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What is a Contra Dance?

A letter  to "Set & Turn Single" magazine, Jan 2003   by Jacqui Morgenstein

I agree wholeheartedly that "contra" lies somewhere between English Ceilidh and English Social dance (ECD in North America).  It is not so hard on the joints nor as simple as E-Ceilidh but it is more energetic and less complex than English Social Dance.  However, the aims of contra dancers in the USA (where it developed from the old longways dances) are rather different from those of the English Social dancers who have adopted contra dances here.

It seems to me that English Social dancers would really like to get through as many different dances as they can.  But the dances are complex enough to need a thorough walk through so that the dancers then only have time to dance the dance once or twice.

Contra dancers on the other hand are much more concerned with the pleasure of the physical act of dancing.  They want to dance the current dance enough times that they no longer need the call and can then lose themselves in the music and really enjoy dancing with their partner and the others they meet in the set.  Then, when a particular sequence of moves (this current dance) has become almost automatic, improvisation becomes not only possible but even desirable.  George Marshall of Wild Asparagus (arguably the best contra dance band in the USA) admits that he avoids calling very complex dances so as to give the dancers the best chance to enjoy the music.  He also lets the dances run for 15-18 times through.  Truly "Trance Dance" is the result.

A Scottish Country dancer once asked me how many dances would be done in an evening of contra dance.  Since I was keen for him to come and try this new (to him) form, I had to phrase my answer very carefully.  I am sure he would have been put off if I had told him that that was irrelevant since all the dances were similar; but the truth is that contra dancers count the number of people they dance with in an evening rather than the number of dances.

In some ways this is similar to the attitude of E-Ceilidh dancers.  They also change partners frequently and the dances are simple enough that they can concentrate on the music, on the people in the set and on the (very) physical aspects of the dance itself.  They also, like Contra dancers, value the "aerobic workout" element of the evening.

So "What is a contra dance?"  My view is that Contra dances do have their own special feel to them.  Apart from the fact that they are longways duple minor sets preferably with "inactive" couples as active as the "active" couples, the moves flow in such a way as to encourage the giving of "weight".  There is plenty of scope for dancers to propel each other from one move to the next; a balance is always a preparation for onward movement rather than a graceful use of spare music.  The dances are not so complex that familiarity with a particular dance is an advantage, nor are the number of moves too many for the average dancer to memorise within 3 or 4 turns of the dance.   In short, this is not a mental dance form but a physical one having more in common with English Ceilidh than with either Squares or English Social dance.

Copyright 2003   Henry Morgenstein

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