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Two Countries Divided by a Common Language

Many of you have heard of the old saying “England & America are two countries divided by a common language.”  This is particularly true in what Americans call the “Contra-ECD” dance community & England calls “The Social Dance-Ceilidh” dance community.

As you already can tell, the whole dance scene is labeled differently.  Americans have Contra dances; there are almost no “contra dances” in England.  Americans talk of English Country Dances (ECD) when we are referring to Playford Dances, which are only a small subset of what English people call “English Country Dances.”   Brits talk of the “Social Dance Scene” wherein they dance English Country Dances, most of which Americans have never heard of, or danced.

Let me begin with the term “Barn Dances,” a term we Americans associate with the frontier: having a dance when you finish building a barn.  As a contemporary contra dancer in America I would never think of going to something labeled a “Barn Dance.”  I wouldn’t be sure of what I would get once I got there, but probably there would be squares (yuck, say died-in-the-wool contra dancers), and people dressed up as fake cowboys (yuck gain).

In England “Barn Dances” are, ninety per cent of the time, fund-raisers for schools, groups of one kind or another.  If you went there you would encounter families, adults & kids of all ages, and the caller would call a variety of very simple dances (longways, squares, three-four-five couple dances) that are meant to get everyone up and dancing.  An actual “barn” is not part of a barn dance, and almost every person in England has, at some point in his-her growing up process, gone to a “barn dance.”

“Ceilidh” is another very confusing term for Americans & Brits.  Americans think of “Irish” dances, sevens & threes and all that stuff, when they hear Ceilidh, and Americans spell it “Ceili” as the Irish do.  Americans aren’t sure what a “Ceili” is, and once again, died-in-the-wool contra dancers would never think of attending a “Ceili” dance in America.

“Ceilidh dances,” in England, are a very big part of the dance scene.  The name was borrowed from the Celts to refer to the new wave of English country dancing.  Every country dancer in England knows what goes on at a Ceilidh.  One, there will be beer.  Two, there will be a very loud, rock-like band.  Three, the crowd will be young (ten to forty plus), and the dancing will be very vigorous and tiring: lots of hop-stepping and ranting (a term unknown to Americans).  We Americans would recognize the dances as variants of the Virginia Reel, with, in addition,  simple squares and simple Contras.  A “Ceilidh” in England is nothing like a “Ceili” in America.

At a “Contra Dance,” in America, all evening long you would dance almost nothing but “contra” dances, and almost always there would be live music.  Until three or four years ago, there were no “Contra Dances” in England.  Even today, “Contra Dances” are as rare as hens teeth in England, although the idea, the concept of nothing but “contra” dances all evening long, is beginning to catch on in England.

There are “contra” dances in England, but you would encounter only a few such dances as part of an evening of dances at a dance club (most often records, not live music), or as part of a Saturday night dance (live music) that contained English country dances (mostly modern ones, not Playford), squares and  three-four couple dances.  The average age of the dancers would be much older than the dancers in the American Contra dance scene.  The dancing would be much less vigorous than the dancing found in America, the contras would often have no partner-swings and none of the dances would have a swing your partner and swing your corner.  A “balance & swing” would contain four balances and a very short swing.

“English Country Dance” means something altogether different in America and England.  As I said earlier, ECD is our term for Playford Dances, dances written several hundred years ago.  Lately ECD groups in America have discovered a few modern ECD dances and incorporated them: dances by Gary Roodman, Fried DeMetz Herman and Orly Krasner.  “English Country Dances” in England encompasses a vast number of modern dances written by countless modern dance writers.  Playford dances are rare in an evening’s dance in England, and just as some American contra dancers are asking for a return to the “old, staid, proper, inactive” contras, some English dancers are asking for a return to the old, once-familiar, repertoire of English Country Dances.

 I could go on & on, but you get the general idea: two countries divided by a common language.  Hey? Reel; Right Hand Star?  Hands Across;  Dosido?  Back to Back.

Of course everything is changing in the Global Village.  As American contra dancers and dances flow over to England, English dancers are beginning to recognize our terms - Hey, California Twirl, Right & Left Through - and they are beginning (only beginning!) to understand our “eye contact with a vengeance.”  They are still embarrassed by the intensity of our eye contact and they are sure, absolutely sure, that we are flirting.  American dancers are beginning (only beginning!) to understand that English Country Dances, in England,  are not solely (or even largely) Playford dances, and that Ceilidhs are not Ceilis.

We will always be divided by a common language, an ocean, a history that is different, divergent.  We will learn from each other, but we will continue to misunderstand because the same word means different things in America and in England.

Let me end with a funny example.  A group of American dancers came over to dance in England and at the end of one dance the British dancers let the American dancers know that at the next dance there would be “An American Supper.”  The Americans left thinking “Oh no!  We have to bring enough food to feed all the British dancers!”  In England, they call our “Potluck” (a term they’ve never heard of) an “American Supper.”

Copyright 2002   Henry Morgenstein
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