Photo from VFW in Cambridge, MA by Arnold Reinhold, who supplied it to Wikipedia.


Traditional art forms such as folk dance are not usually considered to have much relevance to an understanding of social change. This case study of one particular American social dance form, the contra dance, shows that changes in the interpretation of "dancing" and changes in the relationships between participants at a dance event can result in transformations of the dance form itself. Choreographic alterations can in turn affect the social environment in which the dances are performed. The contra dance form is not simply a reminder of our traditional heritage; on the contrary, it has been extremely responsive to change, both reflecting social change and contributing to it.

The origin of specific items of folk culture, notably the traditional ballads and folk songs, has been a source of debate among folklorists. Some scholars have considered them to be products of communal invention, while others have seen them as the inventions of creative individuals. The communal origins theory has been largely discredited today. Still folk dance, being a group activity, is often popularly conceived as having its origins in communal spontaneity and creativity, rather than in individual composition. We have seen that the contemporary contra dance exhibits a process of change that includes both individual innovation and community evaluation.

A variety of concerns lead to the injection of new material into the contra dance tradition, as we learned from the choreographers themselves. The composition of new dances may emerge from practical problems, such as a caller's need for a dance with particular features for teaching or for a special group of dancers. Other dances result from a composer's desire to mark special occasions or to honor particular people with a new dance that has not yet taken on the associations of other times and places, that is a fresh gift to the celebration. On yet a more abstract level, dances may emerge from a composer's struggle with a structural or aesthetic problem that teases the mind of the composer until a solution is found.

We traced the path by which a new dance is constructed, tested, and named by its creator, paying special attention to the "gimmick" and to the techniques used by the composer to set the gimmick into an effective sequence of figures. After the sequence is finished to the satisfaction of the composer, it enters a period of evaluation in which dancers, callers, and musicians inject life into the new dance, evaluating its potential as a vehicle for physical challenge and pleasure, for movement with the music, and for enjoyable social interaction. A dance that meets these criteria may be rapidly disseminated across the country, and one that does not will die on some local dance floor.

Underlying the evaluation of these new dances is a system of aesthetic values that is also evolving and that helps to set the bounds that determine which of the new dances will be embraced by the tradition and which will fall away. A wide variety of elements come into play in the evaluation of a choreographic sequence: those that relate to the movement of the body, such as direction, speed, and momentum; those that relate to the workings of the mind, such as the dancers' ability to memorize a sequence or the expectations they have developed through previous dancing experience; those that involve relationships between people, such as the social interactions that occur within a sequence; and those that facilitate the wedding of movement to music. This system of aesthetics is complicated and enriched by contextual factors that exert their effects when the choreography—the blueprint of a dance—is actually danced at a dance event. The emergent form of the dance performance derives not only from the choreography, but also from the quality of the music, the ability of the caller, the skill level of the dancers, and the physical environment in which the dance is performed.

The entire process by which the tradition evolves can be conceptualized in the following way: Imagine a "tradition boundary" that encloses all the dance sequences that are accepted as "contra dances." A choreographer may compose a new dance that lies entirely within this boundary, or he or she may push it out a bit with an innovation of some sort. As long as the choreographer does not push the boundary too far, the dance will be accepted as something new that is still a contra dance. As the tradition continues to develop through the innovations of individuals, this boundary moves, gradually encompassing new figures and new kinds of sequences as they become acceptable to the contra dance communities. At the same time that it stretches to accept new material, it will leave old material behind, and choreographic elements that were once part of the tradition will become obsolete. This is of necessity a gradual process, since a radical innovation will be too far outside of the traditional form to be accepted.

This model of change is illustrated by the recent developments in contra dance. For example, in 1950 the tradition boundary of contra dance did not include Becket formation dances, multiple progression dances, or the "hey for four." When these elements began to enter the tradition they were first marginal, and then gradually became incorporated into the bounds accepted by most dancers. Triple formation dances, on the other hand, have been for the most part left behind, abandoned because of their low level of activity, which no longer conforms to the aesthetic preferences of today's dancers.

The move from the proper formation to the improper formation is an example of a major shift in the tradition boundary of contra dance. In the early 1970s callers used to take time to explain the improper formation and to remind dancers to switch places at the ends of the set. Now callers must explain the proper formation, and remind dancers not to switch places at the ends of the set. Where once the proper formation was central to the tradition, it has now become more peripheral, the improper formation taking its place.

Men's "chains" and same-sex "swings" are marginal innovations that are out at the edges of the tradition boundary today. Had they been introduced in 1950 they would have been too far out for acceptance. Now they have a chance, as the boundary moves in directions that encourage gender equality.

This model is complicated by the fact that choreographic elements enter and leave the tradition at different rates. Some elements, such as the improper formation, have been around a long time and show no signs of going out of fashion. Other elements, such as the "four-leaf clover," came as an innovation, but did not take hold to the same degree, remaining relatively marginal. By contrast, the "hey for four" moved rapidly from the margins to the center of the field, and is now included in virtually every evening of contra dance, having established itself solidly within the contemporary contra dance tradition.
This case study gives us a picture of the process through which one traditional art form evolves. As new choreographic sequences enter the community repertoires, we experience not only transformations of specific dance sequences, but also a transformation of our conception of what constitutes a contra dance.

We have examined a number of concerns that have emerged to a greater or lesser extent in contra dance communities across the nation—concerns that include the elitism of experienced dancers, the nurturing of new dancers and new leaders, changes in gender relationships, alterations in the dance style, and the tension between the needs of the community and those of the individual. Most contra dance communities struggle with these social issues, but the ones that stand out as important may vary from one community to another. The size of a dance group is one variable that affects which issues come to the front. Small groups are usually more successful at paying attention to individual needs—making sure everyone who wants to dance is included, extending a welcome and some assistance to beginners, and giving community members the opportunity to develop their skills as callers and musicians. Large groups require more planning and better organization; leaders have a bigger job to do, and it is much more difficult to monitor the needs of individuals. Newcomers can be overlooked, and aspiring callers and musicians may have a harder time making their mark in competition with professional leadership. In determining what problems a dance community is likely to have, the size and the extent of isolation of the wider community also come into play. A small town in a rural setting will give birth to a dance group in which there are fewer outsiders and more members who are acquainted with one another through other sectors of their lives. In a large urban area, on the other hand, the makeup of the dance group may change from week to week as professionally run dance events ebb and flow in popularity, and many dancers will see one another only at the dance.

A third factor that distinguishes one local group from another has to do with the availability of talented leadership. One dynamic and sensitive leader can make a great difference in shaping the attitudes and habits that develop as a dance community grows. An insensitive leader can lead a group directly into some of the problems that we have discussed. These factors—the size and degree of isolation of the group and the quality of the leadership—make a difference in the extent to which problems such as center set syndrome, prebooking, and elitism emerge in a group, and they make a difference in the extent to which new dancers and leaders develop within the community. Every local dance group has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the issues that we have discussed are not equally applicable to them all.

The local differences discussed above exhibit elements of the distinction between "community dance" and "dance community" to which we alluded earlier. Recall that the term "community dance" refers to a dance event enjoyed by a group of people for whom the dance is but one of many shared activities; the term "dance community" refers to a group of people whose primary association with one another is at the dance. The distinction is not clear cut, but is rather a continuum with the two kinds of dance communities as its poles. This difference may be viewed against a cross section of contemporary dance events, or it may be viewed as a change through time.

Historically there has been a trend away from the "community dance" and toward the "dance community." Prior to the current dance revival, the typical dancer probably danced in a small New England village where dance events were but one activity among many shared by that group of people. Newcomers were infrequent, and were welcomed with interest and hospitality. The occasion was primarily social, and participants came to the dance event dressed for a party. They were familiar with the dances, both the sequences of figures and the tunes, and enjoyed a similar modest repertoire at every dance event, a selection of dances that served as a backdrop for socializing. Dance events similar to these still exist in localities that are outside the mainstream of the dance revival.

In recent years, particularly in the larger urban areas, the dance has become the community, and participants cultivate dancing friends who do not share other parts of their lives. They come dressed for a high level of activity, in cool, comfortable clothes and shoes with support. Socializing is not the only priority at the event. Many contemporary dancers thrive on the physical challenge of the dances and the thrill of learning new patterns that move them from one figure to another without pausing or turning back. They do not like to stand still and watch, but prefer dances that keep them in continuous motion, that flow. They value dancing skill, both in themselves and others, and try to arrange their dances to include the company of others who are equally skilled. Many contemporary dancers do not remember the individual dance sequences from one week to the next, but dance from a knowledge of the language of contra dancing.

The dancers at the poles of this continuum have a good many things in common, but their worlds differ in significant ways, and this is reflected in their dance events. What once was an activity of an existing community is now an activity that creates a community. What once was a localized activity has become a widespread activity, with increased sharing of regional styles and standardization of repertoires. Many callers have become professionals who tour the country for pay, bringing new dances into the repertoire to supplement (and supplant) the older ones. An activity in which social skills were paramount has become an activity in which physical skills may be equally important. These changes have evolved in conjunction with the development of the contemporary contra dance choreography.

It is interesting to speculate upon the degree to which the age of technology has made an impact on the contra dance tradition. Almost a third of the choreographers interviewed for this book work either in computer science or in science and engineering. Although this may simply reflect a changing demographic balance in the population as a whole, it may also suggest that dance choreography has an appeal for people who work with patterns and technical relationships. The fact that choreographers with these kinds of backgrounds are producing some of the new dances may in part explain the trend toward trying out all the choreographic possibilities, and the construction of complex as well as elegant solutions to choreographic problems.

Having a general population that is more familiar with technology may help to account for the language-centered approach to dancing that is replacing the repertoire-centered approach in some dance communities. Technology teaches us to learn a technical language and apply it to specific problems; perhaps this skill translates into learning the language of contra dance and applying it to specific dances. I wonder if another factor in this change may be the increased mobility of dancers and the need to have the dancing accessible to whoever may come in the door. Because the dances are always taught, and because their movements are drawn from a predictable pool of figures, a dancer who is familiar with the tradition can participate in the dancing nearly anywhere on the same basis as a local. The flip side of this, of course, is that a newcomer who is not conversant with the language of contra dance will have more trouble joining in.

The concern with attracting new blood to the contra dance events is of great importance, since the survival of the activity will ultimately depend upon it. Two decades ago the dances were easier, the groups were smaller, and the callers incorporated a great deal of basic figure teaching into an evening of dancing. We have explored the problems of today's beginners who, at a large dance event, may be met with more complex dance choreography, elitist behavior on the part of a number of the experienced dancers, and a new language for which there may not be a translator. In addition there is the problem of the dance communities getting older, and the reluctance of younger people to join in an activity that does not include many of their peers. More attention will need to be given to the recruitment of new dancers, if the activity is to thrive.

We noted another interesting pattern found in today's contra dance events—the shift towards dance as sport. The desire on the part of many experienced dancers for aerobic contra dances and for the company of others who have well-developed dancing skills is reminiscent of competitive sports. It is possible that the physical skills that were necessary for survival in the old traditional way of life have been transferred in contemporary society to our recreational life, and the need to excel has to some degree taken over the need to have fun—or perhaps has become a part of the concept of having fun. Readers have commented upon this pattern as being applicable to other forms of recreation as well—to bicycle clubs and hiking clubs, for example.

Patterns of change with regard to gender roles are also evident at the contra dance event, as we have seen. It is particularly interesting to see shifts in gender relationships within a tradition that derives much of its purpose and enjoyment from the relating of men and women to one another. In contra dancing, the movement toward gender equality is evident in the leadership, in the terminology used for calling dances, in interactions on the dance floor, and in the choreographic moves as well. Same-gender contact has become more common as partners of the same sex become more acceptable and as contra dancing is taken up by the gay community.

This examination of social issues and choreographic developments related to the contra dance tradition indicates that social change is mirrored both in the dance event and in the dance form itself. The contra dance is not a mere vestige of the past, nor is it simply a passive form upon which societal transformation makes its mark. The dance itself both responds to and plays a part in the construction of the social processes and relationships that develop among those who participate in this tradition.