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A review of Contra Dance Choreography by Mary Dart

reviewed by Penn Fix

Contra Dance Choreography: A Reflection of Social Change
by Mary McNab Dart
Garland Publishing, NY 1995, 271 pp
(212) 751-7447

Contra Dance Choreography by Mary Dart is much more than tracing the trends of contra dance compositions. In order to defend her thesis (Ph.D. from Indiana) that contra dances reflect social change and contribute to that change, Dart provides the first scholarly book on the contra dance world, its community, its roots and its issues.

Dart, a dancer and musician, is completely at home with this genre. Expect no faux pas here. She knows the mechanics of contra dance and the music. Thus, the reader can sit back and enjoy this book.

She begins with a historical brief of contra dancing followed by an enlightened description of the components that make up the dance: the dancers, the caller, the program, the music and physical environment. Once this foundation has been established, Dart then overlays it in several ways.

First, she follows the process of composing the dances themselves. Here she adeptly identifies motivations for writing dances, the impact communications has on the dissemination of new dances, as well as tips on composing.

Next, she analyzes factors which make a good contemporary contra dance. They include 'flow', inclusions of figures like swing, hey and Gypsy, as well as formations like improper duple and becket, degrees of complexity, the amount of social interaction, dancer's expectations, relationship to the music, the activity level, and uniqueness of the dance.

The final layer involves the changes of choreography from the 1950's to the 1990's. The same factors found above now are given new meaning as each one is analyzed for changes. The differences include increased symmetrical roles, more and more becket formations, increased swinging, borrowing from English and western dance traditions, increased complexity, multiple progressions, fractional moves (i.e. 3/4 circle), and just a lot more dances being written. And if you think you have seen all the dances you are ever going to see, think again. Dart points out that limiting choreography to just twenty moves in combination of 7 slots means a potential of 390,700,800 different combinations or dances!

At this point, Dart addresses directly current concerns and issues which are reflected in the changing choreography. These include dance as sport and physical exercise vs. socializing event; the change from a community dance to a dance community; elitism (reflected in center line syndrome and booking ahead); integrating newcomers, lack of leadership, gender issues, local vs. standardized styling, and the individual vs. community needs.

What holds the reader throughout this well-written study is Dart's reliance on quotes from many of the major callers and composers of the current contra dance world. She integrates very well thirty different interviews, she relies heavily on seven callers: David Kaynor, Steve Zakon-Anderson, Ted Sannella, Fred Park, Tony Parkes, Gene Hubert, and Dan Pearl. Five of these are considered to be the major composers of dance today. Thus, her analysis of choreography is made stronger with their comments. Particularly of interest are the contributions of Ted Sannella, the dean of contra dancing, who just recently died.

Using over 350 quotations, Dart often captures the essence of several of her authorities. Consider fiddler Steve Hickman: "I'll watch what the caller is 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."

Or, philosopher and caller Fred Park: "It is like going to look at Picasso.., and it's all a great big so-what, with eyes randomly put anywhere, and illogical form too.. the twists and the turns of the body. And then coming to terms with the same kinds of things Picasso was coming to terms with when he created any given piece. To the uninitiated, Picasso is a piece of junk. To the initiated, to the student, to the life-long aficionado it is everything."

Ah, Picasso and contra dancing, one and the same. These kinds of quotes keep Dart's book moving along in an entertaining fashion.

Her reliance on these thirty sources does result in some minor misconceptions. Without representation from the western part of the country, she allows to stand an East coast caller's assertion that western callers' repertoires are a couple of years behind the times; yet, Dart waxes eloquently about the immediacy of today's communications. Western callers are in fact up to date because of faxes, the Internet, and traveling. And many of them have been composing dances for the past fifteen years, so the stereotype of movement of dances from East to West is, in fact, not true.

Dart also notes the lack of female composers. Again, if she had gone West, she would have met Sandy Bradley, who almost single-handedly has spread the gospel of square and contra dancing since the early 1970's throughout the West and even into the East coast. Thus it is not unusual to find female callers in the West who have modeled and been influenced by her. And these callers are writing dances.

In an ideal world, additional interviews would have enriched her story. Brad Foster, director of the Country Dance and Song Society, would have given a broader view; Bob Childs could have told the story of the unique Maine dance scene; Tod Whittemore was critical in the growth of the Boston scene; and Cammy Kaynor pushed the conventional with his unorthodox compositions. She missed an opportunity by not interviewing Bob McQuillen to compare the growth and changes of dances alongside of the music. McQuillen is the premiere tunesmith of the past three decades. These points are minor in relationship to the overall contribution of this book.

Dart finished her study with a glossary of the major contra dance moves (each with a diagram), an interesting biography of each interviewee, and 20 contemporary contra dances most frequently used by these callers. Interestingly enough, most of these dances were written in the early 1980s and are not considered "cutting edge" stuff. Finally, her bibliography of both published and unpublished sources is the most extensive listing available today.

For the dance composer this study is essential reading. For the caller it is worthwhile reading. And for the dancer it is just fun. At $70, however, the book is not for everyone. But get your library to buy it and then check it out yourself.

Penn Fix 703 W Shoshone Place Spokane WA 99203


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Last updated on June 27, 1996 by entropy@prismnet.com (Kiran Wagle)