Photo by Mac McKeever

Choreography and Community


Another area of concern that emerged from my talks with dance leaders was the uneven quality of the leadership. We have seen that the way in which a caller handles newcomers is important. Callers who are skillful teachers will attract beginners to their dances, and the community will grow. Callers who are poor teachers will drive beginners away, because these new dancers get discouraged and don't come back. In addition, the caller has control over the programming and consequently can influence the choice of dance genres that a community will dance. If the caller can call contras, but cannot call squares, then that community will dance contras. If the caller can call squares, but not very well, then that community may develop a dislike for squares. My informants were also concerned that the increasing professionalization of the dance leadership in some areas has made it hard for new leaders to get the practice and training that they need to do an effective job.&
In many communities there is a marked preference for contra dances as compared to other dance forms such as square dances and circle dances. When one dance is over, the dancers automatically line up in contra lines for the next dance, and if another form is announced, there may be protests. This preference stems in part from the fact that many callers prefer contras to other formations, or do not feel competent to call dances in other formations.

I asked leaders and dancers about this preference for contras, and found that not only do many callers prefer to teach contra dances, but dancers also prefer contras for a number of reasons inherent in the form: the progression is exciting because one dances with many other people; a contra dance conforms to the musical phrase, which increases the dancers' appreciation of the music; and the repetitive structure of the contra dance provides a background conducive to improvisation.

It is generally agreed that contra dances are easier to call than square dances. The contra dance is repetitive, while the square dance requires a degree of instant choreography on the part of the caller. In the contra dance the basic unit is a group of four dancers, while in the square dance there are eight people to keep track of. Dancers can join in at the end of a contra dance line at any time, whereas the recruitment of couples for the forming of a new square can hold up the teaching. For these reasons it is easier, especially for a new caller, to establish a repertoire of contra dances and not develop the harder skill of calling squares.

Often when callers do call squares, they use old material that does not conform to today's aesthetics, with the result that the dances are not particularly well received:

They call the older dances, and it's just like the old contra dances. A lot of the dances aren't palatable to today's modern agogo society...It isn't that they don't like squares, it's that they don't like yesterday's squares, or more often they don't like a square dance caller who isn't very skilled at helping them have fun by connecting the movement that they do to the music. (Edelman 1990)

Many dancers also have particular associations with square dance from their past experience, and have not been given new experiences to replace these old associations:

People remember doing "Virginia Reel" in grade school or they think of square dancing...and they think of something really hokey with bandannas and all that sort of thing...But contras they associate with kind of this—I hate to say—in-crowd..."All my friends are at the contra dance," you know, "and they shop at the same co-op as me, and believe in the same politics as me. And this is what is happening." (Sutherland 1990)

Callers can expose their dance communities to different genres of social dance, or they can encourage the dancing of one form more than another. It is this power to determine the propagation of particular genres that was at the heart of the concern voiced by some of the people I interviewed:

If one form is more popular than another, it is my attitude that it's because some caller really likes the specific form. And that caller maybe doesn't like some other form...Maybe they learned that other form in the hands of some task master who...[was] inept in breathing life into [it]...and consequently made it a dull and boring experience...So they say, "well, I learned contra dance from this person, and so I'm going to do it, because they made it right...But when I learned square dance it was from a jerk, and so I look at square dance as tough stuff."...[But] it's all one dance. It's all one dance. (Park 1990)

Because of the relatively simple structure of a contra dance, a dancer who understands how the figures are matched to the music can get up on the stage and call a dance. If a new caller does it poorly, or calls the figures on the wrong beat, the experienced dancers are usually sufficiently competent that they can compensate for the caller's mistakes. Beginners, however, will have a miserable experience. What was simply confusing becomes incomprehensible.

Some dancers want to become callers because they love the dance, and there is need in their community for leadership. Dudley Laufman speculates that others may want to call to try their hand at being in the limelight:

There's a whole generation out there that was raised on rock and roll and Beatles and seeing people stand up there,...or they see it on telly with the guitar and the performance and the microphone...And here's an opportunity for them to do that without having to invest too much time and money, and it's an easy business to get into. (Laufman 1990)

Some new callers make an effort to attend a callers' workshop at a dance camp and get some pointers on calling techniques, but many others either do not or cannot do this, and they must rely on their innate talent for calling, which may be large or small. Because a caller can influence both the repertoire and the social success of a dance event, amateurs can do as much harm as good:

The fact that anybody can assume that they can be a caller and literally do it, that is one of the most important effects on the changes in dance in the whole country...If they're not a musician, if they're not a teacher, then you have placed a tradition in the hands of somebody who is not prepared to deal with the tradition and is consequently going to have an effect on the tradition that is truly random. (Park 1990)

The other side of the coin is that in some areas of the country, particularly the urban areas of which wider Boston is a prime example, the dance callers and musicians have become professionals who are extremely good at what they do. These leaders will typically start their own dance series of weekly dances, and attract a following. A person in one of these areas who would like to learn to call or to play music for dancing will find the competition daunting. Dancers can pick and choose from dance events on most of the nights of the week, and from an array of excellent talent, and they are less likely to attend a dance led by an amateur:

It's [getting] competitive. I'd hate to be in Boston. I mean we're just starting to see it here, where all the Saturdays are full. Ann Arbor has every Saturday full. Lansing has two dances a month. And Detroit has one. Plus we're now starting to get dancing during the week. (Theyken 1990)

In addition to professional activity on the local scene, there are traveling professionals who are hired all across the country to call or to play music. Dances featuring guest callers and musicians are usually heavily advertised, and a larger fee may be charged at the door to cover expenses. These professionals inject new life into the communities they visit, and they also set a high standard for new leadership to emulate. Tony Parkes emphasized the importance of a balance between using local talent and hiring traveling talent:

I think that a local caller and a local band...should be the backbone of the activity. But I think there should be a place for people who have chosen to spend all or most of their time getting good, and that there's nothing wrong with having traveling talent. But...not every community should be expected to hire traveling talent. It's not a logical next step that your dance has to take in order to get better. (T. Parkes 1990)

One approach to the training of new talent is the open mike dance. At this kind of an event anyone who would like to call a dance can do so, and those who are interested take turns:

Seattle has an open mike dance where...anybody can call, anybody can play...If you want to play you just get on stage and play. If you want to call you sign up with the host caller, who then tries to make a program out of what everybody's going to do. (T. Parkes 1990)

In Bloomington, Indiana, the first dance of each month is an open mike dance. This works well because the same dancers who come every week also come to the open mike event, and the beginning callers and musicians have community support for their efforts. We noted that in the Boston area it is more difficult to get dancers to come to a dance led by amateurs when they have access most nights of the week to professionally run dances. The Seattle dance community has an open mike dance that works because

there aren't that many other dances in town. It works because they get the hall for nothing. It's a bar, and if people drink enough the bar's willing to provide the dance floor free of charge, and they've laid in a whole supply of fruit juices and soda you don't have to get alcohol. Admission is free, which keeps people coming in, even though the talent is variable. (T. Parkes 1990)

Some communities have organized groups in which new talent can participate while they hone their skills. Sometimes there is an amateur band that will practice regularly and then provide the music for a special dance at some point in the year:

They New Jersey a once-a-year Halloween party, with an afternoon and an evening that you do in costume, with a band called Rum and Onions. The way that band works is it only exists for Halloween. They practice for that [for] two months. Anybody, anybody who wants to play and who will come to all the rehearsals, regardless of level of expertise, is welcome...You couldn't do it here [Boston] because the professional musicians will not sit down with the amateurs for that intensive kind of thing. (Elberger 1990)

In the Cleveland area there is a similar band called Mud in Your Eye, and a group for beginning callers as well:

It's another way that people grow, and this community provides the avenue if you want to do it. There's the Callers' Collective, which is a place for new callers, and there's Mud in Your Eye, which is a place for new musicians. (Hill 1990)

Another approach to integrating new musicians into the dance leadership is to let them "sit in" with a more professional band and play along, but without microphones:

Some bands will allow no sitting in whatsoever. Some bands allow it to a fault, to the point where the performance of the band is dictated by the sit-ins, both the quality of the performance, the tune choices, the repertoire, everything...As a general rule I think that my ideal is that the hired band be able to hear itself and perform as a band, letting the sit-ins be encouraged to participate in that musical experience as much as possible, without pre-empting it. (Kaynor 1990b)

Assertive new callers can, in like manner, persuade the hired caller to let them call a dance or two in the course of the evening. There is a dynamic tension between the need to give new leadership a chance to develop, thus assuring a future for the activity, and the desire of the dancers to have high quality calling and music, which is best attained from professional callers and musicians.

These concerns about leadership, and the concerns discussed earlier about integrating new dancers, are really concerns about the future of the activity. There are local dance communities which are still relatively untouched by these issues, but in the areas with a higher density of dances, the combination of the more difficult choreography, the less successful integration of beginners, and the lack of a comfortable training ground for new leaders all combine to make the future of the contra dance activity uncertain.


The new contra dance choreography reflects the movement toward gender equality in our society today. Gender issues appear in the choreography itself, in the sexual politics on the dance floor, and in the distribution of men and women in leadership roles in the dance communities.

Many of the early composed contra dances had parts of the sequence that were more awkward for the women to perform than for the men. This was because the male composers of the dances worked out the choreography from their own perspective, usually as the active man, and were not aware of how the dances flowed or felt for the women. This is occasionally the case even with new dances today, but there is now an increased awareness of this phenomenon on the part of dance composers, and there are also more women involved in the composing process itself. My informants stressed the necessity, when composing a dance, of considering every dancer—the active man, the active woman, the inactive man, and the inactive woman—to be sure that the dance works well for everyone:

It's a natural thing when you're writing a dance, you put yourself in, visually, in your mind, you create an image of yourself dancing that dance...If you're not careful you tend to disregard the fact that the woman is also involved. And you write the dance from the man's point of view. And I find this in some of the earlier contras that have been written in the recent revival, that there're sequences, transitions, which have been very smooth for the man to make, but awkward for the woman. And I know that dance was written by a man. (Sannella 1990a)

Several examples were given to me of moves that are easier for one gender to execute. For example, to go into an "allemande left" after a "swing" is very difficult for a woman, because the woman's left hand is behind her partner's upper arm during the "swing" and must be disentangled before it is free for an "allemande left." The man's left hand, however, is pointing directly at the other man, and it is quite easy for the men to follow the "swing" with an "allemande left":

I try to avoid any time where someone's going to have a natural momentum one way, and you're asking them to do something that goes against that. For example,...finish a "swing," and say "ladies allemande left." They can't. You have the men allemande left. It's perfect. They're going into the center, they have a free left hand. But it doesn't work for the ladies. (Zakon 1990)

Other examples are more subtle. The transition from a "pass through" up or down the set to a "circle right" works somewhat better for the women than for the men. During the "pass through," the two couples are offset from one another, moving up or down the set, with the women to the right of their partners. At any given time during the dancing of a circle, some parts of the circle are moving up or down the set, while other parts are moving across the set. As these dancers enter the "circle right," the women, being on the right, move into the part of the circle that is moving up or down the set, and consequently do not have to change direction very much initially. The men, on the other hand, enter the part of the circle moving across the set, requiring them to move at right angles to their previous direction:

Figure 20
Figure 20.& Paths of Men and Women Moving from a "Pass Through" to a "Circle Right"

[In] "The Reunion," the ending of this is interesting...because the "pass through" and "circle right" is a much better transition for the women. It's the men who don't get it together on that...[The women] pass through and just keep going. And the guys have to really change direction there after that "pass through." (Hubert 1990b)

The "ladies chain" is the only traditional figure where the action seems to be primarily for the women. Susan Elberger speculates on why this might be the case:

In more traditional times, why would you have women doing more work? Aren't women supposed to be the dainty ones, the ones who "don't"? That's the way you show your woman off. That's where you put her out on display. So there's that aspect that men never have. They never get to be shown. (Elberger 1990)

Today callers rarely say, "men chain the ladies," and more often say, "do a ladies chain" (or even a "right hand chain") which does not imply the displaying of the women by the men, but rather allows dancers to conceive of the action as being equal:

Really everybody's working together fairly equally when you do [the "ladies chain"]. Whoever is the one who is turning the person on the outside is responsible for turning that person. Whoever is being turned is responsible for being turned. And there're certain ways of giving weight that make that stuff work really well and feel very good for both people. (Marshall 1990)

There are dances today composed with men's "chains" in them, a figure which feels awkward to both the men and the women because of their lack of familiarity with the opposite role.

Another example of a traditional move that has had gender implications is the "circle." Some of my informants speculated that the reason that dancers generally circle left first instead of right is that the man, who is usually standing to the left of the woman at the start of a circle, leads the woman into the circle, instead of vice versa:

[Circling left after a "swing"] the men are doing something a little more than the women do, because the men have to initiate the circle, and they have to use a little muscle control and sort of pull the women into the right direction. Whereas the woman is kind of being led. When we turn the tables around and have dances, the rare dance where the women initiate the circle, it does definitely feel different. It's not the flip side. It's different. (Pearl 1990)

Larry Jennings composed a dance in which the women pull the men into the circle:

I composed a dance a year or two ago that's designed to give the women the leadership part. You know, after a "swing," what do you do? You circle left. Why do you do that? Because the man's on the left...The man leads the woman and she follows. And that's the traditional way. And why shouldn't you circle right? Because...the males stumble into [the women]...No one has ever...said, let's practice it. For four or five dances now you'll have trouble, and'll see that you've gotten the experience and you can have fun taking the lead and pulling the man into the circle instead. (Jennings 1990b)

The examples above demonstrate that dances can be more awkward for one gender or the other. They can also be more fun for one gender or the other, by giving that gender more of the action or a special figure of some sort. David Kaynor's dance, "Mary Cay's Reel," includes a sequence in which the women allemande right three-quarters in the center and then allemande left with the next woman down the line, while the men simply step slightly to the left. This little turning sequence is fun for the women, and Kaynor composed it that way on purpose so that Mary Cay would have fun doing her dance. There are always going to be dances that are better for one gender or the other, but there is now an attempt to balance dances that are more fun for the men with dances that are more fun for the women:

As far as I'm concerned it's OK to have a dance that's better for a man sometimes, and other times to have a dance that is...better for the women. And I find that if I'm using a dance that is one way or the other, I tend to balance it out with another dance that's better for the other gender. So I don't think having one like that is bad, but I do think you have to balance your choices out. (Kopp 1990)

Gender also enters into the social interactions within the choreography. In many dances there is very little same-sex contact, and another way that composers are dealing with gender issues is to include in their dances more sequences in which same-sex contact occurs. There are dances, some of which are perhaps still on the edge of what is acceptable to most dancers, that include "swings" between two women or between two men. There are dances, such as "Mary Cay's Reel," in which the women (or the men) have a sequence of moves primarily with each other instead of with the opposite sex:

I often will put those dances a relief to having always interacted with just the opposite sex...It's like, well is it time now for the men to realize there's another man on the other side of that woman? Or, you know, for the women too. (Marshall 1990, quote repeated from Chapter 5)

So today's choreography reflects a growing awareness of gender equality, and a growing concern for giving both sexes a chance to lead figures, to have a good piece of the action, and to interact with members of the same gender in the dance.

Gender issues show up not only in the choreography, but also on the dance floor in the course of a dance event. One kind of problem that arises is what David Kaynor refers to as the "pre-empting of the experience" of one person by another:

[It is important] to have every person feel that he or she is determining what the experience is going to feel like; and when you say a "ladies chain" and a "courtesy turn," that no one person says to the other, we are going to do this "courtesy turn" with, you know, just complete lugubrious lascivious body contact, as opposed to we're going to do a very kind of formal "courtesy turn" where we hold hands and the hand is on the waist, you know...When one person decides that, that person's kind of pre-empting the experience for the two. (Kaynor 1990b)

This happens particularly with regard to a popular variation on the "courtesy turn," the turn which normally follows a half "ladies chain" or a half "right and left through." Instead of turning around as a couple, many dancers execute the turn by the man twirling the woman under his arm. This has become a bone of contention for some dancers, because they feel that they are forced into this variation against their will:

I find that I'm irritated by the degree to which people force twirling on each other. And there are women who will force it on men, although I think that most of the real harm generally comes when men force it on women...A lot of gents just yank women's hands up. They just yank their arms up and force them into an egg-beater-like experience. (Kaynor 1990b)

This kind of aggressive dancing can occur in other figures too, such as the "allemande," where the stronger dancer may bend the arm of the other into an uncomfortable position during the turn.

Sometimes dancers engage in inappropriate behavior on the dance floor:

There're some particular dance figures that promote that,...that make it possible or easier to do that. You know, the "courtesy turn," "cast off," where the man gets to sneak a cheap quick feel, or something like that...I mean everybody bumps into each other, and winds various times grasping someone in some way that done purposefully would be considered inappropriate. But done in the context of just, you know, lurching and staggering and careening around the floor, is just sort of funny, you know, and no one worries about it. But it is a gender issue. (Kaynor 1990b)

This kind of problem seems more often to be the inappropriate behavior of men toward women, rather than the other way around:

Maybe it happens, and the men wouldn't complain about it. You know, maybe they would think, oh this is great, I got this unexpected experience, and I'm really glad I had it. Whereas a woman would say, well that was totally inappropriate and I'm upset about it. (Kaynor 1990b)

Same-sex interaction occurs in the choreography, as we have seen, and it also occurs at another level in the forming up of partners. Whenever there is an imbalance in the number of men and women at a dance, women will dance with women, and occasionally men will dance with men. Many people, particularly men, are uncomfortable dancing with a member of the same sex, but it is becoming increasingly accepted. It is confusing for beginners, however, for whom it may be disorienting to see someone of the wrong sex approaching for a "swing" or an "allemande." Many dancers enjoy trying the other gender's part, and a number of choreographers told me that they learn a great deal about the dance by dancing the other part:

I'm just really having a blast with it, because you can play around with it and you can explore both sides of it. And I've learned a lot about getting twirled out of "swings" and spinning around, and just generally playing around with the dances. (Hubert 1990b)

At least two of the callers with whom I talked had had the experience of being hired to call for gay dances. The challenge there was to use figures and terminology that resulted in dancing by position rather than dancing by gender roles. George Marshall gave an example where the "ladies chain" was rendered as a "right hand chain," in which the person on the right crossed the set, and the person on the left turned them around, regardless of gender
The terminology used in the calling of dances has changed in response to gender politics. The calls are no longer directed toward the men, just as the calls are less often directed toward the active couples. The term "woman" is used instead of "girl." "Neighbor" is used instead of "the one below," applying equally not only to both the actives and the inactives, but also to the men and the women. These changes are coming about gradually, and some callers are more sensitive to these issues than others. But if a caller today uses sexist language, he is very likely to hear about it:

At NEFFA [New England Folk Festival Association] we have an older caller who was traditional, and we had a lot of strong comments on the evaluation forms this year about his calling, because he used some of the more traditional calls, some of which are very sexist and quite rude. (B. Parkes 1990)

One of the questions that began to intrigue me as I looked for choreographers to interview was that virtually all the names I received were those of men. I did eventually find some women choreographers, and there are in fact a lot of them, but most of the nationally known choreographers of contra dance are men. I wondered why this should be so.
Part of the reason seems to be that traditionally most callers have been men, and dance composers tend to get involved in choreographic work through calling:

For generations of dancers, callers have been men...When I started calling in 1945, and for quite a while after that, there were very few women callers...The ones that I came in contact with were mostly connected with the Country Dance and Song Society...They mostly got into calling through English dancing. (Sannella 1990a)

The callers have also tended to be the organizers in the dance communities, and men have taken these leadership roles in dance, just as they have in other sectors of our society. Women are still not taken as seriously in the role of authority figure:

When Ann and I are doing a swing dance workshop, if I book the hall and organize things, there's no problem in talking to people and having willing to talk to me and take it seriously. Where if Ann calls up, she just feels like she's getting constantly hassled. (Marshall 1990)

There seem to be more men than women who are interested in becoming callers, if the enrollment at callers' workshops is any indication:

Any time I go to callers' workshops, there's a lot more men in the room than there are women, I can say that. (Zakon 1990)

Women more often choose to give their families priority over the demands of the life of a traveling caller:

When men callers get married and have children, they have their wives to stay home and take care of home and hearth and children. And they can continue their [calling] careers. (Elberger 1990)

Several of my informants speculated that one reason that women callers are less dominant is that their voices are not handled well by the sound systems used at dances:

I personally think some of that has to do with the voice quality, and especially the way sound systems treat voices. I do not know a lot of women that sound that good on a sound system...Some of the big cavernous halls you end up calling in don't treat the high end very well, so a woman's voice gets kind of lost. (Zakon 1990)

Others suggested that a great many people are uncomfortable getting up in front of a large group, and that perhaps women are less inclined and less accustomed to doing this than men.

Women are unquestionably holding their own as dance musicians. Some of the best dance fiddlers today are women, and there are a number of all-women bands playing for contra dance:

I think it's generally acknowledged that some of the, maybe the majority of the really premiere dance fiddlers right now are women...I'm not aware of real political issues vis a vis who gets hired to play in the band. (Kaynor 1990b)

There are many women involved in dance leadership, but they are working more on the local level than the national level, so they are less visible. Most of the callers in the Cleveland area are women, for example, and a high proportion of the musicians as well. I think that the tendency to work on the local level is also true of women choreographers. Their work does not disseminate as quickly, because they do not travel and bring their dances to other communities.

One may still ask why there is not a female Al Olson or Gene Hubert, choreographers whose work has spread far and wide despite their limited (in Hubert's case) and nonexistent (in Olson's case) calling careers. Some suggest that men simply have more aptitude for this kind of creativity:

I think maybe it's the same kind of thing that tends to make men and women different. I do believe that they're different in terms of aptitude for certain things, like spatial relationships, or math, or language...whatever it takes to make a good contra dance composer. Or maybe just the motivation, who knows? We're different, and that's it. Men may be better dance composers, but women are better dancers. (Pearl 1990)

Whatever the reason, men constitute the majority of the callers and the choreographers that are well known in the contra dance circuit. Women in these roles are less visible on the national scene. Susan Elberger is one among many women who are seeking to redress the balance by looking for dances composed by women, and by setting up dance events run by women:

I...organized dances one night where all the callers and all the musicians [were] women. And we had three women callers and a band going...I would also try to encourage the other women I was working with to call dances written by women. (Elberger 1990)

In summary, gender issues are manifested in the contra dance revival, just as they are in the society at large, and these issues are apparent in the choreography of the dances themselves, as well as at the dance events and in the dance leadership.