What We Do
We are recreational dancers, singers, musicians, teachers, callers, and dance historians who enjoy dancing, playing and singing English and Anglo-American dances, tunes, and songs that were known or published as early as 1651 and as late as today. By “English and Anglo-American” we mean the dances and music whose roots are in England, whether they started there or evolved once they came to North America. Think of the Virginia Reel or pioneers kicking up their heels after a barn raising, think of the ballroom scenes in Jane Austen books and films, think of community singing and folk festivals, and you’ll have a sense of what we do.
At the CDSS Office, we publish books, booklets, recordings, and a quarterly newsletter; we offer outreach grants for English and Anglo-American groups' and individuals' events; we have mail order service from our in-house store which has a fine assortment of educational and recreational books, recordings, DVDs, etc.; and we run several weeklong dance and music programs each July and August where people gather to learn new dances, tunes and songs, and to share what they know.
What is contra and English country dancing?
There are several explanations on the Internet (some sites are listed below). Since most people are familiar with what a square dance is, it’s not explained here.
Confluence -- a coming together of people or things; a flowing together.
In contra and English country dancing, two people form a couple and dance with each other and another couple, then they dance with another couple, and then another, and yet another, repeating the figures many times, until the dance is done. Then you find a new partner, and a new couple, and a new dance begins. By the end of the evening you’ll have smiled at or danced with everyone else in the hall.
Dances are usually done to live music, although recorded music may be used. Dress is casual, although some people like to dress up for balls and special events. No special classes are required, but some groups have sessions before a dance to help beginners with the basics.
“Take hands four.” -- the first thing a caller says when teaching a dance
Most contras and English country dances are done in long lines -- called longways sets -- with your partner opposite you. Other formations may include three or four couple sets, circles, or squares. Each dance lasts about10 minutes, maybe more, maybe a little less.
Men ask women to dance, women ask men, and it’s okay to dance with someone of your own gender. The energy flows from the musicians through you and out to your partner, enveloping the other dancers, and going back to the musicians. You dance with -- with the music, with your partner, and with others in your set. It’s community at its best.
“Turning, moving, spinning, dresses swirling, music beating, eyes in contact with a partner, then another, then another, then another, and the fiddle turns a corner, the phrase repeats, the dance repeats. You smile. Your body smiles. Everywhere.” -- Doug Plummer, in his introduction to his contra and square dance photographs, www.dougplummer.com/.
The music for contras may be jigs, reels and hornpipes. The same for English country dance though don’t be surprised to realize you’re dancing to an old ballad or a tune by Purcell. Instruments may include fiddle, bass, piano, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, hammered dulcimer, banjo, concertina, guitar, washboard, or bodhran, but these days you may also hear clarinet, tuba, oboe and sax.
“If I’m ever in a coma, somebody announce “Hands four’ and start shuffling your feet. If that doesn’t bring a smile to my face or get my toes tapping, then you know I’m beyond hope.” -- Greg Rohde, in The Commonspace, www.thecomonmspace.org/2002/06/games.php
Figures are simple and are usually done with a walking step, although skipping, slipping, skip change, polka, and clogging steps may also be used. You’ve heard many of these figures’ names -- back to back (do-si-do), star right and left, allemande, sashay, promenade, turn your partner, swing your partner. English country dance has a few special terms: up a double and back, poussette, hey. In a contra dance you’ll often hear: contra corners, buzz step, ladies chain. In square dance: birdie in a cage or box the gnat. All can be done from the beginning, and done well with practice. Knowing where to go can be disorienting at first, but the caller and those in your set will guide you.
What is the “song” that you do?
Again, it’s mainly based in the English and Anglo-American traditions -- folk songs, ballads, sea shanties, rounds, songs with choruses. At an event you may be singing a hauntingly beautiful song from the 18th century, or an energetic round lately composed, or an intriguing shape note hymn, or you may find yourself as part of a community sing.