Photo from Sugar Hill by Dan Klarmann

The Contra Dance Event (cont.)


One of the primary supports for the choreography of the dances is, of course, the music. Live music is the rule at today's contra dances, and the musicians who provide this music play an essential role in the success of the dance event. Together with the caller, they choose tunes to accompany the dances in the program and set the tempo at which these tunes are played. But their creativity by no means ends there. The musicians interact in important ways with the dancers, and even with the choreography itself, and the music can make the difference in the success of a particular dance sequence. Fred Park emphasizes this point:

The music makes the dance. A really great dance with a really awkward tune is such a mismarriage that the dance can't be appreciated to its full. (Park 1990)

Bob Dalsemer, a caller and musician from Brasstown, North Carolina, relates an example that illustrates the importance of accompanying a dance with the right kind of tune, in discussing his dance, "Lovely Lane Chain." He wrote it for a wedding, and it did not work out particularly well on that occasion:

I figured it should be done to kind of marchy type jigs....And it was such a different kind of a dance that people had a real hard time with it at first. So I sort of despaired. I thought, well, it's a good idea, but, you know, big deal. Better forget about it. So I did, until the following summer, when I was asked to call at Mendocino....And I thought, let me try that "Lovely Lane Chain" again. Maybe I just didn't have the right music....I'll do it to some kind of raggy type thing and see if that works....So we did it to "Peacock Rag," and it just went over like gangbusters! People loved it! (Dalsemer 1990)

As the example above illustrates, the actual choice of tune can be significant in determining the success of a particular dance. The match of the musical phrasing and melody line with the phrasing and character of the dance figures can enhance or detract from the choreography of a particular dance, and the general mood and pace of the tune can also make a difference in how well the music fits the dance. One can, for example, echo the phrase lengths of the choreography through the choice of an appropriate tune. If the dance consists of short moves four to eight beats long, then the musicians can select a tune which is also structured in short phrases. Longer sixteen beat phrases might, on the other hand, be used to accompany a movement such as a "hey for four," which requires sixteen beats to accomplish in the dance. David Kaynor comments on this relationship:

When there's a lot of four-beat "forwards and backs" and real chopped up things, like when you circle left for eight beats and then change direction and circle to the right...the band should do things that chop up the musical phrases. (Kaynor 1990b)

The melodic line can also be chosen to fit well with the choreography by selecting a tune, for example, which has a high or a long note at the point where a "balance" occurs in the choreography. We will examine below some of the specific ways in which the music can underscore elements of the choreography.

Recall that the choosing of tunes is usually a collaboration between the caller's requests and the musicians' repertoire, a collaboration that may be planned ahead, or may occur spontaneously in the course of the evening. The more experienced the band, the more likely that the caller will let the band make the selections. Some musicians who have been playing for contra dances for many years have developed an intuitive ability to select a tune for a particular dance, simply by watching the figures as the dance is taught. Steve Hickman, a fiddler from King George, Virginia, describes this intuitive process:

I'll watch what they're teaching, and just hope that my brain throws out some tune, which is usually what happens. While I'm watching the dance my brain starts going duddle deedle deedle deedle duddle deedle dee doo. It just starts playing a tune along with what I'm watching. And that's the tune I pick....Mostly I go on intuitive suggestion....It's never wrong....There really is this very compelling force that you feel like the bearer of, you know. Rather than being the instigator, you're just a vehicle. Rather than being some genius, you're really just a record player. (Hickman 1990)

Different kinds of tunes make the dancers dance differently, and the character of the tune can be selected to match the choreography. A driving, intense reel, for example, might be more appropriate for a very vigorous dance, while a gentle, pretty jig might fit better with a more graceful, elegant dance. Steve Hickman explained this concept to me:

You have kinds of tunes that are just intense, you know, like splitting firewood. Just something very masculine and very great about splitting firewood, or digging with a shovel. But then you have times when you have to darn socks, you know, so I mean there's tunes that to me feel like certain kind of times, you know. And if I want to split wood, I don't want to hear didely didely deedely doodely doo dee doodely doo. The same's true of these dances. Depending on what the activity is—and you can just watch—you just make a guess. (Hickman 1990)

Another aspect of the music that affects the dancing is its tempo. A very involved dance with a number of precisely timed sequences needs music that is not too fast. Rushing to keep up with the music is not fun. A tempo that is too slow, on the other hand, makes it hard to accomplish figures that require a degree of momentum, such as the "swing." Doing a buzz step "swing" at half speed doesn't work. A good dance tempo is one that is slow enough to allow the dancers to dance comfortably to the music, but that provides enough energy to give lift to their feet and support to their natural momentum. By regulating the tempo, the musicians (and the caller) can affect how well a dance is received by the dancers.

Once an appropriate tune has been chosen, the band can play it the same way throughout the dance, or they may change the music either by using an arrangement that has been worked out ahead of time, or by improvising variations on the spot. On some occasions a simple repetition of the tune can produce an effective background for a particular dance:

There's times when it's appropriate to have something become totally trance-like, played the same way fifteen times through. And you achieve transcendence through repetition. (Kaynor 1990b)

Other times it is fun for both the musicians and the dancers if the music is played with variations. Bands differ in the degree to which their playing is arranged or improvised. A band that plays together regularly can work out particular tune combinations with effective transitions, special beginnings and endings, and changing musical textures. Arrangements have the advantage that they can be honed to produce a certain effect every time, whereas an improvisation may not always work. But a band that can read the mood of the dance crowd can spontaneously achieve effects that an arrangement cannot. Fred Park describes such an effect:

Just look at these people, they're on the edge of screaming, you know. We can take the music and back off right now and let somebody just go absolutely wild, just take off and abandon the rhythm, abandon the melody line and just totally jam off on their own, and when the whole band comes back in it's going to hit the dancers like a rocket! (Park 1990)

David Kaynor stresses that an important part of the art of playing music for contra dancing is to know when to use these different techniques:

The good band and the good caller consists of being able to identify when to take off on a flight of fancy, when to do something really repetitive, when to do the bare minimalist playing, when to get extravagant, when to play just the absolute simplest version of a tune because the dancers are confused and they need everything orderly. And then say, the dancers have it. The dancers are in the groove. Let's go wild. (Kaynor 1990b)

In addition to the choice of tune, the tempo, and the degree of arranging and improvising used, the musicians may contribute to the dance by using their skills to underline the choreography itself. My musician informants described to me some of the techniques they use as they interact with the choreography of a particular dance. One common technique is the use of medleys—putting together two or three dance tunes to accompany a single dance, and using the tune changes to add variety and energy to the dance. Steve Hickman describes the process of creating a medley:

We'd sit around and...we'd plot and plan how these tunes would go together, feel the medleys. It's not something you can specifically sit down and say, well this tune's in G, this tune's in A minor, this tune's in C. How can we best arrange these so they'll make a good medley? It doesn't work like that. They feel like it. If you play this tune,...then the next tune just jumps out of your thoughts, right there, and so you just write that down. You go, wow! Let's try it! Yeh! (Hickman 1990)

Not everyone is comfortable with the use of medleys, although their use has certainly become the rule in many areas, notably New England. Fred Park, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, points out regional differences in the use of medleys:

There are two schools of thought about changing tunes in midstream. It is a tradition in New England. It is a tradition in French Canada right next to New England. It is not a tradition in the South, although we are slowly inheriting that tradition. People have learned from these northerners this desire to play a medley of tunes. (Park 1990)

Even in New England, however, there are those who prefer to stay with the same tune throughout a particular dance. Dudley Laufman shared with me his feelings about medleys:

When I play with musicians who are medley crazy, I'll tell them, all right, you're going to be responsible for making the change. It's got to be a tune I know, so let's talk about it now....I like a tune well enough to stay with it. If a tune's good enough to start a dance, it's good enough to finish it. (Laufman 1990)

Others see the use of medleys as a part of the changing tradition of contra dance music, and consequently as an appropriate technique to be used at today's dance events. Pete Sutherland, a fiddler from Monkton, Vermont, takes this point of view:

The medley is not a new development at all. It's one that has stood the test of time, and we're only kind of taking it another step further. And the idea of orchestration and arrangement is an old one as well. In fact I think it's a regression nowadays if you don't play medleys, or if you don't do some sort of arranging. To me it feels like, not only not as exciting, but it's letting the tradition lapse a little bit. (Sutherland 1990)

Another common technique employed by contra dance bands is playing to the dance figures—using the music to underscore specific elements of the choreography. One can use dynamics, for example, to emphasize movement down the hall and back. The figure "down the center and back" can be underscored by making the music get softer as the dancers dance down the set and louder as they return:

When there's "down the centers and backs" and people go away from the music and come back to it, I think there should be diminuendos and crescendos. (Kaynor 1990b)

The character of the movement of specific figures can be underscored through the use of musical techniques. One such figure is the "swing," which can be accented by a driving or pumping kind of rhythm, and by using tempos that match the pace of this figure:

If there's a lot of swinging or if there isn't a lot of swinging, makes a great deal of difference as to what would be desirable for tempo, briskness of tempo, and kind of what I call pace, which is whether the tune is really easy-going and flowing, or whether it's kind of rapid-fire reels or jigs with lots of notes. (Sutherland 1990)

Another figure that dance bands particularly like to accent is the "balance," which most commonly involves each dancer stepping on the left foot and kicking up the right (or vice versa), and then stepping on the right foot and kicking up the left (or vice versa). The musicians may choose a tune that has a strong rhythmic accent or a prolonged note at the point in the dance where the "balance" occurs, and accent the music at that point in their playing. Two musicians suggested to me the relationship of a melodic line to a balance:

There're some tunes that sort of cry for a "balance" to happen at the beginning of a phrase—or [on the other hand] if you try to balance there it really is awful. (Marshall 1990)

You want something incredibly rhythmic if you can get it....A shift in tonality is good—if you were in major, doing something in a minor and with a rhythmic bounce to it on "balances," you can hardly beat that. (Sutherland 1990)

Turning and weaving figures can also be underscored through musical techniques. The "gypsy," a flirtatious, sinuous figure in which the dancers circle one another without touching, can be accentuated by the choice of a tune that uses the minor mode in the phrase where the gypsy occurs. Pete Sutherland describes this technique:

A "gypsy" is great—slinky, sexy sort of minor chord, riff, something like that. Just something to make the dancers get more into the mood that's already inherent in that particular dance step. (Sutherland 1990)

Similarly, the weaving "hey for four" figure may be effectively accompanied by using a tune that has a long smooth sixteen-beat phrase at that point, or something which suggests the changing form of this figure:

Something with a slight degree of chaos perhaps. I think something with a sort of a tumbling end-over-end figure anyway. (Sutherland 1990)

The goal of these techniques of playing to the figures is to take the feeling of a figure and accent it with both the choice of tune and with the style of playing, thus enhancing the choreography:

If it could be boiled down, I think you want to kind of underscore the mood that's already really suggested by the dance choreographer. (Sutherland 1990)

There are different opinions concerning how much a band should use these techniques. Some callers feel that because they are effective and fun, they should be used as much as possible, while others feel that they should be used judiciously, as more of a spice than a main course at a dance event. David Kaynor gave me his point of view:

I don't feel that the dance band has to play every figure in a way that exactly mimics what the dance is doing. Other people disagree. They feel that the band absolutely has to at all times have music reflect the characteristics of the figure. I think that...the band ought to at least break even in...tailoring the playing of phrases to suit what happens to the phrases of the dance. (Kaynor 1990b)

We have seen that changes in dynamics can be used to emphasize a particular figure, such as "down the center and back" described above. This technique can also be used more generally to give variety to the music. By playing the music very quietly and then coming into a new tune or phrase with a sudden change in dynamics, it is possible to get quite a rise out of the dancers, who will shout and cheer and dance with renewed vigor. Steve Hickman described to me how it is done:

You start out medium, medium mezzoforte. And then you quiet. Everybody on the dance floor can hear themselves better, and they quiet down. And then you switch tunes and just pkkk!—bludgeon the tune like a ball bat. So you've been using a straw and now you're using a ball bat, a good Louisville slugger. And that causes an excitement. So I mean it's in a way like going fishing. It's exciting to bait the hook and throw it out there. Then you're waiting and waiting, and all of a sudden you get a bite! (Hickman 1990)

The use of chord changes and key changes provides another arena for interacting with the dancers. In discussing the composing of dance tunes, Pete Sutherland commented on the power inherent in the use of chording to give the dancers a sense of release:

For contra dances I think staying on one chord forever doesn't work....A balance of tension and release is what you're looking for....I think dancers respond on that same gut level. They're aware if they're...becoming like coiled springs, where there's too much tension in them and the music doesn't let them really go....If you hit the right sort of chord at the right time, where people really need it, you can just about feel people shoot off the ground. (Sutherland 1990)

Changes of key or mode can be used by the dance band to build the level of tension and excitement or to change the mood of the dancers. Steve Hickman gives examples of both:

One of my favorites is to go F G A....Everything's going a step at a time, you're stepping up, you know, through three steps, boom boom boom. And it's very exciting, because the music always gets a little higher. (Hickman 1990)

[Changing from a major key to a minor key] you're getting a change from being say the virtuous and the good and the God-fearing to being the Devil and the pits and the pendulum....Now you can do [the figures] and you can bend your knees and squint your eyes and point your fingers, because of how we've been conditioned to respond to music. We respond that way. The wicked neighbor came over and took Dorothy's dog, you know....You cause people to go through a little bit of an emotional variety. (Hickman 1990)

Using medleys, playing to the figures, and providing variety in the dynamics, chording, modes, and keys chosen, all allow the band to interact with the dancers in very specific ways and to influence the way they dance. Fred Park points out that as the dancers improvise on the dance floor, the band can pay attention to how these dancers "jam" on the figures and can help them to do so by accenting whatever it is that they are doing:

When they see some one dancer doing something particularly innovative, if it gives them a musical idea and they run with it...then they can have the same effect on a larger percentage of the population, making them also capable of jamming. (Park 1990)

This band-dancer interaction is a two way thing, and the mood of the dancers on the floor will infect the band, just as the music of the band can infect the dancers. Pete Sutherland experiences this as a musician:

If there's improvisational dancers out there I feel like I'm on exactly the same wave as they are in terms of my improvising. If I look out and people are really not improvising with their own stylistic side, the stylistic element of the dance, in other words they swing exactly the same way all the time,...then it doesn't really move me to go overboard doing that either. (Sutherland 1990)

It can be very satisfying and a great deal of fun for a band to discover and use the power they have in determining the dancers' moods and responses to the music, and it makes their role as dance accompanists creative and exciting:

The band...[understands] how the music can affect the dancers,...[and is] capable of determining when the dancers are going to yell and scream, wild with frenzy, because the band made them do it. (Park 1990)

Many of the people I interviewed emphasized the importance of the communication between the musicians and the dancers and pointed out different ways in which this communication can be facilitated. Pete Sutherland told me that he prefers to stand when he is playing for a dance, because he is better able to interact with the energy level of the dancers from that position:

I like being on the same level, literally....I feel like I can communicate better with dancers. They're providing their part of the energy flow on their feet, and if I sat down at a dance...literally some of it would be going over my head. So I have to stand up for it. (Sutherland 1990)

David Kaynor emphasizes the importance of communication between the musicians and the dancers at other levels than the dancing itself, that there should be eye contact, acknowledgment of each other, and personal interaction:

I feel the dancers want live musicians to interact with them personally. That's one of the reasons why you pay a live musician as much money in one night as you might pay for their cassette that you could listen to night after night. You want to have an experience with them, a personal experience. And if the dance band is all looking at each other, then the dancers don't get that. (Kaynor 1990b)

Clearly the band plays an essential role at the contra dance event. Not only do the musicians provide musical accompaniment for the dances, but through the choice of tunes and the way in which they choose to play these tunes, they are also able to help determine how a dance is received by the dancers. The band can use specific techniques to interact with the choreography of the dances: choosing medleys that build excitement, playing to the figures, and using changes in dynamics, key signatures, and modes to interact with the activity on the dance floor. The musicians receive inspiration from the dancers, and in turn inspire the dancers to explore the full range of the potentialities inherent in the dance choreography.


As we have noted previously, the success of a dance can also be influenced by the physical environment in which it is danced. The size and shape of the dance floor may be more suitable for some dances than for others. Contra dances require spaces that can accommodate lengthwise sets. The number of people in the room makes a difference too; some dances work well on a crowded dance floor, and some do not. A figure such as "down the hall four in line" does not work well in a crowd because it spreads the sets out to the side where they collide with each other, and it calls for all the dancers to move toward one end of the hall where it becomes overly congested. Figures that are very expansive or figures which require the dancers to go down the outside of the set are also difficult to perform on a crowded dance floor. No matter how good the choreography of a dance may be, if there is not room to dance it, then it is not a "good" dance for that occasion.

The temperature, the time of year, and the ventilation in the dance hall affect the pleasure of the dance as well. A dance with a high level of activity is fun when it is a winter evening and the dance hall is cool. But it can be exhausting on a hot summer night toward the end of an evening of dancing. Even the geographical location can affect how a dance is received, since dance communities have their own preferences and habits within the wider aesthetics of the national dance scene.

When the caller is good, when the programming is right, when the musicians are hot, when good planning is spiced by spontaneity and creative inspiration, then the dance choreography is richly enhanced and the dance event can be an unforgettable high for its participants. Fred Park sums up these influences on the choreography:

What makes a good dance may not necessarily be a brand new hot-off-the-press flowing swinging dance, but it may be some old standard that was presented quickly, everybody understood it, and the music is just right. That is a good dance. (Park 1990)


1This is a reference to the old joke about the prisoner who told his jokes so many times that eventually he only had to shout out the number and everyone would laugh.