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Contra Dancers & Squares

It is a well known fact that most Contra dancers do not like squares.  The stories about what happens at a contra dance when a caller calls a square are a legion.  Sometimes half the dancers at a dance will sit out a square.  I have been at a contra dance where I asked someone for a dance, and when the young lady realized a square was going to be called she asked me if I minded if she did not do this dance: she didn't like squares.  Long ago there was huge correspondence on the internet when a contra group hired Kathy Anderson and then objected to the fact that she called squares.

Why do contra dancers not like squares?

I am about to hazard a few guesses, and of course I am drawing on my own feelings, my own experiences.

What is probably most obvious is that when a square breaks down, everybody in the square suffers, everybody's dance is ruined.  In a contra dance, if the couple you are dancing with can't do the dance, don't worry -- the next couple you dance with, and the couple after that, is likely to get you back into the dance.  In a square, if it all breaks down, you stand around while the music goes on and on.  You might be able to salvage a little of the dance, but if the people in your square are poor dancers, it might all break down once again.

In a square it is essential that you find three other couples that are good dancers and most contra dancers don't like to work that hard, to seem to be elitist, exclusive.

Contra dancers want to dance their brains out in each & every dance, and success is almost guaranteed in a contra dance where you move from couple to couple.  And there is so much variety: a new couple every 64 beats.  In a square you are stuck with these three couples all dance long.

I think that part of the problem has been the kinds of squares called at Contra dances.  Unless the caller is really good at calling squares, he (or she) tends to call the kinds of squares that drive a contra dancer crazy: squares where three couples stand around doing precious little while one couple "visits" all the other couples.  Contra dancers like to be moving almost all of the time.  Contra dancers also do not like certain "ancient" (and to them boring) square dance moves, moves such as "birdie in the cage," or "take a little peek," or "shoot the buffalo."

I think the contra dance community has had unfortunate experiences with square dance callers.  I think this trend is changing.  Better & better square dance callers are appearing in our community.

In part what I mean by "better" is that the new generation of square dance callers know what kinds of squares contra dancers like.  Contra dancers like the predictability of contras: once you've done the dance once or twice, you know exactly what moves comes next.  You don't have to think.  You don't have to be alert.  Died-in-the-wool square dancers like to be surprised.  They like being in the hands of a caller who can, and will, change his mind on the fly.  If a "true" square dance caller sees a crowd of dancers anticipating his next call, he will change the call, try to trip them up.  Square dancers love being so alert that you can't trip them up.

This is not a game contra dancers like to play.  They do not like to be on "high alert".  They like to be lost in the dance, not alert in case a new move appears.  In another essay I called Contra dancing "trance dance".   Being on "high alert" is the very opposite of being "in a trance", lost in the music and lost in the flow of the moves.

The new breed of square dance callers (at contra dances) call fast moving squares that repeat a series of moves.  They are not trying to "surprise" the dancers; they are trying to drive them around the square at terrific speeds.  They know what contra dancers like.

I am talking as a dancer who used to hate squares, and I think I hated squares because of the kinds of squares I was subjected to.  Once I encountered callers like Larry Edelman & Bob Dalsemer & Kathy Anderson I began to realize that some squares, believe it or not you contra dancers, can be as much fun (if not more fun) than contras.  But you've got to have the right caller, and it is important to have reasonably good dancers in your square, and dancers are going to experience something other than a "trance-like" state.

I run a week long dance camp and I try hard to hire a top-notch square dance caller.  I want contra dancers to learn to appreciate squares.  In my opinion, squares are the closest form of dance to contras.  Like contras, all you do is walk to the music; there is no intricate movement with your feet.  All the moves are familiar to a contra dancer -- and of course I am not talking about the kinds of squares done at square dances which contain many moves that would be unfamiliar to contra dancers.

I assume all of you know that many years ago there was a split between contra dancers & square dancers.  The simplest explanation is that contra dancers wanted to do the kinds of dances where "no experience" is necessary.  You show up on the night, we'll teach you the dance.  Square dancers opted for more & more complicated moves so that eventually you were not allowed to show up at a dance without first going to a class that taught you all the moves you would need on the night of the dance.

Finally, squares are not contras.  Contras provide a flow that cannot be matched in squares.  Some contra dancers will continue to sit down when a square is called.  However, to do contras and only contras is limiting, may someday get boring.  For those who want a form that is close to contras, and as easy as contras, squares are the answer.  I have never found a dance form that pleases me as much as contras, but I vividly remember thinking, at the end of a couple of squares called by Larry Edelman, that somewhere there are squares that are as much fun as the best contras I've ever encountered.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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