Photo from Camp Wannadance by Doug Plummer .

The Composing of Contra Dances (cont.)

Dissemination of Contra Dances

In order to learn how the newly composed contra dances make their way out into the dance communities and travel from one community to another, I asked my informants how their own dances got out and where they themselves found their material if they were callers.

One of the primary means of dance dissemination is the collecting of dances at dance events. Callers may find themselves dancing a dance that they particularly like and decide to collect it. At the earliest opportunity, they take a three by five card or a napkin or an old dance announcement and write down the dance sequence. Don Theyken comments on the phenomenon of dance collecting:

You're just dancing a dance and all of a sudden you say, wow, I like this. You might dance it the first few times through and you go uuh uuh uuh [sounds of indecision], and after about ten times you say, this is really nice. And then the dance is over, you go down, sit down and write it down. I've never had a caller refuse to give me a dance or any information on a dance. (Theyken 1990)

Collectors of dances may or may not take the trouble to find out the names and composers of the dances they collect, and a dance will sometimes be spread without complete information or with errors in the sequence.

The exchange of dances is intensified at dance camps and dance festivals. At these events there is a high concentration of avid dancers and active callers and bands, and many new dances are tried out in such a setting. David Kaynor describes how one of his most popular dances got into circulation:

I think that the thing that really got it out there was calling it at dance camp. There's something about dance camp that makes things...really take on a magnified importance....Somewhere else you go to a regular public dance and you dance "Mary Cay's Reel" and say, oh, a passable dance, just another contra dance where I had fun with my partner. But at dance camp you say, wow wow! we did this dance that was really amazing! And that may be why that dance proliferated. (Kaynor 1990b)

At dance camps and festivals dance leaders sit down informally or in the context of workshops and exchange material. Ted Sannella describes the process:

The New England Folk Festival in Natick, Massachusetts, has been going for over forty-seven years now....Callers coming from all over the place, other parts of the country, coming to dance, coming to call, coming to learn new material, coming to meet other callers....And after the festival we sit down, usually two or three callers, and compare notes on what dances we've picked up. We put them on cards and spread them around. (Sannella 1990a)

Caller Beth Parkes from Arlington, Massachusetts, points out that it is not always a reliable measure of the usefulness of a dance to meet it first at a dance festival or camp, where the participants are highly skilled and the callers and musicians are top-notch:

You go to a dance and you think, ooo that's wonderful! The danger in that of course is that often whether a dance is good or not when you dance it will depend on the context in which it is danced. At a weekend or a festival where everybody's a really smooth dancer and the music is hot, can throw the worst possible dance at those dancers and they will make it wonderful, because the dancers will be so good. (B. Parkes 1990)

Tony Parkes adds:

Yeh. You go back and throw it at your regular group that includes a lot of beginners maybe and a lot of shaky dancers, and it falls apart. (T. Parkes 1990)

The traveling of callers and bands also facilitates the spread of new dances. Many callers and bands travel from dance event to dance event, or from dance camp to dance camp, where they are hired for their expertise and their ability to draw dancers. In the course of these travels new dances are planted in local communities, or are picked up by callers and brought home to their own communities. Ted Sannella has traveled a great deal and shares his experience:

With communication and transportation such as it is, people go to festivals and go to conventions and they go to workshops. They go to dance camps all over the country. I call at a dance camp in West Virginia, for instance, and there'll be people there from Alaska....If they're callers,...they write down notes and they take tape recorders, and they bring these new dances home with them. (Sannella 1990a)

The new dances travel within particular touring areas, such as up and down the coasts, but they also work their way from one coast to the other. Fred Park, in his travels as a dance caller, has noticed some interesting patterns in the dissemination of the dances from east to west:

When a western caller comes from Seattle, when they come to New England, the comments that you hear from the New England dancers are, you know it's really interesting, they're doing dances that were really popular here three or four years ago. I haven't seen these dances in a long time. It's sort of like stepping backwards in time....A visiting New England caller in the west is going to implant in the west a dance that's going to take six months or a year before it's commonly known in the west. And by the time a year or two goes by and this western caller gets hired to come east, here comes the dance back to New England. That's what I'm seeing. (Park 1990)

Contra dances are also being carried overseas through the hiring of American callers for European dance camps and festivals. In Denmark, Margot Gunzenhauser has taught American contra and square dances, has trained Danes to call them, and has brought well-known callers from the United States over to bring in new material. Philippe Callens has been doing the same in Belgium. (Sannella 1990b:5)

New dances may also be exchanged through correspondence and phone calls with others "in the business." Fred Park describes how his initial collection of contra dances consisted of contributions from other callers, upon request:

I was totally paranoid when I realized I was going to have to do a contra dance weekend....And so I simply said to all my friends in the mail who I knew were callers, I wrote letters and I said, send me contra dances....So suddenly I was assaulted by a barrage of mail that I had solicited. (Park 1990)

Steve Zakon showed me a printout of dances by California composers that he had received from a California dancer's computer file. Ted Sannella gives and receives a lot of dances on the phone and by mail:

I'm on the phone all the time with callers around the country for one reason or another....And I correspond also with a lot of callers. And I make it a point, whenever I write a letter to a caller, to include a dance that I think they...might call, something to spread around....So that you might write a dance today, and it might be danced on the west coast tomorrow. I mean this couldn't happen twenty-five or thirty years ago. It's just amazing the way things are propagating, getting spread around. (Sannella 1990a)

Another way that callers get new dances is that they are simply handed them by dance composers who are eager to get their own dances out and who are not callers themselves. Steve Zakon points out that this can sometimes pose a problem for callers who may not be interested in calling these particular dances, but who sympathize with the composers' desire to get their material into circulation:

On a regular basis I get people handing me dances. "Gee, I'd like to know what you think of this one. And would you call this some time?"...Many of them are trying to be callers, and they're new, or they're not into traveling....So they don't have the outlet to get their dances out....Personally I get a little put out sometimes by people who hand me these booklets of dances, and they'll just say, "Here. Here are some of my dances. Here are some of my dances." I find it a little awkward. But what other venue do they have? How else can they get them out there?...I do look them over. In a few places I've liked some of them. And I make a point if I'm somewhere and I see that person in the crowd, I'll try to call it. (Zakon 1990)

Publications provide another source of new dances for callers. Some use older sources and either select carefully with the contemporary dancer in mind, or make alterations in the dances to tailor them to the modern aesthetic. There are also quite a few books of dances printed by composers who want to get their material into circulation. These dance collections seem to be used most when a composer has already established a reputation and callers want to explore more of their work. Gene Hubert has published three books of dances called Dizzy Dances, and he suggests:

I think that people probably get started on them by going to a dance and seeing some dance that they like that I wrote. And then they figure, well if he wrote one or two good ones, maybe there's some more in this book. (Hubert 1990b)

Larry Jennings' collection of contras, Zesty Contras, has been an important source book for many callers, since it contains over five hundred dances composed by many different people. Most collections contain the dances of a single composer, and are self-published. Dan Pearl expressed to me his concerns about the publication of dances:

There's very few outlets to publish dance....Most callers who publish books tend to publish collections of their own figures....They're kind of watering down the material. They're just sort of throwing dances together that, you know,...fill up the book....Other places to get dances published I guess are very rare. But things like the Country Dance and Song Society Newsletter, they might publish one or two dances a month, or per issue. (Pearl 1990)

The country-wide exchange of dances results in a body of popular new material that is fashionable at any given time, particularly in urban areas, where the dissemination of new dances happens more quickly. Dan Pearl explains:

These days most callers who I've come across tend to call pretty much the standard repertoire, because of all the traveling going on. Everybody seems to be calling the same dances, the modern urban contra dancer repertoire. And only when you get into the small towns, the isolated areas maybe, Maine, or small dances where they don't even have a sound system, you get different material. Sort of like Darwin's finches. Here they've evolved in a different way. (Pearl 1990)

Once a dance is released, it enters the "folk process," and the composer loses control over what happens to it. Errors and variations may creep into the dance sequences as they are passed around, but the composers must let go of them and let them evolve as they are used and enjoyed by dancers in a wide variety of dance communities:

The folk process, like the game of telephone, affects these dances as they go from one person to the next. So when it finally comes around again, people will get the name wrong. They'll get the figures kind of wrong. The key figure which you composed the whole dance around will be changed to something else! But as Larry Jennings says in his book [Zesty Contras], usually the folk process improves dances. It does not destroy dances....Dances are like kids. You raise them and you send them out into the world, and what they do with themselves at that point is really up to them....You need to cut the strings. They have a life of their own at this point. (Pearl 1990)

Ownership of Dances

Because many factors come into the actual performance of a dance besides the choreography, the question of who creates a dance is a complex one. We have seen that a dance is in fact created cooperatively not only by the choreographer, but also by the caller, the musicians, and the dancers themselves. Good choreography is not enough. Therefore it is problematic to speak of a composer as "owning" a dance. Most dance composers nevertheless feel a sense of pride in their work and a sense of authorship. Because ownership is more of an issue today than it has been in the past, it is worthwhile to look at the circumstances under which a dance can be credited to one person, despite the use of standard figures and in many cases the use of transitions that may come from other dances.

There are not very many standard contra dance figures. If one confines oneself to the very basic ones, there are only about twenty. This has given many people the impression that there are not in fact very many possibilities for new contra dances. Bernard Chalk expresses this common idea:

I'm sure actually that all the contras have been made up now. I'm sure of it. All the contras have been made up. It's just that we don't know where they all are. (Chalk 1990)

How many possibilities might there be, mathematically speaking? Let us assume conservatively the use of twenty figures, assume that no figure is repeated in a single dance, and assume approximately seven figures to a dance (that being the average for the contemporary contra dances), and see if a rough guess can be made. To construct a dance under these assumptions, one can choose from twenty moves for the first figure, nineteen moves for the second (to avoid repeating), eighteen for the third, and so forth, down to fourteen for the seventh. The number of possible permutations of these twenty figures into dances of seven figures each would then be 20 x 19 x 18 x 17 x 16 x 15 x 14 = 390,700,800. Now I can hear the hue and cry over this sort of generalization: How do you know these dances will work? All these dances aren't going to progress! Some transitions will be dreadfully awkward! True enough. Most of these combinations will not be "good" dances. And some transitions will be difficult to perform. I do think that most sequences of this general form can be made to produce a progression, however, by making adjustments in the dancer with whom the figure is done, how far rotational figures are turned, and which way one faces at the end of a figure. This calculation may overestimate in some ways, but it also omits the more unusual figures, especially those from other traditions, and it omits dances with more or fewer than seven figures, and dances in which a figure repeats (as the "swing" frequently does). The point here is not to come up with a number representing the exact number of possible contra dances, which is a question requiring a complex analysis of dance figures, but rather simply to demonstrate that there are a lot of them, maybe over three hundred million of them. So it is indeed possible to keep making up new dances for some time, and the number of dances made up by more than one person is smaller than one might think.

Who owns the choreography of a dance? Fred Park speaks for many people when he suggests that no one owns a dance:

I figure those thirty some odd figures belong to everybody....But if I assume that I can create a pattern using these thirty some odd figures in whatever variety I want to, then I can say to you, well I wrote this dance, which is an interesting assumption, because actually it's made up of little things that are ancient, that have been around forever and a day, that owe their ancestry to ethnic dance of another sort than American. (Park 1990)

Not only are the figures considered common property, but contra dance choreography is developing over time, and new ideas from one composer will find their way into the dances of other composers until they also become common property. Steve Zakon gives an example of this process:

I don't know when you can call a dance your own. I took Dan Pearl's move and I built a dance around it. Well, I wrote three-fourths of that dance around a move. I put it [in] a different place in the dance. I felt like that was my dance. (Zakon 1990)

Most composers feel a sense of pride in their work more than a sense of ownership. No one copyrights a dance. It is in the interests of the composer to have new dances get out, and holding onto a dance in a possessive way simply prevents that dance from being danced:

The whole reason for writing a dance is to get it spread around. So there's certainly no, like, you can't have it, it's mine. What good is it? (Zakon 1990)

Other composers prefer not to give out their dances this freely, saving them until they are ready to publish their own collection.

There have occasionally been conflicting claims on a dance. Steve Zakon recalls such an instance:

I can tell you some funny stories of cases where, well, there's one I know in particular where somebody wrote a dance, and somebody else wrote an identical dance. And there was a little bit of controversy over who wrote it first. And I think it's all got a happy ending. But there was a little bit of dispute over who really wrote that dance. (Zakon 1990)

There are also instances where parts of dances were in dispute, which have resulted in shared authorship (see "Summer of 84" mentioned earlier in this chapter).

Some dance leaders pay more attention to the courtesies of authorship than others. Many callers do not announce the names of the dances they call, much less the composers of the dances. In earlier days, when most of the dances that were being danced were traditional and the turnover was slow, community repertoires were small and dancers knew the names of the dances. Authorship was not an issue. Today callers may or may not consider it important to announce the composer, and in many cases they may not know themselves who composed a dance.

It is easy to collect a dance at a dance event without knowing the origins of the dance or even its name. A collector can go up to the caller later and ask for information about the dance, but many collectors do not do so. Sometimes the caller will not know either. There is now more concern with giving credit to composers, especially on the part of callers who are also composers and are more aware of this courtesy:

If someone knows who wrote it, they should say so. I never cared about that when I was calling. But when I started writing dances I thought it was important, because I realized how much time and energy went into it. (Hinds 1990)

Another courtesy that callers and composers appreciate is for collectors to ask permission when they want to collect a dance:

When someone collects a dance,... I prefer if someone would come up, rather than just copy down a dance and go about calling it. I would rather have the chance to make a comment or two. Say, yeh, when you're teaching it, watch this part, you know....And when people say, can I collect your dance, I say, feel free. All I would ask is that you name the dance when you do call it. (Zakon 1990)

Issues of ownership are of greatest concern to the composers, of some concern to many but not all callers, and probably of the least concern to the dancers, most of whom do not associate names or composers with the dances that they do. There are simply too many new ones to keep track of, and the dancers just want to be given a good time with whatever good dances the caller may choose to teach.

Motivations for Composition

The dance composers whom I interviewed expressed a wide variety of reasons for working with dance composition, ranging from the practical to the artistic. As we noted earlier, many of them made their first attempts at composition when they needed a particular kind of dance in a calling situation and, lacking just the right thing, they made up or revised a dance on the spot:

A lot of my early attempts at dances were just almost on-the-spot innovations, just trying to come up with a new way to combine some old figures, so that it would be easy to teach the beginners, and yet it would be passably entertaining for the experienced dancers. (Kaynor 1990b)

Dance revision is at least as common as the composing of "new" dances. A good number of dances have resulted from a feeling of dissatisfaction with a particular part of an existing dance, and an attempt to repair or improve it. Roger Diggle cites an example of this from his own composing experience:

I have to confess that I probably do more choreographic work doing repair work on other dances...than I do writing my own dances....You find maybe half a dance that you really like. "Snake River Reel," the first half of the dance I really enjoy, and the second half of the dance was not only kind of bland, but your partner was nowhere to be found....You sort of got glimpses of each other, but that was about the extent of it. And so a couple of dances grew out of trying to get some partner contact in a dance that had the same front half as the "Snake River Reel." (Diggle 1990)

It is, in fact, not only the dance composers who revise dances. A number of my informants described instances where the dancers themselves changed a dance, either to smooth out an awkward spot, or to make it more interesting to do, and the change simply worked its way down the line as the dance progressed:

I've tried out some real duds....and it's interesting to watch the dancers. They will fix it. And slowly the fix will move down the line....I've actually changed the dance to do what they did. (Hill 1990)

A dance I wrote a few years ago called "The Beneficial Tradition,"...I think it started in Philadelphia that they discovered they had a little extra time on their hands, so that after they pull by each of those hands they go, "hey!" or "ho!" or something like that, and they throw their free hand up in the air behind their heads. (Pearl 1990)

The dancers may in this way have a hand in the creation of a contra dance—in making it work, and in making it fun to perform. The dance composer can learn a great deal by watching them.

Further along the continuum between the revision of existing dances and the composing of "new" ones is the desire of the composer to incorporate certain specific features into a dance. These specific features we have termed "gimmicks" in our discussion of composing techniques. Many times composers become intrigued with particular problems that they would like to solve in a dance, and an idea will not let them alone until they have composed a dance that solves the problem or provides a setting for their idea. Al Olson, a prolific choreographer from Chicago, describes his own reasons for composing dances:

I personally compose because I'm compulsive; when a "new" dance idea strikes me, it won't leave me in peace until I work out a whole dance pattern displaying it in a nice way. Then comes the chore of deciding whether the dance is worth circulating or not, but at least the compulsion is satisfied. (Olson 1988:2)

Another common reason for composing a dance is to honor a person or an occasion with a new, never-before-danced contra dance that will be fun for the occasion, and hopefully will last. Not every composer is interested in this approach, but a number make good use of it. Ted Sannella enjoys composing for special occasions:

I got to writing complete dances. And mostly for occasions. In other words, if there was something, some special event coming up, I might write a dance for that event. The first dance of mine that became well known was the dance I called "Newlywed's Reel," which my wife and I wrote on our honeymoon. (Sannella 1990a)

Dances have been written for weddings, birthdays, holidays, the dedication of new dance halls, the departure of friends—any occasion that will be enriched by the offering of a new dance.

Some callers are motivated to use their skills in composition and revision to champion a particular kind of dance or a particular style of dancing. Larry Edelman rewrites traditional square dances to make them suit the tastes of today's dancers:

I take the old dances written in that golden age, you know, the late forties, early fifties, and I...smooth them out and make them palatable for today's dancer....I choose to rewrite so they are phrased, and so they have what dancers want these days where everyone's really active, where there's a flow to it, where there's nice phrasing to the music, where there's lots of partner swinging, where everyone's active all the time, where there's a little bit of novelty. (Edelman 1990)

Larry Jennings is interested in promoting a particular style of dancing, which he terms "zesty dancing," and he composes dances which illustrate this style.

I know why I compose dances. Because I need something to illustrate a point that happens to interest me, that will lead dancing toward my vision of zesty dancing. (Jennings 1990b)

The composition of new contra dances is only one part of the broader vision that leads many callers and composers to be involved in the contemporary contra dance scene. These leaders feel that their work is one way to make a contribution toward community ideals, and through the fostering of these ideals, to make a small contribution towards peace and harmony in the world. They spoke of this goal both directly and indirectly:

The reason I continue is because the dance gives me a great deal. It's given me a community. It's given me a lot of my friends. And I guess some of that's feeling there's an ongoing relationship with the dance, and my commitment to it and giving back to it. (Theyken 1990)

I used to be obsessed with, what will I do in life that will help mankind? And you know, will I work for peace in this and that. Well, in my small way I think I am. I'm not doing anything that's, you know, going to save the world. But when I come to a community, I think I give them a really pleasant, positive experience. (Zakon 1990)

It's a wonderful way to realize economic, artistic, social and political goals, all in a kind of integrated package, rather than having to say, well there's my day job, and then there's my hobby, and then there's my political activity, you know, and have all these things be separate and actually somewhat conflicting or contradictory experiences. I believe in a healthy environment, but I work for IBM, you know. Or I believe in world peace, but I work for an oil company....I feel like my choice of work enables my whole life to be a consistent statement. (Kaynor 1990b)



1 Here are the twenty figures used to estimate the number of possible contra dances that could be written: allemande, balance, cast off, circle, contra corners, dosido, down the hall four in line, down the inside of the set, down the outside of the set, figure eight, gypsy, hey, ladies chain, lines forward and back. pass through, promenade, pull by, right and left through, star, swing

2 Gene Hubert wrote me and pointed out that some figures can only be danced from selected positions (e.g. "right and left through" only happens with the woman on the right of the man), and suggests the following revision of my calculations:

By making a few assumptions, a more believable but still impressive estimate can be made. Figure twelve possibilities for the first three figures, eight possibilities for the next three figures, and four possibilities for the last figure. The result is 12 x 12 x 12 x 8 x 8 x 8 x 4 = 3,538,944. This calculation reflects the fact that there are fewer figures that may be used near the end of the dance to still get the progression in....And three and one half million contra dances is a lot more than exist now or ever will. (Hubert 1992)

3 In his book, Zesty Contras, Larry Jennings (Jennings 1983:4) defines "zesty dancing" as follows:
—Dictionary definition: Characterized by keen enjoyment.
—Broad application to dancing: A zesty dancer puts more than the minimum enthusiasm into a dance with the expectation of more than the minimum reward. A dance figure, sequence, program, or series which encourages such dancing is also referred to as zesty....

The fundamentals:
*smooth, exhilarating swings,
*powerful allemandes and other strong connections,
*strict compliance with the phrasing,
*elegance, with eye contact and without extra turns or twirls.