Letter to the Editor

Re: Contras in the COVID Era, Spring Issue 2021

By Colin Hume

Engraving of two Elizabethan dancersI enjoyed reading Penn Fix’s article “Contras in the COVID Era” in the last CDSS News, and it got me thinking. I certainly hadn’t realised that “Becket Reel” had languished in the shadows of both the contra dance and modern square dance world as no more than a novelty dance for more than 25 years. By the time I started dancing, “Bucksaw Reel” (as the dance is known in England) was standard repertoire along with “Devil’s Dream”—which doesn’t suit modern American taste as there are no swings in it but is still a standard finish to a dance in England. These two contras were published in the “Community Dance Manuals,” a staple of callers’ repertoire since 1947, along with many other contras where the interaction (and the swing, if any) was with neighbor rather than partner.

However, I would dispute the caption “Herbie Gaudreau invented Becket formation in 1958.” No doubt he came up with it independently, but the English traditional dance “The Rifleman” was published in CDM 3 around 1952 (and presumably danced long before it was collected and published), and it uses this formation. However, the progression is that the top two couples of the longways set polka to the bottom as the others move up, so you always dance with the same opposite couple. Herbie’s brilliant idea was a right and left through on the left diagonal—action outside the minor set which was probably unheard of in those days. I don’t know any traditional English or American dance where you interact with couples outside your group of two couples (duple minor) or three couples (triple minor). If someone calls a traditional dance where the ones interact with their own twos and the next set of twos, such as the contra corners figure in “Chorus Jig,” I can guarantee that it was originally triple minor and has been condensed to give the inactives more to do and a better chance of becoming actives. Maybe Herbie thought of this because he was a square dance caller, and in squares you certainly get head couples going on a diagonal to do a right and left through with the side couples.

I also can’t agree that a triplet is a novelty dance. Maybe to those dancers who think that modern contra is the only dance form that ever existed, but three-couple dances are a staple of dancing in England. John Playford published many of these set dances in 1651, for instance “Grimstock” and “Picking of Sticks,” often with three distinct figures and no progression—and no partner swing! Later the fashion in county dances switched to triple minor formation, where the ones progress down the longways set and the twos and threes alternate numbers until they have their long- awaited chance to become active. Many of these triple minors have now been converted to three-couple longways set dances, including “The Fandango” which inspired Ted Sannella to start writing triplets. I remember Ted calling one of these in Beckenham, South London. He told us that he had based his triplets on the English model, and then explained the progression in great detail while we all stood there thinking, “Yes Ted, we know this—we are English.” He would run his triplets nine times through—six times with a call and three without. This is too long for dancers in England, so I normally run them six times through.

Penn calls for composers to create triplets that include contemporary figures such as heys—and again I feel compelled to object! The hey or reel has been a staple of English (and Scottish) dancing for a long time. “Grimstock” has three different heys in its three figures. “Picking of Sticks” has its signature “sheepskin hey” which has been baffling and delighting dancers for at least the last hundred years. “The Fandango” has heys for three at top and bottom of the set, and there are many other examples. The earliest explanation of the hey that I know is in Arbeau’s “Orchesography,” published in France in 1589, and I’m sure it goes back a long way before then.

Enough sniping at an excellent article—let’s get practical. I decided to write a triplet to suit modern American tastes: see if you think I’ve succeeded. We don’t use the “#” sign over here to mean “number”, though no doubt it’s creeping into the language from across the Atlantic, so here it is.

Colin's Triplet Number 1

By Colin Hume

Triplet formation; ones improper

A1

All balance and swing: ones with twos, threes with partner.

A2 All six circle left halfway. All swing: ones with threes, twos with partner, finishing in the order 1-3-2 with the threes improper.
B1 Threes (in middle place) go individually to your own right to dance heys for three across the set with this couple.
B2

All six balance the ring, then the bottom couple (twos) gate the threes down the middle and all the way round to where they came from, then the top couple (ones) gate the threes up to top place (so just half a turn), moving down as they do so, and stay facing that neighbor ready to start again with a balance and swing.

Progressed position is 3-1-2, known in England as a reverse progression.

I’ve tried to meet Penn’s criteria. In three turns of the dance, you dance in all three positions and have four neighbor swings and two partner swings. Maybe the die-hard contra dancers would prefer four partner swings, but that presents problems—if the ones and threes are swinging their partner, there’s no-one else left for the twos to swing, and all swinging in the center at once is too crowded and potentially dangerous. Maybe I could arrange it so that two couples swing their partner at the side of the set while the remaining couple swing at the top or bottom, but I’ll leave that for “Colin’s Triplet Number 2.” At least I have the obligatory two swings, the circle balance and the heys, as well as keeping all three couples actively involved almost all the time.

But what about a contemporary figure, since the hey doesn’t justify that description? How about the gate movement? I believe that’s a 20th century invention, as I don’t know any old English or American dance which uses it. English dancers will recognise it from “The Bishop,” “Sun Assembly,” “Guardian Angels,” “Wakefield Hunt,” and others, but these are all 20th century additions. The equivalent American figure is an assisted cast, but I don’t know how traditional that is: originally the ones would have led up the middle and then cast round the twos without any assistance.

For more of Colin’s dances and essays, visit colinhume.com.

     
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