A Post on Contra Dancing Which I Did Not Post on Rec.Folk-Dancing
Having caught a hellacious cold, I'm homebound with arguably a little too much time on my hands. I'm concerned about some assumptions I believe are too wholly accepted without discussion.
One assumption is that recently-composed contra dances are uniformly "symmetrical" or "activity balanced"; there's no difference between the #1 couples and the #2 couples in terms of who does what.
Agreed: Many are. But not all. I believe Ted Sannella composed a number of "activity differentiated" contras in which the #1s did more things than the #2s. Some dances by Tony Parkes, Gene Hubert, John Krumm, and my cousin Cam Kaynor, to name a few, are "active-inactive" or "asymmetrical". I've composed a few myself.
Another oft-heard assumption: Recently-composed contras are physically and mentally more taxing than older and "traditional" contras.
In my experience, recent compositions tend to be reasonable in terms of physical and mental challenge. To be sure, there are exceptions. Still, when a succession of modern contras leaves you feeling tired, it's possible that the fault lies not with the dances themselves, but with the caller, who perhaps chose too many in a row which contain numerous allemandes and consecutive-phrase swings for everyone (e.g. swing your neighbor; gents allemande left 1 1/2 and swing your partner) and perhaps let them run too long as well. Leaving aside the question of how you, yourself, chose to exert as you danced, I believe the real issue here is the caller's sense of programmatic pacing rather than the age of the compositions.
A number of callers and dancers have observed that many recently-composed dances are comparatively easy to both teach and dance well. Why? Partly, we think, because the dancer is moved from one action and position to the next by the choreography itself rather than by his or her own memory of when and how to start doing something or going somewhere. Plus, in an "activity undifferentiated" dance, everyone learns all of the choreography in the walk-through. And, you don't encounter new things when you re-enter the dance after waiting out at the end.
What do you think about this newsgroup's commentary in verse and prose on "Modern Urban Contra Dancing" and the caricaturizations of people who enjoy it? As I read it, a large category of dances and the dancers who enjoy them are sweepingly dismissed as "MUCky", inconsequential, socially challenged, crazed, and worse. I feel I'm reading that "real" folk dancing and "good" folk dancing are on some kind of moral high ground because of promoting socializing more than learning choreography, while "Modern Urban Contra Dancing", because of doing the opposite, is in the toilet. In my opinion, it's this thinking which is perilously close to the toilet. I've been on a lot of stages and a lot of dance floors where I've seen copious evidence that these much-maligned modern compositions contribute significantly to the enabling of a growing number of people of diverse ages and abilities to learn choreography while *enhancing* desirable social interaction.
We could do worse than to let go of the notion that if it's recent, it's for the college-educated software engineers, human services people, and sensation junkies to the exclusion of the less formally educated tradespeople and farmhands and people who unacademically treasure the past. I don't know of any solid evidence which supports this.
Another oft-heard assumption: Recently-composed contras have few distinctive figures or qualities and won't endure like "Hull's Victory" and "Chorus Jig".
Agreed: A lot of modern compositions don't have readily-identifiable distinctive figures. How fortunate we are to have live music. Our musicians can learn how to instill dance figures with distinction through their playing. But in any case, distinctive figures were neither used up by the composers of the "chestnuts" nor are owned by them; they're in the public domain and being worked into recent compositions, and more are being invented, too. And who's to say when incorporating a distinctive figure from a "chestnut" (like Ted Sannella's "petronella turn" in "Fiddleheads") into a composition amounts to "rehashing"?
I feel pretty sure that a goodly number of recently composed contras will be enjoyed for many years to come.
Another oft-heard assumption: When you're inactive, you're inert; there's nothing to do but stand around.
If you really and truly feel like you're standing around, maybe the musicians aren't doing the music justice or you just haven't gotten in touch with your Inner Inactive yet.
When the musicians are at their best and the dancers around me are animated, I have an *incredible* amount to see, hear, do, and be when inactive. There's never a dull moment! And in case you want to dismiss this statement as coming from someone who did too many drugs in the 60s or is too soft and out of shape for really active contra dancing, I'll hastily point out that, first of all, it was the 70s, not the 60s; second, I've still got a reasonable amount of brain cells working; third, I'm still pretty quick on my feet; fourth and more to the point, my statement is echoed by a goodly number of folks with a lot more brain cells and strength and stamina than I have.
Yet another oft-heard assumption: Recently-composed contras are not associated with specific tunes in the manner of "Hull's Victory", "Lady Walpole's Reel", "Chorus Jig", etc.
Generally, I agree. Although presumably, I'd be flexible when working with musicians who don't know them, I think about associating specific tunes with my compositions. I greatly admire Cam Kaynor who has been doing this for decades, even to the point of writing some unconventionally-phrased tunes and dances which only work with each other.
Many dancers say they enjoy recognizable tune-dance pairings, and, in fact, seem to dance better when they strongly associate the music with the movements.
Still another assumption: The continuing flood of new compositions will push the older dances still further out of common usage.
Possibly. I think Hank Bradley, in his great little book, wrote something about the difference between tradition and history to the effect that If it can't survive on its own without help, it's history. I think it's a perfect statement and one of the greatest of all time.
That some tunes and dances don't survive off life support might be due to some inherent character flaw in human beings, or it might not. Sometimes it seems inexplicable, how some things pass away while others don't. At any rate, I believe that for the older dances to remain in common usage, a critical mass of inspired musicians, *infectiously* devoted dancers, and callers who maintain programmatic astuteness and sharp teaching skills will be required.
Just as individual tastes vary, some age groups, some whole dance crowds and even some entire regions have strong preferences with regard to programming, characteristics in their music, and stylistic matters like flourishes and embellishments. We're all entitled like some and dislike others, but who's sufficiently informed to pronounce which ones fundamentally bad?
Our many local dance scenes and the American contra dance scene as a whole are a very richly detailed patchwork quilt. It's getting more richly detailed all the time. Although I have my share of concerns and complaints, the bottom line is that I'm more and more proud of it, and us, all the time. To create is to invest in our experience of living. Let's *really* be alive; let's *really* create. I don't care if the ratio of mediocrity to excellence in new contra dance compositions is 100 to 1. I say, what are we waiting for? Let's get to it! Let's compose 1,000!
Sure, we risk having 990 experiences of mediocrity. But remember: Mediocrity is not only survivable; it's forgettable. We may well forget we experienced it. It's a miniscule price to pay for the pride, joy, and enduring delight which 10 excellent compositions can generate.