Photo from LEAF by Forrest Oliphant

Choreography and Community


Another area of concern raised by my informants is the changing of the dancing style in recent years. The style of contra dancing is becoming more standardized, the attention to display has been weakening, and new elements of style are developing to match the faster pace of the new dances and the interest in aerobic dancing.

One aspect of the change in dance style has been the merging of local traditions into a more standard style. This is a result of cultural borrowing from one dance tradition to another, coupled with the increasing standardization of dance events as communications improve and the use of traveling talent increases:

Dance events are very very similar to each other across the country. And when you hear about somebody on one end of the country trying something really unique, it's not long before everybody wants to...use that pattern....The bandwagon often is manifest in terms of hiring the same exact context, the same combination of caller and band. (Park 1990)

There are, of course, many smaller communities that still exhibit distinct dancing styles, but standardization is creeping into the larger dance camps and dance weekends.
The new choreography tends to give equal activity to all the dancers, as we have seen, with the result that most dancers are moving all of the time. One consequence of this change is that the dancers are not watching one another dance to the same extent. In the traditional dances the active couples would go down the center and back, and the inactive couples would be an audience for them; and it was fun to go down the center with skill and to show off one's dance steps or a unique way of turning around to come back. Now no one is watching. Dancers still try fancy variations with their partners, but it is predominantly for the enjoyment of those two people, and not a display in front of an audience. The traditional dance, "Petronella," has a series of four "balances" in it, and Tony Parkes observed:

"Petronella"...has been modified in my dancing lifetime from an actives and inactives to an everybody-move dance....Ralph Page wrote that it used to be a point of pride for an experienced dancer to be able to balance a different way each time on "Petronella." Nobody's doing that any more, because nobody's watching them. (T. Parkes 1990)

There is more of a concentration on individual styling with one's partner, and less of a concern with communal movements. In the "lines forward and back" figure, for example, there tends to be more interest in relating to one's partner across the set than in making a straight line as a group. The inactives served a function by holding their stationary positions and keeping the set properly structured while the actives were dancing, and now the sets do not benefit from this structuring:

[There are] lots of chances to do your own thing, as opposed to playing the role as an inactive standing still for the good of the hall in a sense, for the good of everyone dancing. (Zakon 1990)

In the traditional dances the inactives both gave the set structure and also provided the actives with an audience, and these elements have weakened in the symmetrical dances. There is less point in a display if no one is watching.

The new dances are more complex, faster, and likely to be danced in a tighter space, as we have seen. These changes have also affected the dance style. There is less concern with grace and elegance, values that accompany the slower dance forms:

There's this whole new movement of people who don't really understand about the intrinsics of body movement and the relationship in the dance....Some of the new folks who go to the dances now,...they're floppy, they're sloppy when they dance, and don't, in many instances, dance to the beat of the music. (Chalk 1990)

It's the same thing in western dancing. That's what happened to western dancing, the whole style of dancing degenerated as a dance form and became a track form. (Hendrickson 1990)

Callers are less concerned with teaching good dance style today. Some have not developed the skill to do so, just as they have not developed the skill to teach the basic figures to beginners; and when a caller attempts to give style pointers the dancers often become impatient:

In some cases when people try to do style teaching they kind of go overboard and the dancers start to look at the ceiling a lot and wonder why they can't just dance....But in an evening of dancing I think it's nice to subversively sneak in a couple of style points in each walk-through. (Diggle 1990)

The lack of finesse in the dancing styles of many contemporary dancers leads to dancing that is unnecessarily rough, and sometimes to accidents on the dance floor:

They get into this rough twirling....Men don't twirl ladies. Men hold their hand up, the lady puts her hand on it, and she twirls, if she wants to. But beginners can't see that....So [a beginner] takes a hundred and ten pound thing, and he's two hundred and twenty, and he goes pew! We've had dislocated shoulders. (Hendrickson 1990)

Another element in the changing dance style is the addition of twirls to decorate the "dosido," the "courtesy turn," and sometimes other figures such as the "hey" or even the "slide" in one direction or the other. John Krumm summarized some of the reasons for the popularity of these kinds of variations:

One [reason is] that they can't dance slowly well enough. And the second is that they haven't ever learned the basic move....Beginners that come to contra dances meet the flashy dancers, and that's who they have to imitate. That's all they can see. (Krumm 1990)

He goes on to suggest that because the new choreography uses faster and less forgiving moves, a slow move such as the "courtesy turn" feels out of place. Putting in a twirl keeps the pace of the dance more consistent:

Some dancers might be throwing in the twirls to make it a consistent pace through the dance, because changing the pace doesn't feel right to them. Better at the same pace....Their pacing is controlled because they have better dance skills. (Krumm 1990)

So the dancing style has altered gradually in response to the different motivations of the dancers and in response to the changes in the choreography of the dances: Stylistic elements are becoming more homogeneous as the dance community grows; display elements are falling away for lack of an audience; grace and elegance are disappearing for lack of teaching and because of the increasing speed and aerobic nature of the dance moves; and twirls and other variations are being inserted into the dance figures to add vigor to the dance and to make the pacing of the dance more consistent.


According to my informants, the average dancer today has a diminished awareness of the community aspect of the dance events, focusing instead on individual relationships. Part of this change stems from the fact that prior to the current revival the dances were first and foremost community dances, where an already existing community included dancing as one of many activities that its members shared:

A traditional a group of people who have bonded together before, during, and including the life of their dance....The people who come are always the same people. Somebody new is born into one of the families. Before they know it they're being whisked away to go to the little dance hall, because that's where the community goes, just like they meet in church....Those people have truly bound themselves together, because they are a community first, and the dance is a secondary aspect of the community. (Park 1990)

Community dances still exist, of course, but there also exist many large dances, particularly in the urban areas, where there is not a pre-existing community of people who come together to dance; the dance is the community, and people congregate at the dance event as part of their search for a community with which to identify:

Type B is a bunch of people, often in a city, who have never met each other before, who are looking for a community, who somewhere in this sea of humanity, with plenty of people that they know but don't socialize with, they want to find a group to socialize with. So they come as individuals to a contra dance, and they form their community when they get there. (Zakon 1990)

This latter kind of dance event is based more on the needs of individuals, while the former kind is based primarily on community needs. This is a significant difference in perspective.
The focus on individual needs is part of what is behind the refusal of many dancers to put up with the teaching of beginners, the teaching of style, and the other methods that a caller may use to advance the skills of the group, sometimes at the expense of the interests of particular individuals:

A lot of it boils down to...the dancing master mentality versus the nobody's-going-to-tell-me-what-to-do mentality....And one philosophy isn't necessarily all right and the other one all wrong....But I also think that dancers need to be aware that there are good reasons for some of the guidelines that have been set down over the years—primarily that you're dancing with a whole lot of other people, and not just with yourself or your partner, and that it's a group activity, and in any group activity you need to have rules. (T. Parkes 1990)

The change in the clothing worn by some dancers is also indicative of a focus on the individual rather than on the community. Coming to a dance for exercise and aerobics is an individual purpose, whereas coming for a social occasion, for a party, is a community purpose. Beth Parkes speaks about the implications of the clothing worn at dances:

I think that's indicative of...a broader attitude issue, that I'm in this for me, as opposed to I'm in this for a social thing. I'm going to dress the way that's comfortable for me, not the way that looks good. I mean how you look is basically responding to other people. How you feel is basically responding to you. (B. Parkes 1990)

In these ways, the motivations for dancing are different than they used to be, and less community based.

Another factor in this change of focus is simply the increased size of the dance communities. It is easier to feel a sense of community with twenty other people than it is with one hundred and fifty:

When the dances were small...I think you had more of this sense of everybody as a group. And you did get to dance with everybody....This is still true of the English country dance group on Monday nights. It's maybe only thirty people. And you dance with everybody pretty much in the course of the evening and you just don't think anything of it, because you're not really just dancing with that person, you're dancing with this whole group of people. So if you happen to choose one partner that you don't like so much, big deal....And in contra dancing that's sort of gone by the wayside. (Dalsemer 1990)

The choreography, too, reflects this change of focus from the community to the individual. There are fewer moves such as "down the hall four in line," in which the whole room appears to move as a unit. This is partly in response to crowded conditions on the dance floor, and it is partly a response to the desire for individual challenge in the dances. Walking down the hall and back is not particularly challenging for today's dancers:

In the older dances you really had a sense that everyone was doing the same thing on the floor. And that was the joy. It didn't matter if you were swinging your partner. It was just so neat that you were all going down the center, and really everybody was, and you were all turning at the same time. And even if you were being inactive and standing still, well half of the room was doing just what you were doing. And you were doing the right role so the actives could do their thing. And it wouldn't work if you weren't doing your role. (Zakon 1990)

The division of roles between the actives and the inactives also fostered the taking of turns, which is a community value, whereas in today's choreography the dancers don't have to wait for their turn, but are continuously active:

I feel like more people want to be basically continuously amused, whereas in a lot of traditional dances I think there's that built-in concept of taking turns being amused....While the ones are swinging, the twos watch. And the twos will get their turn as ones, and then the ones will be twos, and they'll watch. (Kaynor 1990b)

In the contemporary dances, as we have seen, there is not much opportunity to watch other people dance, and this too takes away from the perception of the dance as a community. In addition we have noted that the increasing difficulty of the new choreography also leads to sharper skill differences between the experienced dancers and the beginners, which is divisive and interferes with communal feeling.

Dance leaders are concerned about these trends and are trying to deal with them. The reader will recall the Cleveland community's attempts to raise the awareness of dancers there:

Ted Sannella talked about the growth of dancers.First you worry about yourself and getting yourself there, and then you worry about your partner, and then you worry about your little set. Then you worry about the line. And then you worry about the community!...And I think there are enough people [in Cleveland] in that community phase that will go pull people off the sides and make sure to ask them to dance. (Hill 1990)

David Kaynor voiced the hope that not only can we deal with these issues within the dance communities, but that through contra dance people can relearn some of the community values that we have lost in other aspects of our lives:

You don't have to surrender the need to take care of yourself, in order to help take care of somebody else's needs....I think that the trick is to...explore the ways in which [the me-first need] can be satisfied in a group benefit context...that people will experience that synthesis of the bottom-line need of the self being completely compatible with neighborliness....Our society doesn't tell people that....A lot of our society tells people that in order to satisfy the me-first, you've got to get something before somebody else gets it, or at least get more than the other person gets. And I think contra dancing can teach people that that isn't so. (Kaynor 1990b)