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Brits & Contras

I have been calling Contra dances in England for a few years now and I have been puzzled that dancers in England do not love Contras the way Americans love Contras.  For a long time I did not understand why but I am beginning to see some of the reasons.

I was calling a Contra dance at Cecil Sharp House when my wife's dance partner uttered a mild complaint: he wished I would call more complicated Contras.  My wife pointed out that there were many beginners on the dance floor and that I was trying to make sure that everyone could do the dances.  He said, “That’s a good point,” but she could see that he still wished that, in general, Contras were more complicated.  When a British friend of mine became addicted to Contras and began calling Contras, all his Contras were complicated.  Some were so complex that even a group of highly experienced American Contra dancers would find them confusing.

Why are Brits so attracted to complex dances?

In Britain, a great part of the joy of dancing is in mastering a series of intricate moves.  They listen carefully to the caller and try hard to be at the right place at the right time.  At its worst, this kind of dancing becomes a little  like “chess moves” set to music

Because they are used to intricate dances and because English dance club evenings often contain a mix of Contras, English Country dances & squares, British dancers are unfazed by almost any set of moves that appear in a Contra.  When I call “Centrifugal Hey” by Gene Hubert, American dancers are often late for the balance & swing that appears after the hey; when I call “Sarah’s Journey” by Hubert, the relentless sequence of quick moves leaves American flustered, late for one or another of the moves.

Dancers in England are almost always on time.  They make sure they are where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there.

And yet “Sarah’s Journey” seems bloodless, lifeless, when a British crowd of dancers does it.

Complex British dances are cerebral, demanding: you must pay close attention and be ready to move from where you are to another spot, but the movement from point A to point B seldom involves vigorous contact with another dancer.  You are not giving weight; you are not catapulting another dancer into a hey, or into a “Men take left hands and cross the set” (“Sarah’s Journey”).  You are responsible for yourself, but you are not very responsible for, or involved with, another dancer.

Of course I am making huge generalizations.  Any generalization is bound to be wrong in some cases, and in certain ways.  There are many beautiful English Country Dances where there may not be “vigorous” contact with another, but eye contact is essential: you are most definitely “involved” with another dancer.  ECD dances are not solo flights from spot A to spot B.  But giving weight, catapulting, swinging vigorously, are not a large feature of ECD dances.

And that is another reason why British dancers do not love Contra dances.  They have not learned to do those moves that make Contra dances so much fun.

The first two moves in “Sarah’s Journey” are “Box the Gnat” with your neighbor, Men pull by the left hand across the set & swing your partner.  I called the dance at Cecil Sharp House and after the Box the Gnat my wife held on to her opposite’s right hand and attempted to catapult him across the set.  As he went across the set he said “Let go.”  He knew how to get from point A to point B and he did not appreciate my wife’s attempt to, so to speak, hurl him across.

Part of what makes Contras so much fun is the tension, the giving of weight, the swinging, twirling.  All such moves are somewhat unfamiliar to dancers in England.  There are many contemporary Contras written by Brits, but a great many of them do not contain a “Swing your partner,” very few contain a “Swing your partner & swing your corner” and I would venture to say that not a single one of them contains three swings.

Swings are very intimate, especially the way Americans swing, making “eye contact with a vengeance.”  British people try hard not to make eye contact.  When Brits balance & swing, they balance right, balance left, balance right, balance left -- and then they swing.  Often, while balancing, they do not take hands with the person across from them In general, Brits like short swings so they won’t get dizzy, and they do tend to get dizzy because they avoid eye contact.

For an American, Balance and swing is a very vigorous move..  You take hands, pull toward each other, balance away, and then you bound forward to swing.  If you’ve ever listened to a tape of a dance recorded at a dance camp, you hear an audible thump, thump as the whole floor vibrates with the emphatic foot movements made on the balances.  When I called at Cecil Sharp house in London, I was struck by how silent the hall seemed when one hundred dancers balanced & swung.

They don’t much like swings, they minimize eye contact, they like complex dances, they don’t tend to give weight.  No wonder they don’t appreciate, don’t truly love, Contras.

But there are many more reasons why Contras are not catching on in England.

Unlike America, there are a huge number of very active, very young people people who go to dances -- but they don’t go English Country Dances or Contra Dances; they go to Ceilidhs.  An English “Ceilidh” is nothing like an American Ceilidh.  At British Ceilidhs they do dances that are very similar to American Contra dancers.  In fact, most of the dances they do are Contra dances -- extremely simple contra dances, extremely vigorous Contra Dances, all done to the Rock-like beat of very loud bands.

If we could convince the crowd of people who come to Ceilidhs to come to Contra dances we would get Brits to love Contra dances, but the people who go to Ceilidh dances tend to avoid the English Country Dances because the dances are so complex, so lacking in strong physical contact, and because they think the floor is full of BOFs (Boring Old Farts).

I am being unkind to British dancers -- BOFs, chess moves to music -- but a somewhat similar series of accusations could be made against Contra dancers in America.  American Contra dances are full of Old Farts (aging hippies) who think they are “hip” because they run around a great deal.

But back to the main point: what else is it that Brits don’t see in American Contras, don’t properly appreciate about American Contras?

The similarity between Contras done in English Ceilidhs and American Contras blinds them to one of the most wonderful things about American Contras: the smooth flow of the best Contras.

Contras done in Ceilidhs are vigorous, choppy, hoppy affairs.  Many of the Contra called at a Ceilidh dance call for a step hop, step hop, step hop.  The final effect is bouncy, and the bouncy music encourages the bouncy up & down motion.  Some Ceilidh dances call for a “Rant step” -- again, a vigorous up & down motion.  Such dances offer the dancer a great deal of exercise, and young dancers love it, but there is no graceful flow to the dance (and that’s why American Contra dancers don’t much love Ceilidh dances).

And because a dancer expends a great deal of energy executing each move, Ceilidh-Contras aren’t run for very long: five-eight times through is enough.  English Contras are also called through five-eight times and so English dancers miss out on another of the great beauties of Contras: the mesmerizing flow achieved through the countless repetition of a set sequence.  I call Contras “Trance Dance” because after a few times through a Contra I enter a trancelike state: I don’t think about the next move.

Because they don’t repeat the dance moves often enough British dancers don’t enter such a trance like state.  English Country dancers often do the dance only once because once they’ve mastered the moves in this dance, they feel it is time to move on to another dance.

It is clear that an education process must take place if dancers in England are to appreciate Contras -- just as American Contra dancers need to be educated if they are to properly appreciate an English Country Dance or an English Ceilidh.  If you don’t do the dance correctly, you can’t fully appreciate what the dance has to offer.

In a sense, I am not talking to British dancers, I am talking to American callers (and dancers) and trying to tell them what they need to explain about contras to someone who has never done Contras.

These are the pleasures to be found in Contras.

The smooth flow of a simple set of moves helps you enter a trance like state (Contras are Appalachian Sufi dances).  Interact with your dance partner: give weight, make eye contact.  But remember, Contras are attention without intention.  Finally, listen to the music: it is a large part of the pleasure of a Contra dance.  George Marshall, the caller for Wild Asparagus, once said that he sometimes deliberately calls simple contras so that the dancers will pay close attention to the music.


I’ve realized (my wife pointed out to me) that there is another reason why the British approach & the American approach to dances is so different.

If you always went to a dance with your partner (wife) and almost always danced with just one other person, what is the point of intense eye contact, of dances with long swings, of dances that are repeated & repeated & repeated?

Since you go with the same person each time, and dance with the same person all night long, your interest is in the dance: the moves, the progression, the structure.  Once you’ve mastered that dance, it is time for another dance.

If, as is the case in the U.S., every dance is with a different partner, you want dances that contain eye contact, long swings, and you want the dances to last for a long time.

Often Contra dancers go to a weekend of dance where they meet people they haven’t seen for six months, or a year -- people they won’t see again for six months or a year.  They won’t see them because each may have traveled five hundred miles to get to this weekend of  dance, so they actually live 1,000 miles away from each other.

During the weekend, they may get to dance with each other once, or twice or at most thrice: there are several hundred people at such a weekend.  If the caller is so foolish as to call a dance that does not contain a partner swing, the dancers will hang this caller.  If the dance doesn’t last awhile (at least ten times through) the dancers will, once again, be furious.

It is suddenly quite obvious why dances developed the way they did in our two cultures.  One is a culture where you almost always dance with the same person all night long, and that person is often your life long partner.  In the other a culture you are dancing with different partners all night long, and these are people you may not see again, dance with again, for a year or more.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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