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Explaining American Contras to Brits

What is it that a Brit should know about American Contras?

American Contras are complicated (and not so complicated) Ceilidh dances: the pattern repeats & repeats & repeats.  The structure of 99% of all Contras is, you do the dance for 64 beats with one couple and then you (magically) move on and do the very same dance, for 64 beats,  with another couple.  Unlike Ceilidh dances, EVERY Contra (there are a rare few exceptions) is 64 beats long.  Because the pattern is so clear, it is not difficult to learn the pattern -- after a few repetitions.

I call Contras “Trance Dance” because after a few repetitions I am almost in a trance: my feet know the moves.  I no longer need to listen to the caller -- and often, after a few times through the dance, the caller shuts up.  What also differentiates Contras from Ceilidh dances is that callers let Contras go for anywhere from ten to twenty five repetitions.  We do the dance over & over & over & over.  One name for American Contras is “Appalachian Sufi dancing” -- like the whirling dervishes, we try to induce a trancelike state through constant repetition, and through dances that contain many swings.

One joke Americans make is that the perfect American Contra dance is “Swing your partner, swing your corner, move on to the next couple.”  We love swinging.  Many American dancers are furious when a Contra does not contain a “swing your partner” move.  Many American dancers expect all Contras to contain a “swing your partner & swing your corner” move.  American Contras are written so that there is a great deal of interaction between the four people who are dancing with each other -- men with women, women with women, men with men

On the other hand, to keep from getting too dizzy, we do eye contact “with a vengeance.”  Americans call Contras an “eye contact” sport.  Perhaps we overdo eye contact, but for the most part, it is harmless.  No one should assume anything at the end of a Contra.  Americans say that in Contras, it is “Attention without intention” -- and for the most part that is true.

Another huge difference between dancing in America and dancing in Britain is that at the end of every Contra the caller says, “Please thank this partner & find another.”  In America, it is almost impolite to dance with the same partner all evening long.  Contras draw many single people, and even those who come to the Contra with a partner are expected to split up and dance with other people.

Like Ceilidh dances, Contras contain a limited number of moves.  At one point one could say that all Contras contained a new combination of the basic 27 moves.  Long ago there was a split between Contra dancers and Square dancers.  Square dancers wanted to incorporate more & more moves into their dances, and they wanted new & complicated moves.  Squares became so complicated that you had to take a series of classes before you would even be allowed into a square dance.  Contra dancers objected.  They wanted anyone to come in off the street and be able to do a called-contra, so they limited the moves that one could incorporate into a contra.  So, for instance, until a few years ago no American Contra contained such square dance moves as “star through” or flutterwheel.  There was (and to some extent still is) a deliberate attempt to limit Contras to a combination of 27 basic moves.  Today some contras do incorporate some simple square dance moves (and some unusual moves like Georgia Orangutan), but by and large, Contras continue to be made up of the basic moves like dosido, allemande, down the hall, circle.  Contras are meant to be simple patterns on the floor.

And that is a huge feature of Contras.  Like Ceilidh dances & like English Country dances, there are almost no complicated moves with your feet: you are walking a pattern on the floor, not “gargling with your feet,” as someone once said is true of  International Folk Dances.

What do Brits need to know about the actual “dancing” of Contras in America?  American women (many of them) like to twirl at the end of some moves -- like a  ladies chain, or a right & left through, or a swing.  American men can encourage such twirling by raising their joined hands and allowing a woman to twirl.  The crucial word here is “allowing.”  Men should not force a lady to twirl -- they shouldn’t “corkscrew” the woman’s arm.   Many women in America don’t want to be twirled and they discuss methods of discouraging those men who seem to take pleasure in “throwing” women around like rag dolls.  Women can actively discourage such men by keeping their arms down.  It is up to the lady whether she wants to be twirled once, or twice -- or in some rare cases, thrice.
Another thing men need to know is that it is up to the ladies to determine the distance between them.  I have danced with some women who want to be smothered -- up close & really very personal -- and I’ve danced with many women who want to keep a safe distance between us.

What else is emphasized in Contras?  Give weight.  Don’t be a limp fish, or a wet dishrag: give weight in all moves -- in 'right hands around' and in 'circle left' and in 'balance and swing' -- and the balance & swing in America is radically different from the balance & swing in Britain.  In Britain you balance right & balance left & balance right & balance left.  This leaves little time for the swing.  We want lots of swing, so we balance right, balance left, and then we swing.

The balance.  Therein lies a long story, much variation.  For beginners, we say balance forward, balance back, swing.  Most Contra dancers balance by stepping on their right foot, crossing their left foot in front, stepping on their left foot, crossing their right in front.  I call it “step lift, step lift.”  This leaves you in the perfect position (side by side) to begin a swing.  At the end of the swing, some American dancers will twirl the lady -- some will even try to twirl her twice -- which brings me to an important feature of such twirls.  Men must be sure to “catch” the lady at the end of such a twirl.  The men must have their right hand out in front of them so that they can catch the lady’s left hand as she comes out of the twirl -- or she will go flying outwards and fall.  My wife often mentions that women have to learn to stay “over their feet” as they twirl.

There are “regional” variations to the balance & swing -- and to several other Contra moves.  Some parts of the country begin the balance by stepping on the left foot first, then the right foot.  Some people (not “parts of the country), jump on one foot & kick with the other.  Some parts of the country do a “star right” by taking hands across, while others do a right hand star by gripping the wrist of the person in front of them.  Some people do a right & left through by taking hands with the person across from them & before they do a “whirl” turn with their partner.  Other parts of the country do not touch hands with the opposite person before the whirl turn.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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