part of the wedding reception:
The ultimate in that image to me was the guy who showed up at a wedding reception in shorts and a T-shirt because he thought it was a dance. You know, it was a wedding party. And somehow he didn't connect "wedding," he thought "dance," and that's what he wears to a dance. (B. Parkes 1990)
There is a concern among many dance leaders that this interest in dance as exercise, as sport, is replacing the dance as a social occasion in today's dance communities. In the choreography we can see this tendency through the increased number of dances that are challenging physically, and the decrease in socializing time at the dance event:
I kind of miss that myself, going to a dance and not ever being able to talk to the person you're dancing with. Or a duple minor double progressive dance where you never even see them! You never even see your partner...some of the time. (Hickman 1990)
The degree of physical and mental challenge inherent in some of the new dances actually works against the ability of the dancers to relate to each other in ways above and beyond the dancing itself. Dancing together becomes a substitute for talk:
[Ed Shaw's] theory was that many New Englanders, as well as dancers from other places, were by nature taciturn folk who seek out an environment where it's not necessary to communicate verbally—that dancing was a good substitute. (Dalsemer 1990)
I've been aware of going to dances where I realized that...the challenging contras and everybody active, moving all the time, was working against my ability to socialize....There's definitely no time to talk during the dance. There's literally no time. And that makes me uncomfortable. (Sutherland 1990)
This problem is nicely illustrated by an item in the Folklore Society of Greater Washington Newsletter which advertises a gathering called "Conversations with Contra Dancers," its purpose being "to give dancers a chance to talk to each other without interference from dancing" (FSGW Newsletter 27 :10).
The focus at the contra dance events has turned more toward the dances themselves. Experienced dancers become caught up in the thrill of new material and new challenges in the choreography, while the beginning dancers are completely preoccupied just trying to keep up:
People were satisfied with less change before, because they went to the dances mostly for the social activity, and to visit [with] people. And now there's more going to a dance for the dancing, rather than for the people. It seems that dancing now is not so much a means to an end, as an end in itself. (Sannella 1990a)
Another issue which is of concern to today's dance leaders is the cliquish behavior of some experienced dancers, particularly at the larger dance events. My informants singled out two behaviors in particular. The first is referred to as "center set syndrome," the tendency of experienced dancers to locate themselves at the top of the center set before the dance begins. The second is the growing practice of booking partners ahead of time for a dance. Gene Hubert describes the problem as he sees it:
This whole business of everybody cramming into the middle set is a real serious problem. And the other thing...which goes hand in hand with it, is everybody booking up dances ahead of time. And it's getting really...cutthroat. So many people are lining up dances ahead of time that if you don't play the game, you're just really left out. (Hubert 1990b)
These behaviors are completely baffling to newcomers, who end up without a partner or end up off in the far corner of the room where they can't hear the caller very well and can't see what's going on. It feels like elitism to them, although the experienced dancers usually don't intend it as such.
On a dance floor of moderate size there will usually be at least three sets formed for a contra dance—one in the center of the room with the top of the set in front of the caller, and the other two on either side of that set. In a larger dance hall there may be even more lines, depending on the size of the dance crowd. There are a number of reasons why experienced dancers like to be in the center set. Dancers feel that it is more fun to begin a dance at the head of the set. This is an attitude left over from the unequal traditional dances in which it is desirable to be in the active role, and by starting at the head of the set a couple is in the active role for a maximum length of time. In most of the contemporary dances it does not, in fact, matter where in the set one begins, because the dancing is the same from any position.
Another reason for lining up at the head of the center set is that it places dancers right in front of the caller and the band. This is desirable because it is easy to hear the teaching (although many experienced dancers don't listen very well), and it is exciting to be up where one can see the caller and the musicians and have a sense of being where the action is. The problem with this behavior is that it is, in fact, the beginning dancers who need to be up where they can hear and see the instruction, and they are usually not the ones who end up in this position, not being privy to the center set rush when people are lining up for a dance.
A third motivation for hurrying to the center set is that that is where all the best dancers are going to be, and it is considered more fun to dance with good dancers than to dance with beginners. The good dancers could congregate just as well in one of the side sets, but the center set habit has been firmly established.
The "center set syndrome" creates a number of problems at a dance event. First of all, the center set forms a physical barrier down the middle of the room, leaving the people who are still searching for partners cut off from those on the other side:
People who are milling around looking for partners...can't penetrate to each other and find that other dancer. There's a man over here and a woman over here and this wall in the center, and they can't find each other. (Jennings 1990b)
Another problem is that it not only leaves the beginners at a distance from the action, but it also tends to segregate experienced dancers into one line, resulting in a higher proportion of beginners in the other lines. A dance that will work fine with the dancers in the center set will completely fall apart in the other lines, because there are not enough experienced dancers mixed in to make the dance a success. Becky Hill describes the problem from the caller's point of view:
I don't think people [realize] how destructive racing to the center line is. For a caller it's a pain....I've had to throw out dances I was going to do, because all the experienced people were in the center line. And I look at the two side lines and...throw the dance out, you know, and we do something easier. (Hill 1990)
Related to center set syndrome is the practice of prebooking dance partners. This virtually never happened when I started dancing in the 1970s. But now that the dances have become larger, the only way to ensure getting a dance with a special person is to set it up beforehand, often as one passes that person in the set during the preceding dance:
You're done with one dance, they grab the next partner and they run into the next set, and...I mean you're lucky if you get a thank you to your partner when you're done....And there's no way they're milling around saying, "oh, I haven't danced with you tonight. Would you like to dance?" They've prearranged, you know, as they worked their way down the set, "hey, how about the next dance? I'll meet you at the top." (Zakon 1990)
Alice Markham, in an article entitled "To Book or Not to Book," suggests three reasons for the proliferation of booking partners:
Booking occurs for several reasons. One, people want to be sure they dance with their friends; and in a large, crowded hall, this may be the only sure way; two, if there are extra men or women, the gender in oversupply books in order to avoid being left without a partner; three, many people are driven to do it in self defense, because "everyone else" is doing it. (Markham 1990:6)
When groups were smaller, the problem of the oversupply of one gender or the other was solved simply by an awareness on the part of the dancers that they needed to take turns, and the consequent stepping aside of some so that others could enter the dance. In a large hall, however, it is harder to be aware of who was sitting out last time, and it is also harder to maintain a concern for the welfare of the group as a whole when the group is so large.
When everyone is booking ahead a dancer feels compelled to join in the process, or risk getting left out of the dance. It is sometimes actually easier to get a partner from the dance floor in the course of the dance, than it is to find a partner on the sidelines. Once one is left out, it may be hard to get back in again. Some dancers try to counteract these problems by refusing to book dances ahead.
All of the callers with whom I talked were aware of the difficulties posed by these practices, and most had made some attempts to deal with them. Some callers try to control the mixing of dancers on the floor through their choice of dances. Gene Hubert says he likes to include dances in which there are a lot of neighbor interactions, so that the beginners get to dance with lots of other people regardless of the lineup. David Kaynor programs a mixer occasionally, because it gives new people a chance to dance with experienced people. George Marshall makes a point of speaking directly to the beginning dancers and encouraging them to find experienced partners who will help them learn. Tony Parkes says he will not cater to the experienced dancers even though they line up together and want challenging dances. He is concerned with calling for the dancers of middle skill level, while staying aware of the beginners who might be at the event. Larry Jennings told me how he and Tod Whittemore, a caller from the Boston area, concocted a scheme involving a large cactus that they had placed at one side of the dance hall. Their plan was to ask the dancers who had prebooked (and who are generally the same ones that rush to the center set) to meet their partners by the cactus and form a line with all their friends in the side set instead of the center set. This would leave room for beginners up near the caller and would avoid the problem of the barrier in the middle of the room when people are trying to find partners, and yet it would also let the experienced dancers dance with each other if they so chose. In fact this ploy was never tried, since the problem did not materialize that evening.
The growing elitism and the new choreography have both developed at least partially in response to the increase in the number of dancers on the floor. Long lines and crowded dancing have led to more symmetrical choreography and to faster and closer moves; and these conditions have also resulted in a situation in which dancers feel a need to be closer to the stage and to make arrangements ahead of time in order to dance with particular people.
Another way in which the new choreography relates to the attitudes of the experienced dancers is that the emphasis on the dance as sport, and the interest in challenging and complex dancing—the focus, in short, on the dance movements themselves rather than on the event as a social occasion—means that partners are chosen as often for their skill level as for their social attributes. This leads to a widening gap between the "good" dancers and the new dancers, and contributes to the elitism of the experienced dancers and the lack of support for the newcomers.
Almost every contra dance event will have new dancers attending—dancers who have never come before, or dancers who have come only a few times and are still trying to learn the basics of contra dancing. Although there are exceptions, as a general rule it is harder for newcomers to break into the contra dance crowd now than it was when I started dancing in the 1970s. This is true for a number of reasons. First, the dances are more difficult, the choreography more complex and less forgiving. Second, the experienced dancers often are not very welcoming to beginners, as we have seen, leaving to them the initiative of finding a partner and learning the dance. Third, there has been a shift away from teaching the basic figures of contra dance, as more and more callers learn to call to an experienced dance crowd and neglect to work on the teaching aspect of calling. Let us examine these reasons in more detail:
When a newcomer walked into a contra dance event in the 1970s, he or she found the dances fairly simple to learn. A typical dance might include a "circle left" and a "circle right," a "star right" and a "star left," "down the center and back" and "cast off," and a "right and left through" and back, figures that are relatively easy to pick up, especially when the figures simply reverse direction. Today's dances are more difficult. They typically include a large number of "swings" using the buzz step, which is not easy to learn and seldom taught at a dance event. They include some relatively difficult figures in which no hands are used such as the "hey for four," and the lack of physical contact with other dancers makes it difficult for the newcomer to be "led" through these figures. The emphasis on flow, speed, and physical skills has resulted in sequences that are less forgiving, and that are made up of shorter and more numerous parts. In addition there are new complexities in the dances such as diagonal figures, sequences that take dancers out of the minor set, and multiple progression dances, with the accompanying end effects. All of these elements taken together make the contra dance a rather daunting experience for a beginner.
In addition to the increased complexity of the dances, the new dancer is at a disadvantage because there is no opportunity to watch the figures before getting swept into them. In a traditional dance new dancers could start the dance inactive and watch the active couples do the figures many times over before reaching the head of the set and becoming active themselves. Now they are whirled into a storm of activity on the dance floor with probably only a single walk-through as introduction, and are expected to cope.
Dance leaders are concerned that the increasingly difficult choreography of today's dances will scare away new dancers, and that without new blood the dance events will eventually die out. Tony Parkes expresses his concern:
One big mistake that the modern western square dance people have made, and that I think the folk revival contra dance world is making...is that the callers and some of the experienced dancers who've been doing it for years get dissatisfied with the same old stuff over and over. So they start doing newer and trickier stuff. And they forget that they've got this constant influx of new people,...that they need a constant influx of new people if the activity's going to stay healthy. (T. Parkes 1990)
The perceived elitism on the part of the experienced dancers results in a number of difficulties for newcomers. Many experienced dancers do not take the trouble to ask a newcomer to dance. A new arrival may end up standing on the sidelines all evening if he or she does not take the initiative to find a partner. Because of the frequency of booking ahead, however, when the newcomer has worked up the nerve to ask someone to dance, he or she may be refused. The newcomer may be refused not once, but several times, because other dancers already have partners lined up.
When a new dancer does get into the dance, it is often with another new dancer as a partner. Two new dancers together have much more trouble learning the dances than they would were they paired with experienced dancers. They also tend to end up, as we have seen, at the far end of the room, because everyone else rushes to the front center. As a result they cannot hear or see what is going on as well as they need to, nor can the caller see them to know that they need help. Consequently new dancers often feel unwelcome, and they often have unnecessary difficulties in learning the dances:
For people who are strangers or beginners it creates a real feeling of unfriendliness, and you feel like these people are cliquish and don't want to dance with you. And I think if I had walked into that kind of a dance when I first started dancing, I don't know if I would have stayed around. (Hubert 1990b)
It takes courage to get out there on the floor and try something new, under the gaze of dozens of people who are already good at it. If those other people are supportive and encouraging it can make the difference in whether that newcomer will come back:
The reaction of the other dancers around them, the experienced dancers, is real important. I hate it when I hear, you know, "people made me feel stupid." Or "people just made me feel as though I was interfering with their dancing," you know. (Zakon 1990)
There are communities in which these attitude problems either have not developed, or have been dealt with successfully by sensitive leaders. One such community is the Cleveland dance community, where a great deal of discussion and effort has led to a very welcoming dance community. Carol Kopp told me how their community tackled its problems:
[We] decided to have a meeting here with people who had become experienced dancers. And we were feeling that there was this running, dashing to the middle line, and not dancing too much with beginners, and kind of an elite feeling occurring in the dance community. And we thought it was important that we talk about this. And so we had a potluck dinner here and invited people....Anybody who wanted to come could come, but we wanted certain people to be sure to come, so we could discuss what was happening in the community. And I think there was a real pulling together at that point and a deeper understanding of what we were striving toward. (Kopp 1990)
When I started dancing in the 1970s there were a lot of beginning dancers, and the caller would take a few minutes to teach the common figures. We would all hunker down and watch a demonstration of the "ladies chain." The whole community together learned to dance, and there was some continuity from one week to the next. Steve Zakon recalls:
Dudley [Laufman] would come to town, and he would teach dancing to a community....And Dudley would come back the next month, and he knew just what they knew, because he had taught them the month before. And he could increase their own dancing roughly as a group. (Zakon 1990)
Today many local callers dispense with the teaching of basics, assuming that everyone either knows the language of contra dance already, or will pick it up by watching the other dancers. The problem with this assumption is that it is often hard to tell how the basic figures should be done from watching other dancers, because experienced dancers throw in twirls and other variations that look quite intimidating to a new dancer:
I think that it's a real dangerous thing that a lot of new dancers are walking in and learning from dancers who are into their own thing. People are walking in and thinking, "oh yeh, you've got to twirl twice on a 'ladies chain,'...and you've got to kick up real high when you balance, or jump up real high and come crashing down on two feet." Because they're not ready. They don't know the basics yet. (Zakon 1990)
A lot of beginners don't know that a basic "courtesy turn," or a basic "dosido," does not involve a twirl. Beth Parkes tells a story that illustrates this:
I was calling a dance where...the women did a once and a half "dosido" into a "swing your opposite." And if the women twirl all the way around the "dosido" they will be about four beats late for the "swing."...So I recommended to the women that they think seriously about doing a normal "dosido" so that they could get a full eight-count "swing" with their neighbor....And there was this one woman out on that floor who was just twirling all the way around....Every single time she was a good four to six beats late....And she got up to the end of the set, and I came down off the stage and said, "I think it would be more fun if you tried to do the regular 'dosido' so that you'd get a longer 'swing.'" And she said, "I've been trying to!" And she really really didn't know what a normal "dosido" was. (B. Parkes 1990)
At many of today's contra dance events, the dancing has become more language-centered and less repertoire-centered. By this I mean that the caller assumes that most dancers are familiar with the figures of contra dancing and the progressive movement up or down the set, and consequently he or she feels free to call any dance whatsoever, regardless of whether the dancers have done it before. Any sequence using the language of contra dance is fair game. It used to be more common for the dancers to learn a specific repertoire of dances and to recall these dances by name. Because the same dances were done every week or every month, the dancers knew these dances as entities, recognizing them as familiar and complete sequences. Certainly there are some dances that today's dancers recognize as entities, but on the whole, the focus has changed from the learning of dances to the learning of dancing. This trend is problematic for beginners, since for them participation is not just a matter of learning one dance sequence, but a matter of learning all the basic building blocks of contra dance, before they can feel comfortable on the dance floor.
One aspect of the problem is that many new callers have learned to call primarily to experienced dancers and have not acquired the teaching skills necessary for calling to beginners. Roger Diggle expressed to me his concern about this lack of skilled teaching:
Figure teaching is an important part of calling, and...if you're calling to an experienced crowd you just don't need to [do it]....An awful lot of the callers who've come along these days have come along calling to experienced dancers. And I think that's one of the reasons that figure teaching and style teaching doesn't get done as much....They've been getting away with murder for years, because all they've got to do is name the figures. (Diggle 1990)
Many new callers have never called to a beginning group, and it requires even more skill to call to a dance crowd with mixed skill levels. The teaching of the beginners must be quick and effective, or the experienced dancers will get bored and restless:
The kind of hyper attitude at dances is making it more and more difficult for callers to be able to teach basics. The intermediate dancers for the most part yell out, they're really impolite. They yell at callers if callers try to teach. And if I try to do anything for beginners, I'll get one or two intermediate dancers come up and criticize me personally, you know, to my face. (Krumm 1990)
Some dance leaders try to solve this problem by setting aside a special time to work with beginners, such as during a break, or during the hour preceding the dance. Tony Parkes told me about his efforts to do this:
If I have two hundred people in the hall and six of them are beginners, I can't just speak to those six without losing the other hundred odd, you know....Some dance series have had good luck with teaching sessions at the beginning. I find typically the people who need it most don't come on time....One thing that we've done with some success is that Beth or I...will take people during the break. (T. Parkes 1990)
Others object to segregating the beginners in this way, and feel that contra dancing needs to remain accessible to newcomers without any special training sessions:
Some people think that having a beginner session is a good thing to do. But I think it's counter-productive....Somebody at the festival session that I told you about said that it gives the beginners one more hoop to have to go through. And putting people through hoops is not what life is about. And I happen to subscribe to that opinion. (Jennings 1990b)
Another approach to the problem is to have occasional dances that are dubbed "for experienced dancers only." These may be single dances programmed into an evening of dance, or they may be entire dance events advertised for advanced dancers:
If you do have a whole evening of advanced dances, it's got to be listed as advanced dances....It creates some segregation....But to keep some people interested in dancing, they've got to have an evening where they can come in and do difficult dances, or do a medley, or do something that's going to challenge them. And then...they can go to the regular dances...and enjoy it. (Theyken 1990)
The most agreed upon solution to the problem of integrating beginners seems to be to develop leaders who are trained to be teachers and not just prompters of figures, and who have the skills to handle a mixed crowd successfully:
I feel that there needs to be better teaching and more conscientious teaching, more skillful teaching. And kind of my byword is that a walk-through is not teaching. And I think unfortunately all too many callers think that teaching means a walk-through. And if they don't get it, you walk them through it again....There's a real need for callers who are there to help the dancers and to be advocates for the dancers. (Dalsemer 1990)
Workshops for callers are offered at most dance camps and dance weekends, giving more people an opportunity to acquire these teaching skills.
We see, then, that the integration of beginners into the contra dance events has been a problem in recent years. The dance choreography is more difficult for beginners to pick up without special training, and the symmetrical roles of the new dances take away the opportunity to watch before becoming active. The growing perception of dance as sport rather than as community socializing has led to intolerant and unwelcoming attitudes on the part of experienced dancers, who see beginners as interfering with their fun. And many of today's callers do not have skill in teaching the basics, since they have learned to call primarily to experienced dancers for whom prompting is enough. Consequently the basic moves are not taught, and new dancers must learn by watching and must try without guidance to sort the basic moves from the variations.