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A Controversial Contra Dance

One of the most controversial contra dances ever written is Cammy Kaynor’s “Stoolie’s Jig.” When I showed Ted Sannella a thirty page paper I had written (part of my Master’s Degree in Communications) about Stoolie’s Jig he let me know he hated the dance, would never-ever call the dance. In Mary Dart’s book Contra Dance Choreography Mary quotes John Krumm who said “gent number one took his neighbor down the center & back…Fred Park pointed it out to me…and he said, ‘I can’t do that. It’s insulting to my partner!’ …It’s one of the most intimate of figures, and you’re doing it with someone else.”

I encountered Cammy Kaynor’s “Stoolie’s Jig” on the last day of the first week-long dance camp I ever attended: the 1984 Berea Christmas Dance School. Brad Foster was running a week long Contra workshop. A prior commitment forced him to leave one day early. For the class on the day he would not be there he asked member’s of the class to choose & call their favorite contra dance. One lady in the class chose to call “Stoolie’s Jig.”

I loved the dance! I thought it was one of the most wonderful contra dances I had ever danced. It was one of the very first contra dances I ever copied down and in subsequent months I tried to analyze the dance to see why I loved the dance. I soon realized it was the very move that the great callers hated that made me love the dance.

I was a shy man, a newcomer to this dance form. I had trouble asking the good dancers, the experienced ladies, the beautiful women, for a dance. This dance allowed me to be “intimate” with every single lady in my contra line. In the first half of the dance I swung my neighbor and then I escorted her down the set, and then I escorted her back up the set (showed her off as “mine” so to speak).

Perhaps this is not politically correct -- you should not parade “as yours” someone whom you did not even ask to dance. The great callers are essentially right: you are, at least slightly, insulting & ignoring your partner, while simultaneously laying claim to what is not yours to claim. Cammy Kaynor knew he was violating a sacred principle and in the second half of the dance he made sure to have all the dancers make up with their partners. After you’ve escorted this stranger back up the set, you cast off with your partner, pass through across the set with your partner & swing your partner. In other words, “I’m back! I’m sorry I flirted momentarily with someone else!”

What point am I trying to make? Since that day, twenty years ago, I have attended hundreds & hundreds of contra dances. Only twice has Stoolie’s Jig been called, and yet I loved that dance, it is a good dance, a vigorous & lovely dance. I think some callers have been avoiding it because it does violate some basic principles. As we all know, there are different horses for different courses. Stoolie’s Jig, in the right setting, could be an ice breaker -- could get people who refuse to switch partners to begin to consider switching partners. Stoolie’s Jig could give a beginner dancer the chance to interact intimately with members of the dance community he (or she) is afraid to interact with. It could give a beginner dancer badly needed self-confidence.

Just as there might be good reasons to avoid calling Stoolie’s Jig, there might be good reasons to choose to call Stoolie’s Jig.

P.S. My thirty page paper in my Communications class? I was trying to show that non-verbal communication, essentially how contra dances have evolved, can give us an insight into how a society has evolved. Long ago almost all dances were proper dances in which ninety per cent of the interaction was with your partner or with a member of the same sex. In the last sixty years we’ve had improper contras where interaction is mostly with your partner but there is often a great deal of interaction with your neighbor. With Stoolie’s Jig we’ve come to a point where, at least in one case, you have more interaction with your neighbor than you have with your partner. Welcome to the modern age!

If I were writing the paper now, I would show a few further developments in dance & in society. There is now intimate interaction between members of the same sex: men (or ladies) swing each other, ladies (or men) gypsy each other. More & more dances are being written wherein the two men chain. In such a case who is in charge? The women are in charge. They must wrap their hands around the men & wheel them around (or twirl them).

And finally, we are seeing more & more Role Reversal workshops, wherein men are asked to play the woman’s role & women are asked to take over the man’s role. It is now the woman who must think during the swing: they must stop in time, face in the right direction. I love playing the woman’s role in the swing. I can finally relax, let go of that hateful role in dance: man in charge!

Copyright 2006   Henry Morgenstein

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