I have always been puzzled by the term "improper" contras. No one has ever explained the term "improper" and I am about to hazard a guess as to why "improper" contras are called "improper." In a "proper" contra, when you face down and get ready to dance with the couple below, a man is facing a man, a women is facing a woman. The minute you ask the active couple to "cross over," you have a man facing a woman, and a woman facing a man -- and the people they are facing are not only of the opposite sex, they are also people they did not ask to dance. How improper! How daring! How modern!
Proper contras are out of fashion. On many nights not a single "proper" contra dance is called. Even when they are called, no more than one, or two -- at most three -- proper contra dances are called in a given evening. Why?
Proper contras were created at a time when people wanted to be inactive for part of the dance. There are many reasons why they wanted to be inactive.
Dancing time was "social time." People didn't come to a dance for an aerobic workout. They were there to flirt, socialize, converse. How could you do that if you were in an "all moving" contra? Even more important, they didn't want to sweat. They wore heavy make-up (it would run!), and they wore lots of heavy, formal clothes. Finally, the clothes were often "tacked-together" just for this dance. The stitching was not "triple strength," and vigorous activity could tear fabric. Old Contras, proper contras, give inactive couples time to be inactive -- and even active couples aren't that active.
Clearly, proper contras, written to meet the needs of dancers long ago, do not meet the needs of contemporary dancers who love all moving contras. If any caller dares to call two "classic" proper contras (lots of inactivity for inactive couples) in a row, many dancers get very angry.
So why do callers call ancient proper contras and why do some dancers love them?
There are several good reasons. One of these is that some of the classic contras are danced to specific tunes -- lovely tunes -- tunes that you will not hear unless you dance the contra. "Money Musk" is one such contra. In addition, it is eerie, and lovely, to know that we are dancing dances that were danced in all thirteen American colonies two hundred years ago. There is little doubt that George Washington danced "Petronella" & "Chorus Jig."
Proper Contras are still being written and one particular highly-modern proper contra springs to mind. I once wrote a thirty page paper (as part of my Master's program in Communication) on "Stoolie's Jig" by Cammy Kaynor. This proper contra violated one of the basic rules of all contras: the promenade down the center should always be done with one's partner. One is "showing" one's partner to the assembled dancers when one promenades down the center & back. In "Stoolie's Jig," after eight beats the active man swings his opposite & then he promenades down the center & back with his opposite! Unheard of! Unthinkable -- in any previous contra! Eventually everyone swings their partner (make-up time), but for much of the first half of the dance the active man spends "quality time" with his opposite, parades his opposite down the long lane of dancers.
Ted Sanella, one of the greatest of all callers, refused to call this dance. He told me he disliked this dance because it violated "contra dance conventions."
The first time I ever danced "Stoolie's Jig" I rushed up to the caller and immediately asked if I could copy the dance down. I did not know then why I loved it so but later I analyzed, realized, why I loved this dance. In this dance a man (a woman) gets to dance intensely-and-closely with every member of the opposite gender in the contra line. In many cases these are people one might not have had the guts to ask to dance.
There is a place in an evening's dance for "proper" contras. Good callers also try hard to have short contra lines when they call a "proper" contra: so that every couple gets to be "active couple." But there is little doubt that in our time improper contras will fill the bulk of any dance evening.
Copyright © 2001 Henry Morgenstein