Photo by Britt Selvitelle

The Composing of Contra Dances

The continuing development of a traditional form such as the contra dance is dependent upon the creativity of individuals who are inspired to bring their own innovations into the tradition. If a new contra dance stays within the current cultural bounds, but adds an element of something exciting and new, then it will be taken up by the dancers and become a part of the ongoing tradition. If a new dance does not meet the aesthetic criteria of the dancers, or falls too far outside the bounds of the tradition, then the dance will fall away from the repertoire in short order. The creative individual is both guided by the tradition, and also in a position to influence its development. This chapter examines the work of individuals, surveying the techniques they use in the composing process, and their motivations for composing dance.

The invention of new contra dances did not begin with the current revival in the 1970s. Individuals have been composing them ever since the form has been danced. What is noteworthy about the current revival is the sheer number of new dances, and the possibility through modern communications for these dances to be widely and rapidly disseminated. This wide dissemination means not only that more communities use the new dances, but that dance composers are more likely to come into contact with and be influenced by one another's work, resulting in a kind of group aesthetic affecting dance communities all over the country.

The Composers

The twenty-six individuals whom I interviewed are for the most part representative of the "big names" in contra dance choreography in the eastern part of the country, composers whose dances are well known and widespread. Exceptions include some well-known callers and musicians who do not compose but who work with the new dances, and a couple of less experienced composers who were in the right place at the right time to be interviewed. A general profile of these individuals may be useful.

Five of my informants are old enough to have been involved in country dancing before the contra dance revival of the early 1970s, and they took part in the beginnings of the composed-dance upsurge. Most of the others are in a middle age range of between 30 and 50, and first became involved in the contra dance revival as dancers in the 1970s or early 1980s.

At the time of the interviews, my informants had dancing experience ranging from seven years to forty-seven, with an average of twenty; their calling experience ranged from five to forty-six years, with an average of fifteen; and their experience as choreographers ranged from four to thirty-nine years, averaging thirteen. Fourteen of them have played musical instruments for dancing.

The occupations of these individuals are varied. Seven of them reported working in dance leadership as their primary occupation. Another seven work in dance calling or music as a part-time occupation, but make a larger percentage of their income through other work. Occupations represented included education and human services (seven individuals); computers, science, and engineering (seven individuals); and the occupations of printer, proofreader, pharmacist, and chef.

Most of these dance composers are men, which I believe is related to the fact that most traveling callers are men, and it is these professionals whose choreography becomes most widely known. The women who are composing contra dance are more locally based. Only four women are represented in my study; I made some effort to seek out women dance composers, but my primary goal was to interview the composers of the better known dances, most of whom are, in fact, men. A follow-up study on composing activity at the local level would probably rectify this gender imbalance.

All of my informants are dedicated to the well being of the dance revival, and generously shared their knowledge, their feelings, and their concerns as dancers and as dance leaders in the revival today.

The Composition Process

One of the initial problems I encountered in my conversations with these individuals was the question of what to call this process of composing new contra dances. My informants used a number of terms, including: "write a dance," "compose a dance," "create a dance," "conceive a dance," "concoct a dance," "do choreography," "make up a dance," "put together a dance," and "throw together a dance." The first two terms, "write" and "compose," were by far the most frequent.

These terms reflect different ways of thinking about the composition process itself. The term "write" implies a literary model, the making of a story. This literary model is echoed in the frequent use of the term "story line" in discussing dance structure, as we shall see in Chapter 5. A contra dance may be seen as a story both in terms of the logic of its physical movements—how well they lead into one another—and in terms of its social interactions—the people who dance with one another at various points in the dance.
Other terms such as "compose," "create," "conceive," "concoct," and "make up," imply a process coming from the artistic imagination—the striking of the muse. "Compose" also brings to mind the musical framework behind the dance sequences, since it is a term commonly used for the creation of music. This view of dance composition as art is an important element in the composing process.

Terms such as "do choreography" and "put together a dance" imply a more technological approach to the process, while "throw together" emphasizes the spontaneous casual approach experienced by most dance composers at one time or another, when a dance must be composed in a hurry. There is indeed a technological aspect to the composition process that complements the artistic one. We will find that all of these ways of viewing the creative process—the making of a story, the creating of a work of art, and the use of a technical approach to dance composition—are important elements in the composing of contra dance.

I have chosen to use the term "compose" for the creation of new dances, because this term, along with the term "write," is used most frequently by the composers themselves. I choose to avoid the term "write," because I feel it may narrow the reader's interpretation of the process by focusing on the story aspect of the dance.

Reflected in these terms is also the issue of how much original work is actually involved in composing new contra dances, and to what extent it is possible to "compose" using a limited pool of common figures on which to draw. Some composers object to the terms that imply artistic creation on the grounds that there is nothing new under the contra dance sun and that anyone can place figures in a sequence. Fred Breunig and Fred Park offered me their opinions on this issue:

To talk about composing dances I think is sort of funny....It's mostly just restructuring things and reordering things and pulling them from different traditions. And so I usually use the verb "to put together" a dance instead of "composing." (Breunig 1990)

I didn't invent "dosido," you know. So if I put "dosido" in a dance that I write, it's usually going to go right next to something else that I didn't write. "Swing your partner." I didn't write that. The "ladies chain." I didn't write that, you know....The dance choreographer is really an assembler of old parts. (Park 1990)

We shall see that the composition of dances may be anything from a brief, practical, basically unpondered revision, to an artistic creation that has been worked and reworked to approach its creator's sense of aesthetic perfection.

Techiques of Composition

Most contra dance composers get their start through the revising of existing dances, and through this process of revision they develop the skills to compose original dances. The techniques used by these composers follow some general patterns.

The most common approach to the writing of a new dance seems to be to build the dance around an interesting movement, idea, or transition that has caught the composer's fancy. This interesting element is most commonly referred to as the "gimmick." The composer becomes interested in a particular gimmick, and then the trick is to incorporate it into a dance that also flows nicely, includes a swing or two, and accomplishes the progression successfully, all within thirty-two bars of music.

Contra dance composers often become interested in a gimmick as a result of dancing a particular dance and especially enjoying one part of it. This leads to a desire on their part to incorporate this enjoyable fragment into a dance of their own. Choreographer Ted Sannella shared his experience:

I just get these little ideas, and I store them in my mind, and then when the time comes that I'm working on some dance, they come back, and I incorporate those things into dances. (Sannella 1990a)

Many gimmicks are in this way taken from pre-existing dances and given a new context by the composer. Here are two examples of the use of gimmicks from other dances in the creation of a new dance:

(Ted Sannella, discussing the dance, "Jan and Dan," written for his daughter's wedding) David Kaynor wrote a dance where you circle...with the opposite couple...left three-quarters, and then the active couple ducks through to the next and goes four in line down the hall with that next couple. And I just liked the idea of ducking through, and then just joining onto the next couple and going four in line. (Sannella 1990a)

(Steve Zakon, discussing the dance, "With Thanks to the Dean") I did a dance by Dan Pearl called "The Rendezvous," and it had this neat move where you circled and slid on to a new couple and circled. And that's how he ended the dance. And I thought, that's kind of a neat transition....How else could I use it? And I picked it and put it into where it was not the end of the dance. It was in the middle of the dance, and I did something before it and something after it. (Zakon 1990)

Another way of developing a gimmick is to explore a new combination of existing figures, a combination which has not occurred in other dances, but which uses figures that occur in other dances. The transition between two figures is often the focal point of the use of a new combination, as Roger Diggle, a caller and musician from Madison, Wisconsin, describes here:

(Discussing the dance, "Roll in the Hey") If you're doing a "hey for four" and you can "star right" with a new couple after that, well you should be able to do a "hey for four" and "circle left" with...the same new couple after that just as easily, it seemed to me....So one of my earliest dances actually was a dance to test that transition and see if it would work, because I couldn't find any dances where that happened. And not only did it work, but it's turned out to be probably one of the most widely distributed dances that I wrote. (Diggle 1990)

A gimmick may also take the form of an existing move from some other dance tradition which is imported into the contra dance tradition. Contra dance composers have taken moves from Appalachian dance, western square dance and English country dance, for example, and used them to compose a contra dance that is unusual and different, as illustrated by these examples from Fred Breunig and Ted Sannella:

(Discussing the dance, "Ya Gotta Wanna") "Symmetrical Force" that Fred Feild put together used a "four-leaf clover," which is a southern Appalachian square dance figure1 ....And what "Ya Gotta Wanna" uses, make and break a "four-leaf clover" all in one motion. It's called "roll the barrel." (Breunig 1990)

My dance, "Bonnie Jean," I think, was the first, probably the first of the revival contras that had a "hey for four"....My inspiration came from my enjoyment of doing heys in English country dancing....And now you don't find an evening's program without a dance that has a "hey" in it. (Sannella 1990a)

New dances have emerged from the invention of an altered formation, or the use of a particular subset of the contra dance formation. The best known contemporary example is Ted Sannella's "triplets." The triplet is a dance which uses the longways formation, but limits each set to exactly three couples. Sannella explains how he got the idea to compose triplets:

I was dancing at Pinewoods and doing English country dancing, and I learned the dance, "Fandango," and I realized what a wonderful idea: a dance with three couples where one couple is active, and then another couple is active, and then the third couple is active, and the fourth time you do it, the first couple starts again. I said, why can't we do that in our American dances?...And so I decided I'd try writing some dances where you dance with three couples. That's how Ted's Triplets were born. (Sannella 1990a)

Ted's Triplets have spread across the country, and there are now other composers creating new dances in this form.

Another source of inspiration for dance composers, in addition to the gimmick and the form itself, is the music to which the dance is danced. Although most contra dances now can be danced to many different tunes, some composers are inspired to write a dance that goes nicely with a particular tune. In the composing process, they attempt to make the pacing of the dance movements fit the pacing of that dance tune. Becky Hill used this technique to compose a dance:

(The tune) "Druid's Reel" has these stops in it that are very, they're just wonderful....The first dance I wrote to "Druid's Reel"...I'm trying to get the whole floor to come to a dead stop when the music stops, which is hard, because it's on the last two beats of an eight count phrase. (Hill 1990)

A drawback of this approach is that the musicians at hand may not know the tune in question, and the dance will in reality be accompanied by many other tunes in its travels—so the dance-tune match-up may be in vain.

In order to compose a dance with a particular gimmick in it, the composer must maneuver the dancers into the position required by the gimmick, and then maneuver them back to a progressed place from which the dance can start again. To do this, the composer may start at the end of the dance and work backwards, or start at both ends and work toward the middle, in an attempt to maneuver the dancers into the necessary positions to make the gimmick work. Tony Parkes uses this technique:

Sometimes I'll write a dance backwards....I wanted a dance where I had that figure of "pass through and the ends turn in," and when you duck through there's your partner....I wanted that to be the gimmick. So I put that down on paper saying, OK, that's the end of the dance. Now what do I have to do at the beginning of the dance to get people in such a position that that's the person that will be coming toward them? (T. Parkes 1990)

As a contra dance composer begins to put together a dance, he or she will find it necessary to visualize the dance in some way in order to see if it accomplishes the necessary movements that result in a progression. Some composers, such as Fred Park, are able to do this easily in their heads:

I have a great ease in picturing dance movement in my mind. I can drive down the road and keep my eye on the lines and look at the traffic in the mirrors and look at the traffic ahead, and conceptualize movement, and keep everybody clear where they are, which way they are facing, whose hand they've got. (Park 1990)

Other composers, especially when they are in the process of learning dance composition, like to have some sort of visual aid in picturing the movements of the dancers. In her early composing efforts, Becky Hill used spools as composing tools:

For the first couple of years...I always had to have little spools, you know, with blue and pink? I put little paper clips and little heads with smiley faces, so I knew which way their "ocean wave" would go, and little pipe cleaners for little arms, so I could remember which is left and right. And now I can do it in my head, unless it gets really complex. (Hill 1990)

Another method of visualization is to get up by oneself and dance the dance, trying out each of the parts in turn, both the man's part and the woman's part, and including the roles of both the active couple and the inactive couple.

The ultimate method of visualization is, of course, to get some dancers together to try the dance and see how it works. Many composers are callers for their own local dance, and they can use their home dancers to test new dance ideas. Steve Zakon uses the dance in Nelson, New Hampshire, as a place to try out his new dances:

Nelson [New Hampshire] is my testing ground....I get up and say, OK, it's guinea pig time. This one's never been called before. Tell me what you think of it. And I'll try it. And that's fortunate, because I've had some real losers....I wouldn't want to pull it out when I'm on the road and in a new place, and think I'm going to wow the crowd with this dance, and there's one glitch that I didn't think about. I'll even say, is that a keeper? And they'll say, yeh, but we felt rushed at this part. It should be once around instead of twice. Or there's too much of a pause here. (Zakon 1990)

If a particular dance does not work out very well, a composer will often keep it for future revision, since such a dance represents an unsolved puzzle waiting for a solution:

Fifty percent of the dances I write just end up collecting dust....I screen them out....What you thought was good last year, you can see a glitch in it when you relook at it and examine it again, and then maybe change it. (Hinds 1990)

As I talked to these dance composers, I wondered to what extent it was possible to put together a "good" contra dance through technique alone. I asked this question to Gene Hubert, a dance choreographer from Bethesda, Maryland, who works with computers as well as composing dances, and he replied:

There's always subtle little things that I don't think you could ever get [with technique alone]....Things like, if you do a "half promenade" across the set, you don't end up exactly square from each other, directly across the set. You end up a little offset, because the guys just pass left shoulders and you're a little off to the side. So if you follow that by a "circle left," you're already a little bit in the circle left direction....Maybe it saves you one step. It means that that "circle left" maybe could take one beat less....In that context a circle all the way around would be relatively forgiving, where in another context, say at the end of a short swing, people will have all kinds of trouble in the world....It just takes a lot of time and a lot of experience from doing a lot of dances before you get into some of the really subtle things like that, that really do make an important difference in how well the dance works. So it's kind of technology, but it'll always be an art. (Hubert 1990b)

A summary of the dance composition process might go something like this: A composer is inspired by an idea, either through dancing a dance or through pondering the possibilities, and builds a dance around this idea or gimmick. First, the gimmick must be set into the dance and other moves placed around it so the dancers can both enter and leave the gimmick smoothly. Then the dance must be filled out with other moves that do not detract from the gimmick, that make the dance fit within the cultural bounds of the tradition, that follow certain aesthetic principles (see Chapter 5), and that assure the accomplishment of the progression.

It will be helpful to illustrate dance composing techniques by following the composition of one dance. I have chosen Tony Parkes' dance, "Shadrack's Delight" (see Appendix), both because it is a classic among the contemporary composed dances, and because in our interview he gave a clear and detailed description of how he came to write it:

(The gimmick.) And "Shadrack's Delight," I can tell you I came to write it. I've always liked the move called "balance four in line," where you're facing in alternate directions and your arms are acting as springs against each other....And in the modern western square dance field they used that figure a lot....But what they'd lost was the timing. They would say rock forward and rock back, but they wouldn't do it with the music....And I wanted to take some of the things that they had invented, or reinvented, and incorporate them into a New England dance with good timing and phrasing, and see if we could make them more satisfying to do.

(Fitting in the gimmick.) The problem is that to do a "swing through" comfortably takes six steps, and music is written in fours and eights....I could have tightened up the timing and had people kind of pull their way along the line instead of doing nice round half turns, and done the whole thing, both of the turns, in four steps rather than six. Or I could have stretched it out and made it very elegant, and had each turn take four steps so the whole thing took eight....but I knew there was no way I was going to get people to turn right two three four, left two three four, unless I was imitating a dance from two hundred years ago. So the only way to force people to do both turns, to do each turn in four steps, was to put a "balance" in between the turns. So that's what I did.

(Placing moves around the gimmick.) I started with a "dosido," which is the way that modern square dancers get into an "ocean wave" formation....And then I had a "balance" and a "right hand turn," "balance" and a "left hand turn," and I decided that was very good in terms of feel, and alternating the choppy with the smooth....And I said, well where does that end you up? And I saw that you're coming right toward your partner so why not swing at that point? And I had eight counts of music where we needed to do something, and that was just about the right time for a nice medium-length swing. So I had my first half of the dance all set.

(Filling out the dance with non-detracting, traditional figures.) For the second half, I took what were basically standard contra dance figures. I was still thinking in very traditional terms....In the second half there's always a "down the center and back," and there's always something at the end like "ladies chain" or "right and left." So the second half of "Shadrack" is basically a take-off on that idea, where instead of just the one couple going down the middle, you have all four people going down, come back and do a "cast off."

(Making the progression work.) And then since the gents are on the wrong side to start over again, you do a half "right and left" and a "ladies half chain." And if you do one of each, then everybody's back where they belong, ready to go on to the next. (T. Parkes 1990)

"Shadrack's Delight" incorporated enough innovation to be exciting and memorable to the dancers, through the alternate turning and balancing in lines of four dancers. At the same time it used enough traditional material to establish itself clearly within the contra dance tradition and to be accepted as such by the dance community. So the dance exhibits a nice balance between the old and the new.

This dance also illustrates the balance of art and technology in the composing process. Any of the timings considered under "fitting in the gimmick" would have worked from a technical standpoint, and the art was in making the timing feel right consistently, by forcing dancers to dance it in a particular way.

Naming Dances

When a composer has come up with a dance that he or she thinks is really good, then an effort is made to give it a good name, in the hopes that the dance will last. As Roger Diggle explains:

It makes a difference, I think, if you've got an ear-catching title. People...take a little bit more serious look at a dance than if it's just something ho-hum. (Diggle 1990)

Giving a dance a name is one way of connecting that new dance to the tradition of which it becomes a part.

Names are as important as the thing or the person or the dance. And especially if I think the dance is going to last, I want to put a name on it that's not a real cutesy name, that's certainly not a suggestive name...where it might be of doubtful taste. I want a name with a little bit of dignity to it, whether it's a formal dignity,...or a more grass-roots kind of dignity. But just something that speaks to the tradition of names that has been carried on. (T. Parkes 1990)

I found a wide variety of kinds of names for composed contra dances. Some names reflect something special in the dance itself, usually a particular combination of moves that is distinctive, or a feature of the social interaction within the dance:

"Third Time's the Charm" is [an] example, because you balance with your partner twice, and then finally when you balance your partner for the third time you get to swing. (Diggle 1990)

(Concerning his dance, "Boomerang") It is said that boomerangs always come back and so does your partner in this dance. (Hubert 1990b)

Other dance names have community references, alluding to people, towns, dance halls, dance festivals, special occasions, tunes, or bands. For example, a dance may be named for a person that the composer chooses to honor for one reason or another, or for someone who has contributed to the country dance movement:

"Marian's Delight," I wrote because Marian Hepburn, who was in the area, was leaving, going off to New Jersey, and she was a really special person and loved to do the "gypsy," had these big brown eyes and just loved the "gypsy." And so I wrote it for her, because she was leaving. (Kopp 1990)

Probably the dance that's been most successful that I've written is one written for Ralph Page....It was called "With Thanks to the Dean."...And it's amazing now how many dancers have never even heard of him. And we're doing what we're doing largely because he did it, in the thirties and forties, and he kept it alive. (Zakon 1990)

A dance may be named for the place it was composed, or the place it was first danced:

"Byland Abbey," it's a ruin in North Yorkshire that we visited when we were there in 1975....I dedicated it to the monks who lived in an abbey and probably never got to dance. (Breunig 1990)

"Reel in C#": The name alludes to the main dance pavilion at Pinewoods Camp, which in turn is a play on the name of Cecil Sharp, the Englishman who popularized folk music and dance in England and Appalachia. (T. Parkes 1990)

Sometimes the name for a dance is inspired by a special occasion or event, or by a particular time of year:

I have a daughter who's getting married this Saturday, and I just wrote a dance that I'm going to call at her wedding reception, in honor of both of them, my daughter and her fiancé, and that'll be the first time it'll be danced....[It is] named for my daughter and her fiancé. It's called "Jan and Dan." (Sannella 1990a)

In Vermont we have this season in between winter and spring, which is called the mud season. It's when the frost is coming out. I thought, there's no dance for mud season. So I put together this dance where the first figure is a "right hand star,"...twice around is the minimum, but some people try to get around three times. You're supposed to be wheels spinning in the mud....I call that one "Reel Mud." (Breunig 1990)

Sometimes a dance name is fashioned from the name of another dance to acknowledge an indebtedness to the composer of that other dance or some other relationship between the two dances:

I spent the summer of 1984 traveling around to as many dance events as possible. One night in July I stopped in Hartford, Connecticut for a dance where Ralph Sweet called "Winter of '82," a contra dance by Steve Schnur that utilized the figure in A2 which I call "interchanging waves." In Steve's original dance, the "balance and swing" was with your neighbor. I thought it would be nice to find your partner at the end of the "interchanging waves" so I wrote out this sequence....After some correspondence and discussion, Steve and I agreed to list this as a jointly authored dance with the name "Summer of '84." (Hubert 1990b)

There are dance names based on puns and dances that receive only a number for identification:

"Lost in the Interstellar Haze" is [a] pun title, because there's a "star" at the beginning of the dance and a "star" at the end of the dance, and a "hey" in the middle of the dance where your partner is in a "hey" somewhere else and they're lost, or you're lost, somebody's lost, and so "Lost in the Interstellar Haze." (Diggle 1990)

I don't give [my triplets] names, because I have a hard time finding names. So I give them numbers. Ted's Triplet number forty was written on April 19th, 1989. (Sannella 1990a)

Ted Sannella makes the numbering of his triplets not only palatable, but actually distinctive, by encouraging the tradition described in Chapter 2, in which the dancers all cheer when the number is announced.2

Many dance names are combinations of these various classifications and defy categorization:

"Inflation Reel" was where the gimmick was that I started out by doing the half "right and left" and the "ladies half chain" to get people all mixed up, and then brought them back with a "circle one and a quarter." And this was during the Nixon price freeze, so I, because of the quarter more in the circle I called it "Inflation Reel," and dedicated it to the Cost of Living Council. (T. Parkes 1990)

Contra dance names conform in many ways to the traditions of naming which have developed historically within the dance tradition; and they also reflect the sense of creativity and fun that characterizes the contemporary contra dance scene.



1Al Olson, a choreographer from Chicago, wrote me a letter giving more historical background on this dance:

The "four-leaf clover" in "Symmetrical Force" came about from spontaneous improvisations in a dance including [the sequence] "down four in line, turn alone, come back"; it was not the result of deliberately borrowing from some other tradition. That's straight from Feild to me. (Olson 1992)

2Al Olson recalls:

Ted announced that the next dance would be "Ted's Triplet #18" (or whatever number). Some clown among the dancers...broke into enthusiastic clapping and cheering. It took the rest of us a moment to get the joke, and we joined in on the applause. The joke was that none of us had the faintest idea of which of Ted's Triplets this was, so it was delightfully ridiculous to applaud. (Olson 1992)