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Changes in (contra) dancing and choreography
by Jenny Beer
(This article was originally posted to the Usenet newsgroup <rec.folk-dancing>.)
Here are some of my observations on how contra dancing has been changing, at least in the dance groups I have been in (New England, Philly, and the San Francisco Bay area).
An emphasis on partner/neighbor as opposed to the set.
- The swing (a twosome universe) has become the central focus.
- The proper set gave a feel of The Women facing The Men.
The improper set is a series of partners standing next to (opposite sex) neighbors.
- All those popular swing dance moves are partner rather than set-focused.
Everybody is active.
- In the earlier contras, the "actives" showed off to the whole set by promenading and swinging with style. Now the point is everyone intersecting in a communal flow.
- The energy level and physical demands have risen.
- Less chance to watch, appreciate, and learn from other dancers
- In larger dance communities, this activity seems to have heightened a sense of urgency and hurry both during the dancing (partly because choreography is denser, you have to get thru more bits of moves in snappy time) and in the mad scramble to grab a partner and be in the center line.
The demise of the "figure" in favor of "flow"
- Choreography & dance style emphasize graceful/quick ways of getting in and out of the next swing or twirl (thus you circle 3/4 so there's room to swing on the sides, you pull by in a mushy hurried sort of way in a Ladies Chain or R&L thru to have a fancy courtesy turn....) The classic "down the middle an up" is now a bored sort of walk (when do we get to come back home and swing?)
- Less sense of geographic shape in how dancers move, and less square-ness of tunes (with use of Southern &c music) and fewer 8-bar figures which matched those square tunes. This chopping up is illustrated by the use of the terminology "Ladies Chain" for what used to be called a "half Ladies Chain"; like allemandes, R&L thru, stars, promenades, and circles, the chain has become a move rather than a figure.
- Dancers no longer know a repertoire of familiar dances, (a collection of distinct figures, easy to remember) Modern flow dances are learned for the moment and forgotten. Right-brain motion for all us tired left-brained workers.
Different (though still very limited) choreographic elements
- The necessity for one or two swings in 32-bars doesn't leave much time for other figures, and in particular those figures which start from proper-set positions. [And of course, dances that include contra corners must include a balance and swing, thus using up half the dance time--KW]
- Everyone being active also eliminates 1's-only figures and triple minors.
- Crowded halls (especially the center set :-)) require tight moves, and swinging on the sidelines instead of center. Sicilian circles are often impossible.
- Everyone being active in tight space has brought heys and gypsies from English CD into contra (yay!)
More emphasis on aerobics and less on moving with the music.
- Bob Dalsemer points out that today's dancer has been staring at a computer screen all day and wants to MOVE and be social, whereas 20 years ago, folkies who loved folk music wanted to learn to dance to it. So dancers pay less attention to music and more to moving. [And longer ago, dancers had been moving all day, doing physical labor.--KW]
- For aerobic dancers, getting in an extra twirl is more fun than starting the next figure exactly on the beat. (flow replaces figure again.)
- Despite the proliferation of types of music and the wonderful bands out there, dancers do not seem to adjust their dancing styles to the mood or type of music, even though they clearly are energized by good music.
More men (hooray!!) and greater intensity/roughness (boo!)
I confess in closing that I'm one of those long time dancers who has mostly left the contra scene, but (with the exception of gentleness and music-sensitivity issues) while I miss what contra has lost, I like what it has gained.
- When Saturday Night Fever came out suddenly it was cool for men to dance in public again. Thank you Johnny T!
- In the 70's the danger was flying hiking boots (ouch) then in the 80's being leveled by a wild stomp kick. I understand that now in some swing-dance style contra communities you can be knocked out by a neighbor's fancy gyrations during a swing.
- Roughness has always been with us, but there is a certain aggressiveness in both dancing and partnering (combined with disinterest in matching moves with music) which leaves me feeling tired and yanked around. Let me put in a plug for greater attentiveness (this does not JUST mean eye-contact) to everyone in the set, and an occasional mood-shift into gentler dancing style.
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Last updated on July 30, 1996 by
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