Back in 1944, when I was 15, a teen club was started in my home town of Uncasville, CT. There was a square dance caller who had an auction barn, and was also an auctioneer. A ballroom dance teacher taught us waltz, polka, and fox trot. In my senior year of high school, my mother pushed me into taking a teen dance class in Norwich CT consisting of ballroom & square dancing.
So when I next became a freshman in Engineering at Univ. of CT in 1946, I joined the Univ. 4-H club under state 4-H leader Warren Schmidt. I joined purely because they featured square dance lessons after their meetings (which I skipped). After all, U-Conn had started out as an agricultural college. The state 4-H organization sponsored a state 4-H square dance festival with callers from all of CT, who submitted in advance their calls written out so all the 4-H kids in CT could practice them before the festival, which was on the football field, all marked out with lime in 12-ft squares. All live music, of course.
And it was ALL singing squares. Some visiting couple dances, but many dances were more active for more people, adapted from the old Quadrilles. Everyone knew how to do the buzz-step swing, and many swings were longer than 8 beats. At the public dances, nothing was taught: the callers were not good at teaching. You just dove in and scrambled around until you “got it”. Even then, at a dance, the management often told the caller “Don’t do so much teaching! We didn’t come here to LEARN to dance: we came here to DANCE!
As soon as I could drive the family car, a 1929 dodge, I tried to find as many of the regular dances as possible. There was one almost every Friday and Saturday night at fire houses, Granges, schools, town halls, almost all of them doing singing squares alternating with ballroom dances. LOTS of teen-agers, but most of the dances had plenty of older people too, who helped maintain decorum.
I always carried a pocket notebook, to write down the calls, rewrite them at home, and practice to my own accompaniment on the piano.
There were no contras being done in any of CT or RI with one exception: I got to the public hall in Hadlyme early one night, and there were about 6 older couples dancing “Opera Reel”. I knew what it was, but I had only seen it before in a book by Elizabeth Burchenal, a folk dance leader in NYC, who wrote many books about folk dancing, and this one was from around 1920, describing contra dancing in one of the small hill towns of Western MA.
I asked around and found that by then, (the late ‘40’s) contra dancing was completely dead in RI & CT, except for this small private group.
Soon I was itching to call to live people, and one night I went to the Grange Hall in Ekonk, CT (2 chicken farms, two houses, one grange Hall) where my car-pool buddy told the caller that I could call, so they ganged up on me and I had to call a tip of 3 singing squares. Of course, my dances were from another area, 70 miles away, and different from what the crowd was used to, but with the same basics, of course, so it turned out OK, although they weren’t used to doing walk-thru’s.
Later I was asked to teach some teens at the Lisbon Grange, near Jewett City, so I had to join the Grange. I cobbled up a variable speed turntable so I could use records, and taught them most everything I knew.
Eventually I ranged as far as Brattleboro, Keene, and Chesterfield, NH to search for more material, and discovered contra dancing there. I got to know Ralph Page, who, though I didn’t know it at the time, had been spreading contra dancing in New Hampshire and the Boston area, through his Tuesday night dances at the Boston YWCA, since about 1934, and also to New York City, California, and even Japan!
Later, I got to call at the U-Conn festival, and around 1949-50, Al Brundage, who had just started the Hartford MWSD club, brought an exhibition set or two to show us what MWSD was all about. They had bright costumes, lots of “skirt work”, and put on a spectacular performance of flashy dances such as “Triple Duck”, “Chain the Ladies Through the Star” and “Two Stars in the Night”. I was just blown away by this, but Hartford was a LONG ways from home with the narrow roads of that time.
At the other extreme, one night I visited Wildwood Park in Dayville, CT, a roller rink on the edge of a lake, where a caller named Earl Johnston was calling a lively dance to at least 150 teen-agers, with a band led by Ernie Rock: The “Band that Swings the Squares”. Examples: Mañana, Polly Wolly Doodle (La La La), the Jitterbug Square. These same dances were being done all over CT, along the CT river, at least up to Vernon, VT.
In 1949 or so, when the Korean “police action” came around, my mother talked me and my brother into joining the National Guard so we wouldn’t be drafted. As it turned out, our unit was activated, and we went to Georgia where I discovered “Big Circle Dancing”, also known as “Appalachian Running Sets” which the natives called “square dancing”. (descr Big C.Dancing, visiting cpls)
I hitch-hiked all over Georgia to find it – asking in stores and on the street, about where any square dancing could be found. The usual answer was “Not for YEARS” – not since my Grandfather’s time” but there was often one taking place every Saturday night in that same town. This would still happen today if you walked around any North American city!
Then in early 1951, I was sent to Ft Bliss TX, in El Paso, to Master Gunner School. I soon found out that this was a SQUARE DANCE PARADISE !!
There was Early Modern Western Square Dancing 3 nights per week somewhere on the base, dances in town, and also at the “Square Dance Ranch”, a hall built just for square dancing out on the highway with callers Harold Newsom and Louie Ratliff. They had women without partners who wanted to take the classes, and fixed me up with an older partner – but with a car! – who would pick me up and bring me home, and I took the 6 lessons, and the 6 more optional, where we learned Texas Star, Sally Goodin, San Antonio Rose, The Jessie Polka, Put your Little Foot, all to live music. We learned basics, of course, but in order to do the DANCES, not as an end in themselves. This was when “Catch all 8” & “Box the Gnat” were actually DANCES, rather than BASICS.
I also got to visit Herb Greggerson’s dance barn, went to one of his SQD weekends in Ruidoso NM, learned some round dancing. Bob Osgood of Sets In Order magazine came to one of the festivals, and I got to call a square at one in NM which was broadcast on radio. Passes from the post were easy – we only had to sign out, and later, back in.
One time I tried to see how many nights in a row I could go dancing, and went for 13 nights in a row when along came a Sunday when there was no dance.
Meanwhile, my unit was sent to Ft Banks, in Winthrop, MA to protect Boston from the North Korean Bombers with our anti-aircraft guns. We had 4 batteries posted around Boston, but we could still go out any night we wanted. So I got a different kind of dance education: I studied every type of dancing related to American Square & Contra Dancing. Scottish Country Dancing on Monday nights, Square and Contra with Ralph Page at the Boston YWCA on Tues, the same with Charlie Baldwin (original editor of “The New England Caller” magazine), English Country Dancing, and Irish Ceili Dancing. Then home most weekends, danced and met my first wife at a SQD, of course.
Back home in the summer of 1952, I was asked to teach MWSD for a folk dance group who met at the home of the famous puppeteer Rufus Rose, the creator of “Howdy Doody”. I never got to see Howdy Doody himself, but his “father” Rufus Rose, was in NYC all week doing the show, while his wife stayed home in Waterford (near New London) holding folk dance sessions at their home. The classes moved to the Mitchell College Gym in New London and I was a junior in engineering by then on campus in Storrs, at Univ of CT. Quite a drive. I drove every Tues night to Hartford to take Al Brundage’s beginner class (I had also saved all the notes from my Texas classes), then taught the same lessons the next night in New London where the class eventually formed the Community Square Dance Club, where we did MWSD, some Traditional, and some Contras too.
And my Professor couldn’t figure out why I fell asleep in his class. In the midst of all this, I got married, and moved out of the dorm into an apartment in Willimantic.
In 1954 I graduated from Univ of CT and moved to Windsor Locks to work at Hamilton Standard as a development test engineer. WLKS is half way between Hartford and Springfield, MA. All this time, MWSD had been growing like crazy in both areas,, but faster in the Springfield area, with Al Brundage leading it in the Hartford Area, and his brother, Bob, in the Springfield Area.
We danced at the Hartford SQD club a few times, and decided to see what was going on in the Springfield Area.
Our first trip was to the Wilbraham SD club, one of Bob’s first clubs. We got there about 7:40 PM. The parking lot was FULL. We walked into the hall , a large school Gym, and the place was packed with people already forming squares even though the dance wouldn’t start for another 15 minutes. We found there were already many active clubs in the area, all off-shoots of Bob’s original club, and Bob was leaving his job at U-Mass around that time to go back to South Western CT. His classes were being taken over by other newer callers, notably Willie Jenkins, who continued teaching classes for many years for many clubs.
I was soon asked to start classes for the Enfield CT Lions club which became the Enfield Square Dance Club, and I started looking for a barn to convert for dancing, like the Bay Path Barn, or Al Brundage’s barn, or Howard Hogue’s “Square Acres” in East Bridgewater, MA. I found an abandoned horse barn formerly belonging to the Hazard Powder Company in Hazardville (part of Enfield). Every window was broken, even window frames, the roof leaked like a sieve, and between June and October of 1959, with the help of members of my Enfield SQD club, and other clubs too, we had our first dance there in the fall of ’59. Later I sold my house and moved into an apartment upstairs in the barn. The Enfield club met there, and soon I had their classes, other classes of my own besides, and two new clubs formed, the Powder Mill Puffers and the Powder Keg Squares. (They were a “PhD” level club – I was the first to award a “PhD” degree to square dancers!).
Some time before, Al Brundage had formed the CT Callers’ Assn (of which I eventually became VP, then President). Earl Johnston had joined the CT Assn. to learn how to do MWSD, and by then was calling full time. He had the West Springfield, Chicopee, Manchester CT, and Vernon CT clubs. I was also teaching lessons for sometimes four other clubs, and guest calling at others.
This growth continued without letting up until in 1965, there were 65 active clubs and 45 callers on the Springfield area calendar, and perhaps 40 on the Hartford calendar, which included all of CT.
Earl Johnston called a meeting at my barn to form the Springfield Area Callers Assn mainly for the purpose of trying to get us all to switch from the “up-hand” or “arm-wrestling” grip to the forearm grip. People from his clubs, coming back from dances in CA, the National SQD convention, etc, were INSISTING that we change. Big Controversy. Some clubs even folded because of this. Somewhat connected to this was the “Men with hairy, sweaty arms” problem which was worse with the forearm grip. So a national law was passed that no matter how hot it was, all men had to always wear long-sleeved shirts. We did adopt the forearm grip, but the traditional square and contra dancers still use the old hand-grip.
Lessons had increased over that period, 1950 – 1965, from 6+6, to 12, to 14, then to 21, and 30, then to 30 + 10 more workshops to try to prepare people to be able to dance in their own clubs. There were HUGE beginner classes. One caller remarked at the callers’ meeting that he had told his club (Holyoke) “Don’t even call me unless you have at least 10 squares of beginners signed up”. I ran the very first SUNDAY night class (blue laws in MA at the time didn’t allow that) and got 20 squares of beginners!
But in the fall of 1965, things were beginning to happen to this wonderful movement. I was calling to about 24 squares in Pittsfield one night, and suddenly noticed that in that whole crowd, there were only about 3 couples who were around 40 or younger! The rest seemed to be in their sixties. Not a BAD thing, but unsettling. What was going to happen if this kept up? One caller , just back from a tour out west, was reported to have said at his dance, after about half the crowd had walked out at intermission “Now that the OLD folks have gone home, maybe we can do some REAL dancing!!”. That fall, a drop in attendance was noted, and beginners were getting harder to find. Some clubs started combining to get even one or two squares together. At one club, which was barely making it already, they had a 5-minute election of club officers before the dance. The president’s acceptance speech was, “I don’t mind taking this job, because there’s nothing to do anyway! No work involved!”
In 1966, seeing the problem getting worse, I wrote a book, “Let’s Create Old Tyme Square Dancing” offering a 12 lesson course and a program of lower level dancing. Then in 1969, Bob Osgood, voicing the same concerns, came out with “The Basic Program of American Square Dancing” which had much the same ideas, using 50 basics.
Much later, in 1986, Callerlab, mentioning the very same problems that Bob Osgood had noticed in 1969, developed the Community Dance Program (CDP) with 24 basics, and 6 to 8 lessons. The CDP program is now in the hands of a committee headed by Cal Campbell. But none of these solutions have even been taken seriously by the clubs nor the callers. Both were only interested in the newer basics and how to lift the level to what was being done in the MWSD clubs. Many couldn’t even see that there WAS a problem, because the larger clubs were doing OK.
By 1974, attendance had continued to drop,. and it was getting harder for just ONE club to get a class together without combining with other clubs. However, in the greater New England area, it was still on the upswing until perhaps the mid- eighties. I started exploring contra dancing from New Haven to Norwich, VT, and in the Boston Area and found that there was a revival going on. In many places, under Ralph Page’s influence in the New Hampshire and Boston Area, with “regular” people ,but in other areas, such as New Hampshire. CT, the CT River Valley (know as the “Pioneer Valley” in MA) and also the Boston area, influenced by Dudley Laufman, and helped by the hippie and Folk Music fad, attracting younger folks with no shoes, no bras, no using deodorant, tank tops, extreme casual dress - but people learning by doing, and having a BALL! My Enfield MWSD Club had moved out of my barn to a local school where they continued to decline. My Powder Mill Puffers, Powder Keg Squares and the Teen club had folded. I was let go by 3 clubs whose classes I had taught for a long time because I wasn’t putting enough pressure on the beginners to learn all the latest new basics that they had to know to dance with their clubs. I was wasting valuable time with fun singing squares and sometimes even tried to teach them a contra during class time. As a club caller, too, I was not as enthusiastic about the new “basics” as I should have been. I remember when “Load the Boat” came out - I really didn’t want to hear about it when my dancers came back to tell me about it!
So it was impossible to get any of the club dancers interested in Contra dancing, as it had been with the traditional square dancers years before.
We were all – my kids and I – active in Fifing and Drumming – always popular in CT – and I was a fife teacher in the Nathan Hale Fifes & Drums. We did Rev. War re-enactments, mock battles, overnight Rev. war style camping in authentic uniforms, playing authentic tunes of the period. Someone found that in Revolutionary times –the late 1700’s – they did a lot of dancing. Everywhere George Washington went it seemed they would throw a Ball in his honor. There were actual records of which dances they did with directions hidden in the archives of many large libraries. The Boston Public Library was one of them. We decided to form a dance demonstration group with costumes, who could dance and demonstrate these dances at the coming bicentennial celebrations of 1976. With the research of two mature ladies of the corps, who were able to access these old records where the ordinary library client wouldn’t even be allowed in the room with them, we produced a book “24 American Country Dances of the Revolutionary Era” named after yearly editions of similar books published in England all during the 1700’s. These form the documented history of American Square and Contra Dancing.
From this beginning, I was able to form a band, “The Fifer’s Delight”, with my son playing fife & flute, my playing accordion and calling, a fiddler, and a piano player whom I had taught. Along with that, “Country Dance in CT” was formed, which today sponsors the “NOMAD” festival, and dances were started in Northampton, South Amherst, (by Dudley Laufman, who was responsible for much of the modern contra dance revival) there were soon weekly dances in Hartford, one every Sat. night in South Amherst, twice monthly at my barn. I had left engineering in 1961 to try to make a living calling dances, but had turned to teaching high school physics two years later, for financial reasons. I also started making fifes and flutes as a hobby, which eventually turned into a full time job.
Since then, contra dancing has grown steadily, especially in the Boston area, then spreading out to all of the USA including AK and HI. We are supported by two main organizations namely, NEFFA ( the New England Folk Festival Assn) and the American Version of the CDSS (Country Dance & Song Society) which has members everywhere in Canada, the U K , Denmark, Belgium, Holland, (all doing American Style Contra Dancing to calls in English!) England, the USA, an international directory of groups with contacts so that you can find contra dancing in every major city, in every state, and even overseas..
These days, I’m calling what could be called a “Community Dance Program” but is really just a continuation of the traditional program which has been going on all along, “underground” as far as the MWSD people know, once a month in Goshen, MA (check schedule) doing guest calling at various contra dance groups, a few one-night-stands, and reviving the dances at my own barn in Hazardville, CT. The next dance there , and in Goshen MA, will be in October. I have a new CD out with 12 of my favorite singing squares and usually give calling workshops at the Dance Flurry Festival, and get to call at the Falcon Ridge Festival in July. In between calling jobs, I dance almost every Friday and Saturday nights at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield, MA, where the crowd is about 25 years younger, on average, than the more laid-back Boston crowd, and just FULL of enthusiasm. Now the Boston area too has a large teen-age attendance at the Cambridge Thursday night dance. . Some high school age, more college age, lots of 20 – 30 year olds, and everything up to age 80. Attendance is increasing steadily. I hope you can visit this scene sometime!!
A “thinning out of motivation to recruit”? Most of the clubs especially at first, were formed by existing groups of some type, such as church couples’ clubs, PTA’s, Service Organizations, Lions” clubs. A group of people who somehow were motivated to sponsor a beginner class as a fund-raising project for their organization. They had the leverage to convince other members, most of whom they knew personally already, that they owed it to their organization to come to the class to support this new fund-raising project, to have some fun with people of their own type, and to recruit outsiders to help too. By say the next year, after a club had been formed, it was time to recruit another class. But almost everyone in the original organization had already tried to recruit everyone they knew, so it was up to the “second generation” to start recruiting all THEIR friends. Each year, the newer dancers were farther apart from the core group, acquaintance wise and in loyalty to the groups original purpose. Also, a lot of them were taking the dancing for granted. Maybe they didn’t NEED a new class – they were having enough fun already. People in the whole area, by 1965, who would be able and open for square dancing had largely been already recruited.
It was rather exclusive. You had to be married (singles clubs came later), or at least come as a couple, white, of a certain age, not tied down with small kids, and sign up for many weeks of lessons.
Many people had so much fun that they went dancing 2, 3, even 5 times per week! Naturally, these were the couples who knew the most about dancing, they were the club workers, so they naturally became the club officers, who hired the callers. They were also the ones who got tired of doing the same old dances, in the same old way. The ones who got really excited when a visiting caller taught them a new “basic”, like “square thru” which was a good one, VERY useful - and “Load the Boat”, which I think was maybe the start of going too far with what you might call a “WOWIE!!” basic. So the callers had to keep those “3 sets in the front row” happy - mostly with brand-new calls which became basics – and they also had to impress folks at the other clubs where they guest-called. Lots of callers’ note services helped this process to escalate.
Neither the club officers nor the callers cared too much about the “three sets in the back row” who couldn’t keep up, or the twice-a-month club dancers who missed all the new calls (“Now that the old folks have gone home, maybe we can do some REAL dancing!”) Callers could not be allowed to waste precious class time with fun stuff. Bear Down! Bring them up to Club Level! Drill! Drill! Drill!. But by the time the lessons were over, many new basics had already been added, so the class STILL wasn’t ready! OK, so increase the number of lessons to 21, 30, 35, and add 10 summer workshops. THEN you’ll be ready to dance with us in the Fall! (about a year from when they started!). But even then, club members were not patient with the people who couldn’t keep up. Attitude of many club members was “If I didn’t learn at least one exciting, new basic, I didn’t have fun at that dance!” Of course, that new basic usually became part of the repertoire of basic calls that every club dancer had to know.
Over the past 15 years (1950 – 1965) the “drop-outs” had increased in number, so that by 1965, there was quite a large “reservoir” of them in the area. A number larger than the total of people actually dancing. Few noticed or were concerned, because they were having so much fun. The whole theme of the dancing was the CHALLENGE. If I’m not being CHALLENGED, it’s no fun!
SURVEY: IN 1966, I took a survey of the results of several different classes. At the classes, there were few drop-outs. But at the first real club dance after they graduated, only about 50% of them would show up. Less as time went on until after a whole year, most classes would have only 10% of the graduates still dancing. The other 90% perhaps couldn’t dance frequently enough to keep up, and if they tried to dance less frequently, or took time off for good reasons, they couldn’t come back without a refresher course.
But most people thought that things couldn’t be better: with LOTS of clubs to choose from on weekend nights, less on Thursday down to two on Sundays. The Springfield area calendar coordinators estimated that counting all the club members on the books in the calendar area, there were 10,000 dancers in the clubs. By multiplying the number of clubs by the average attendance, there seemed to be about 4,000 people dancing regularly. BUT, to get this many elite dancers who could keep up with all the calls, an estimated 30,000 people had been taught in the classes over that 15 years. WHAT were those 24,000 drop-outs doing?
They weren’t doing the traditional square dancing (EASTERN style – POOEY!).
Not contras (this was before the modern revival). Most had been “soured” on the whole MWSD picture. Too complex, too expensive (the costumes). You had to keep dancing twice a week to keep up. They had been treated badly by the “elite’ dancer. BUT THEY WERE GREATER IN NUMBER THAN THE PEOPLE STILL DANCING ! They were all over the area. Do you think they were “spreading the good word” about how much fun MWSD was? I don’t think so!
Furthermore, many had been taught that the only fun in MWSD was the CHALLENGE, the excitement of CHALLENGE, in the form of new basics, ever more complicated variations of the old basics. So they were not only not dancing, but spreading negative thoughts about SQD in general! Most of the traditional dances in the area had died by then, and MWSD was the only form of SQD that they knew.
Club dancers and callers had never encouraged their dancers to visit any of it while it was still alive – they were afraid they might lose them – so it was MWSD or nothing. They chose nothing. 24,000 of them!! And it’s even worse today in 2005 than it was in 1965. Those 65 clubs in the Springfield area have dwindled to SEVEN! In CT, those 40 dwindled to 27 (but this does include the whole state).
We need to give those 24,000 drop-outs (that number must be a lot higher now in 2005 than in 1965) to give them a place to still dance, but at an easier level, and attend as often or seldom as they are able, thus maintaining a pool of people with a positive attitude toward square dancing in general.
That’s why I wrote my book “Let’s Create Old Tyme Square Dancing”, why Bob Osgood tried to introduce “The Basic Program of American Square Dancing”, why Callerlab developed the CDP – Community Dance Program –still supported by a Callerlab committee headed by Cal Campbell. Cal’s new book “Dancing for Busy People” now proposes .a further development, and recommends 3 or 4 lessons, or less, and provides a tremendous amount of material for a more fun-oriented community program which Cal has found really works. I recommend this book highly: it contains a LOT of material any caller could use for parties and community dances.
TODAY, there are two ideas better than the Community Square Dance Program with its 12 to 20, or so lessons. ONE is the new “ABC Method of Marketing Square Dancing” program from the Rio Grande Valley Callers’ Assn, and the other one is Contra Dancing, now going, and growing in full swing all around your own areas!!
We will next talk about the modern contra dance revival but first, a .
DANCE DEMO BREAK HERE: SQUARES:
SOLOMON LEVI (Nelly Bly) SALLY GOODIN – THE AUCTIONEER
Square dance at Ralph Sweet's Powdermill barn on his 80th birthday... 5/17/09
THE MODERN CONTRA DANCE REVIVAL
The earliest form of both square and contra dancing was found in a book called, The English Dancing Master, published in 1651 by Playford. The book contained music and directions for MANY dances we would today recognize as early forms of contra and square dancing. New editions came out every few years until 1728, when each year until the late 1700’s, two different books from two different publishers were issued, each one containing music and directions for “24 Favorite Country Dances of the year 1729, 1730, etc. Even the first one in 1651 had so many dances so well described that it was obvious that this type of dancing must have been going on for perhaps generations.
Then centering around the year 1900, Cecil Sharp in England revived these dances and started a movement in England which resulted in the formation of the CDSS: (Country Dance and Song Society). In 1915 a branch was started in the Boston area, and soon there were other branches in NYC and elsewhere. They promoted folk songs of England, English country Dancing, Morris Dancing, and American Square and Contra Dancing.
[9/21/05: Colin Hume says the organization was "The English Folk Dance Society". Later the American branches became CDSSA ("The Country Dance and Song Society of America") and some years ago they dropped "of America".]
The American CDSS is today a separate organization, stronger than ever. It promotes contra dancing across the USA, has a National directory with contact information so you can dance contra everywhere in the US, Canada, and many other countries. Headquarters is in Haydenville, MA. They are an excellent source of books and recordings on Contra Dancing. Contra had been growing in the Boston area under Ralph Page’s influence, and in the 1970’s and 80’s, it practically exploded among the Folk music crowd under the influence of Dudley Laufman, and his Canterbury Orchestra. Dudley is still active with school and community programs in New Hampshire and across the USA.
I’d like to mention that this is not exactly the same type of contra dancing that is promoted by the “American Dance Circle” of the Lloyd Shaw Foundation. They call us the “grass roots” contra dance movement, and it is OUR movement, mostly emanating from the Boston, New Hampshire, and Pioneer Valley areas, that has spread all over the country, and attracted so many young people.
Don’t expect yourself or your club dancers to fall in love with contra dancing until you have explored several of the dance venues, found one you like, and have gone there at least 3 times! Here is an example of the reaction of the average club dancer if they show up at a contra dance:
I would be calling a contra dance at my Powder Mill Barn, with my own band, The Fifers’ Delight. We might have 3 lines of people of all ages reaching the back of the hall, everyone dancing to the phrasing of the music, in casual clothes.
I would notice them when they came in – way overdressed with Western outfits for the men, those multi-petticoated skirts that MWSD women wear, which the young people have commented on – they think it makes them look like upside-down cupcakes. Many times they would come up and tell me what club they were from, and that they thought it might be fun to try contra dancing. That was good - of course they would know all the basics – we only use about 15 of the traditional basics – although a few other than traditional basics are done today, a couple of them borrowed from MWSD.
But it was obvious that any tendency to dance to the phrasing of the music had been beaten out of them,- - if they had ever had it. They would complete a ladies chain in about 4 beats of music, and look up toward me as if to say “Well? Why aren’t you calling the next move?” while my dancers were filling out the full 8 beats to fit the music, so that everyone in the hall was perfectly synchronized, doing the same figures at the same time. Then there are many swings in contra dancing where they swing two,-- even three times around, and they had been trained to NEVER swing more than ONCE around! (And many hadn’t even been taught the buzz-step swing by their teacher-callers. In fact, many of those callers couldn’t even do it themselves!).
Then afterward they often would come up to say they had to leave, and would almost always offer the same three comments:
BUT, it’s SO REPETITIVE!! BUT, there’s SO MUCH SWINGING!
And also BUT, THERE’S SO MANY YOUNG PEOPLE!! They had completely missed everything we find great fun about contra dancing!
So if it’s not challenging, if it only uses 15 basics, what IS THERE about contra dancing that is attracting all those young people? How can anyone with any intelligence whatsoever enjoy dancing without being challenged?? (Often actually heard from proponents of MWSD)
There are a LOT of things about contra dancing that makes it attractive and enjoyable.
PHRASING WITH THE MUSIC: Everyone in the hall is doing the same figures at the same time, synchronized with the parts of the tunes, which all have 64 beats of music. (everything is broken into “elements” - each basic call takes 8 steps to complete, just as the tunes have “elements “ of 8 musical beats which are easily heard, and guide the dancers to keep them all together, and finishing together. It’s actually spell-binding. Beginners can often pick this up their first night. It results in a great community feeling throughout the whole room!
MUSIC: Always live music. Contra dance musicians today are much better qualified than the ones I used to hear at the traditional dances 40 years ago – many of them are accomplished at .modern, swing and jazz and improvisation, making the dancers sometimes feel as though they are floating along a few inches above the floor! Often when the band changes tunes, or keys, or pulls some musical trick, the dancers will give out a hearty CHEER all while dancing along.
FLOW: Dances are composed to make one figure flow smoothly into another - - as used to be the case even with MWSD in the early days. Dancers notice when there are awkward transitions, and if the evening has a lot of them, you- - the caller - will hear about it!
COMMUNITY - NEW PEOPLE: One sequence of the dance lasts only about 30 seconds, using 6 – 8 basic calls, but then you are meeting and dancing with a different couple. Also it’s customary NOT to dance with the same partner each time. Contra gives you a chance to meet perhaps 20 different candidates in a row for your next dance with a new partner! This results in married people dancing with single people, old folks dancing with teens and college students. OR you CAN stick with the same partner all night, but as one new young lady dancer from Japan remarked one night to me “but that would be BORING!!” Most contra dancers would agree! This is how we welcome and absorb new people all the time! You can bring a new non-dancer to ANY contra dance at any time of year! No waiting for lessons! The experienced dancers EXPECT to see and welcome new people!
LEARNING A DANCE: Most dancers do not remember a dance by its name, but the caller will walk through each dance from one to three times (3 times is rare) depending on the ability of that group of dancers. Then he will call it perhaps 3 times through, and expect everyone to have learned it. Of course, he will call it more times if he sees that new folks are having trouble. Usually all the dancers have it down by then, and can continue dancing synchronized with the music, completely on their own, because they are dancing to the phrasing of the music, NOT the caller. . The caller can plan his next dance, get a drink (non-alcoholic!) play an instrument, or go down on the floor to help a group who might be in difficulty. But the experienced dancers take care of most of that.
INTERJECTION: Most dancers, maybe ALL, LIKE to be on their own. No calls, just “zone out”- listen to the music, or greet other people as they dance. It gives them a feeling of “ownership” of the dancing. They NEVER have heard a caller yell at them “DON’T ANTICIPATE!” This would be like slapping them in the face – as I’d bet some of the MWSD dancers also feel!. Even in MWSD, we used to teach that the caller should observe the natural pace of the dancers as they did the figures, and stay one call ahead of them, to achieve FLOW. Not like today, where the dancers are supposed to hold back until the caller gives the word, resulting in a stop, start, stop, you can go now, wait, start again, type of dancing. THIS HAS NO FLOW!! Here’s a little story to illustrate how much the dancers love this “ownership of a dance” thing, AND the “FLOW” thing: One night at the Guiding Star Grange, David Kaynor, who really started this whole wildly successful thing in Greenfield, had walked us through a dance twice, then called it twice through and tried to call it thru a third time, but he must have been distracted, because that time (the dancers had done it through 4 times by then, 2 walk thru’s, and two dance-thru’s), that third time David slipped a cog and called not only something completely different from what the dancers had just done, but included a couple of figures really not in that dance, which did not flow and could only be done quite awkwardly. Suddenly, the whole crowd stopped dancing, and in one loud voice , yelled “NOOOOOOO, DAVID! And everybody burst out laughing. My first thought was “ WOW! This could NEVER happen in MWSD! There, the caller is a GOD! Always Right!
CONNECTING BY TALKING: The dancers can TALK while dancing (with a little experience). You can carry on a complete conversation with your partner (interrupted often, of course), greet each new person you meet, put a new beginner at ease with an encouraging remark. Of course this can be carried too far: Callers who call in Greenfield have to get used to the dancers talking during the walk thrus. In the Boston area, though, the moment the caller opens his or her mouth, it’s gets so quiet you could hear a pin drop! The first time I called at the Cambridge VFW Thursday night dance, I found it scary – I wondered “Did I say something wrong, or what? But they were just waiting for me to start the walk-thru. Callers from the Boston area, when they call in Greenfield, find it annoying to hear the dancers not pay attention, and talk during the walk-thru’s. They are used to much more obedient dancers. One of the first times when Lisa Greenleaf – perhaps the top contra dance caller in the USA, (also a MWSD dancer!) came to Greenfield, they were talking, and fortunately she was able to keep her cool and not offend them when she announced “Did you people come here to talk, or to dance?” One guy yelled up from the back of the hall, “BOTH!!”. Lisa came right back with “THAT’S GOOD!!” We dancers love it when she calls there - -
ACTIVITY: contra dancing has become much more active and exciting over the past 30 years. Unlike the old dances where some people were less active than others (we had the “active couples” vs. the “inactive couples”). We now call them the “Ones “ and the “Twos”. Today almost everyone is fully active most of the time. It’s very AEROBIC. Young people love this!
LESSONS: No Lessons! Anyone can walk in off the street and join in! Some of the dance series have a half hour workshop before the dance, which helps if the people who need it will show up early for it. But at most of the dances, the callers start with the easiest dances, with more instruction, teaching basics only when needed for that particular dance, meanwhile observing how much trouble any new beginners might be having, and planning the early part of his program accordingly.
All these things are what contra dancers find enjoyable. Quite a different sort of fun than the MWSD dancers get out of their stop-and-go challenge dancing. That might be called “mental aerobics set to music” whereas contra dancing is more physical aerobics and personal connections and interactions. That is why we are getting so many new, young dancers. Our philosophy is to make it simple enough so that new people can be absorbed and have fun their first night without having to sign up for a series of lessons. At the same time, make it varied and interesting enough to keep the experienced dancers entertained. Make up new dances using EXISTING basics, not by inventing NEW basics. Although new basics HAVE been added over the years: The Gypsy, the Hey, Butterfly Whirl, Pass the Ocean, etc – but if there IS a new basic, it is taught as part of that particular dance then and there. We change partners often. This lets the beginners adopt the styling of the more experienced, but dance with one of their own age group for another dance. These are the reasons contra is fun, even if it DOES have a lot of swinging, repeats the same figures through each time, has new beginners each time, has so many YOUNG people, and does not feature challenge!
What we need is to recreate that bottom layer of MANY people, dancing either regularly, or occasionally at an easier level where new people can join in just for one night, many nights, many years, drop out & come back without having to take a workshop and bring their friends. This situation existed for MANY generations before MWSD was invented.
This would create and build a huge pool of people with positive feelings toward square and contra in general. Some of them will get so excited about it that they go dancing 2 or 3 times per week. And this WILL happen. It IS happening NOW in the contra dance scene.
Some of these will find it fun to do dances a little more challenging. These will be the ones who will be drawn into MWSD or “Hobby” dancing. This process can continue only if the MWSD clubs realize the value of HAVING that lower level and maintain friendly relations and attitudes toward the “just for fun” dancers, both traditional square & contra, even to the extent of having them on their MWSD calendars. Then the pool of fun dancers can not only provide a source for the clubs, but club dancers who can’t “hack” it or don’t find challenge fun any more, can drop back into the pool of fun dancers, and keep dancing, hopefully recruiting more outsiders into the pool, the bottom layer, eventually resulting in more people ready for the puzzles and challenge of MWSD.
So if callers want to be still calling at all, a few years from now, it is up to THEM to start cultivating and drawing larger numbers of people into that bottom layer. It has grown extremely difficult to draw people into the next higher layer that is, the MWSD classes. There are too many distractions requiring NO commitment at all! They don’t want to commit to taking lessons for almost a whole year to LEARN to dance – before they can actually dance!
There are several existing ways of doing this. One would be to get better acquainted with the CDSS dance camps, books, get its National Directory of Groups - go to your LOCAL contra dance group, be sure to visit contra dances in the Boston area (more laid back – older people) AND Greenfield, MA (younger crowd). Try Montpelier & Norwich, VT. (same contrasts). Go enough to find what makes these groups TICK. Go to the NEFFA Festival in Natick in April, and the Dance Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs in February. The NOMAD Festival in November.. Feel the enthusiasm; Why these groups are growing.
Another is to visit Calvin Campbell’s website and information on Beginner Party Dances, Community and Traditional Dance. Get his new book, “Dances for Busy People”. There are LOTS of easy fun dances there, in many forms, contra, square, and others. But for CONTRA, look into the “grass roots” version going on all around you! That is the version that is GROWING and attracting young people!
But the same thing could be done with fun-level traditional square dancing!
Today the best idea seems to be “The A-B-C Marketing Engine” promoted by the Rio Grande Valley Callers Assn, (info on handouts).
“What if we sold square dancing instead of square dancing lessons? What if new people could start any time they choose, instead of waiting for the next class to begin? The ABC method is a series of three different square dance parties. Call the “A” party this week. Call the “B” party next week. Call the “C” party the third week. Start over with the “A” the fourth week. Keep it running for several weeks, perhaps, even forever!
Each party is complete in itself, teaching and calling dances with ALMD left, circles, stars, Grand R & L, enough to do many easy, fun dances, at the same time learning about 5 more complex basics. The second, or “B” party, does the same thing, but teaches maybe 5 more easy basics, the “C”, the 3rd one, 5 more. Then it repeats. If you could get this under way and continue it, you would build a fun level “Pool” of dancers, some of whom would eventually be ready for a deeper commitment with MWSD - and others could just continue at the same level. But the accent is on actual DANCES and FUN, not just choreography and basics. The only thing I would suggest changing about the ABC program is to teach the TRADITIONAL and CONTRA basics, rather than MWSD basics, and include some favorite , really fun DANCES, both Singing Squares and Patter, and a few contras so that the dancers could move in and out and be comfortable with the contra and traditional square dance activity already going on in New England.
Here’s what Bob Brundage has to say about the whole situation as of Aug 15, ’05:
“For years now I have advised callers who were concerned about this problem (many have been worrying for many years) is to find a good hall, preferably near a college, and use “Dancing for Busy People” material. Plan to lose money for perhaps a year but build up a group like the contra dancers have. You need a core of regulars who are willing to put up with newcomers every week (or every 2 weeks, or once a month). Teach people DANCES and How To DANCE – not Choreography – Use lots of variety and stick with it. To my knowledge, nobody took me up on it.
“Having said that, now comes along the ABC program. I feel that this MAY become our salvation. (??) The thing we have to convince MWSD callers is that this should NOT include MWSD dancers. This should be an entirely separate program and it should remain an entirely vanilla activity so that folks can actually stop in any time – even once a year! I’m not fully convinced that the figures in the ABC program are the best, but so what? Build a program on the figures you choose – who cares? IMPORTANT; Don’t let MWSD in the door – keep it an open dance, separate from the clubs.
Hello Folks: This is my first posting, so bear with me! Let me start by saying that when this ABC concept was first hatched, I wasn’t skeptical, I was excited! FINALLY I thought we might have some answers. Then I saw so many questions come into play that in my humble opinion have so little effect on the outcomes of our efforts i.e., the dress thing, the marketing thing, the how do the other clubs feel about it thing, and so on! I started my first ABC group with a local fraternal organization and for 6 weeks had a great run. (This was a predetermined time frame set by the organization). We danced 2 nights per week for 6 weeks with over 100 people at each session including ages from 13 – 79.
Nowhere does it say that we had lessons for 6 weeks - - we danced! And it worked me over as both a caller and entertainer to make certain that there was never anything there but smiling faces – no one cared about dress as long as there was covering - and never once did I tell ANY MW SQUARE DANCER what I was doing. I didn’t want it corrupted and quite frankly, I do NOT mix my ABC work and my MWSD work together. For now they don’t even know the other exists. There were several from that first ABC group who “wanted more”. They started a second group at a local church and we are dancing about 60 there! With none of the “politics as usual” associated with organizations and clubs, we are having a ball. Two things to note:
1. This is hard work as a caller, marketer, entertainer, but all worth it to me.
2. NOTHING worth saving is ever easy – but the time and effort is worth it to me.
I began calling in square dancing’s peak in Alabama around 28 years ago at age 11. I have grown up my entire childhood and adult life LOVING this activity and there is NO way I can sit back now at age 39 and wonder if I am going to have dancers to call to when I am 50. In my opinion, this marketing tool we call ABC is the answer and I intend to keep working it! Thanks for Listening!
Soon later there was a reply from the chief spokesman for the ABC Program, Nasser Shukayr:
“I was so glad to read about Kevin’s success story. During the next few months I believe everyone on this list will discover that selling dancing instead of lessons can bring huge results.
“I was surfing the net about two years ago and came upon a story about a guy who was president of the U.S. professional Tennis Ann. That Assn is made up of tennis instructors, not tennis players. The president had somehow managed to dramatically increase the number of tennis players nationwide. A news reporter asked him how he did it.
“I’ll never forget what he said. He said that the tennis instructing world wanted to TEACH people to play tennis. But people just wanted to PLAY tennis. So they decided to let ‘em play.
“The square dance world could learn a huge lesson from this. For years, our product has been “square dance lessons”. CALLERLAB spent a jillion dollars on market research. They found that square dancing has a mostly positive image. It’s got a brand loyalty that most marketers would envy. A huge percentage of the population is willing to try it if it’s presented as something healthy, fun and social - - for more details see the market research reports on the Callerlab foundation’s website.
“But the target audience quickly lost interest when told they would have to take a lengthy set of lessons and confirm to a dress code. CALLERLAB spent a jillion dollars to learn and prove this. I hope we won’t let the Callerlab market research go to waste. The existing square dance product has served us well for many decades, since the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. It’s time for a new product, hence Square Dance ABC.”
Nasser Shukayr (whose middle name is “today’s people just wanna dance, so why don’t we let them?”)
THE ‘BROWN DANCE’: Contra dance at Brown University; I’ll be calling there at this ongoing dance series Friday Oct 21. About half students, half non-students. 50% beginners. See handout for info.
MIT: THE TECH SQUARES; (See handout) Tuesday night dances and classes in MWSD. AND contra dances also (but in a different location!) Get to plus level in 13 lessons, and earn MIT college credit in Phys Ed at the same time!! OR Come to 6 contra dances and get that Phys Ed credit!! Anyone (including you callers) would be Welcome.
GO! See those websites and find out HOW to get your local college to sponsor something like this!
VOLUNTEER! to call a freshman orientation dance! Ask for help from older students – get them so excited that they want to start a dance themselves. Or bring fliers about your own dances!
Put an ad in the paper? Advertise on the Radio? TV? Good Luck!
This never really worked even during the glory days when the clubs were getting huge classes. Sometimes even sponsorship by Recreation departments , YMCA, etc, wouldn’t even do it. It always has to be personal contact, from people who are really sold on Square or Contra dancing, and preferably have some “leverage” over their prospects. Even in International Folk Dancing, we find that modern , urban people often look down at their own National folk dancing. It’s considered old-fashioned , lowbrow. In Square dancing, this means overalls, straw hats and bright neckerchiefs would be the appropriate attire. “Get a kick out of dressing and dancing like a hick!!”
Not the image we want to promote, but it’s out there! American culture from the early grades – even from infancy - promotes sports for boys, but dancing for little girls. So boys are brought up believing that any kind of dancing is “Sissy”
For a long time, it was thought that teaching square dancing in the public schools was a great idea. So we had lots of elementary teachers with no real square dance experience teaching square dancing to records, with the CALLS on the records – to 4th graders where the last thing those boys wanted to do was to hold hands with GIRLS. Then when they became teenagers, of an age to be interested in girls, those uncomfortable feelings were still there and they would say “ME square dance?? No Way!! WE already DID that in FOURTH GRADE!? I would, however, admit that Dudley Laufman, who is responsible for much of the ‘70’s revival, is doing a good job with elementary school kids. One of his “secrets” is to NOT insist on opposite sex partners. Find ANY partner! This works up to around 6th grade. Some boys will choose boy partners, and girls may choose girls. You can call the ones doing the boys part “Moons”, and the ones doing the girls’ part “Stars”.
Dances for “Girl Scouts and their Daddies” work REALLY well, but don’t ever take a job for “Cub Scouts and their Mothers”! It will be BEDLAM.
A caller by himself will find it difficult if not impossible to just rent a school Gym, or one of the old town halls, Masonic Temples, Odd Fellows Halls, sometimes even Granges in New England (which have floors DESIGNED for dancing) Easthampton, Bernardston MA and Chesterfield NH come to mind - You have to have some insider, enthusiastic about the idea of an open dance. Having an existing ed club of adults such as PTO, church couples clubs etc - who know people in that town who have control over those halls helps, too, to insure no alcohol and good behavior.
It’s best to have a captive audience. For a one-night stand this could mean a dinner, even a pot-luck sponsored by an existing organization with square dancing starting immediately afterward before anyone has a chance to leave. This works great with what we call ‘single purpose clubs” such as the “Newcomers’ Clubs” sponsored by Welcome Wagon, or Women’s clubs (but must bring husband!) But these organizations have a different activity scheduled monthly for a whole year in advance. They get to know each other, and want to be with the same crowd, so it’s seldom that they will split off from their group and come to your regular open dance, or beginner class.
Back when MWSD was exploding with big classes, almost all of the 65 clubs in the Springfield area were started by Church Couples Clubs, PTA’s, Service Organizations (in Enfield, it was the Lions’ Club). They could again be persuaded to sponsor a series of SQD lessons as a fund-raiser. They have leverage over their members.
I don’t suggest a one-night event. They’ll have fun, but most of them won’t think of it becoming a regular habit, and won’t fall totally in love with it. We want to build a movement of regular dancers. A POOL of dance-lovers, SOME of whom will eventually be motivated to dance more than once per week. That’s why the ABC program might be the answer. We’re not selling them a 30 – 40 lesson course so they can dance a year from then. We’re selling them 3 nights of dancing fun (hopefully to be repeated over and over again, if successful. ) where they will actually DO DANCES EACH NIGHT. They will be doing REAL SQUARE DANCING EACH TIME. Simple - - elementary - - but Real Dancing, not just drilling on basics.
It often takes a new contra dancer 3 nights to become really comfortable with it, and to fall in love with the activity, although many do go nuts over it the first night. This is why a 3-night series, rather than a one-night event can work. Then if the next series starts immediately afterward, the first class can come on a pay-for-one-night basis, help recruit for the next series of 3 nights, and help the new ones learn. But anyone can start their series at ANY ONE of the “lessons”. Hopefully you would develop a lot of fun level actual “DANCES”, rather than just drilling on basics.
Most people love meeting so many helpful people. Great dancers asking them to dance! (When Al Brundage, now 85, came to visit the Greenfield dance two nights in a row in August, young guys asked his partner to dance! Al got to dance with young ladies! Even though he didn’t think he would last more than two dances, they stayed and danced until intermission! Of course Al knew well what contra was all about: he used to promote it at his MWSD clubs in the 50’s. (It didn’t take then, though, and I don’t believe it would today, either!)
But for most people, dancing with a different partner for each dance is a very exciting thing!
So that this 3-lesson series will turn into an on-going , open dance, with a good core group of “regulars” who will mix with the newcomers, change partners regularly, and your group will grow like the contra dance groups have. Accept new people at every event, keep it fun for the regulars, at an exciting 15 basic level – eventually will produce crops of enthusiastic people . Some will like challenge, and join MWSD classes. Some of these will get weeded out, or tire of the constant challenge, but they will have a fun, welcoming form of dance to fall back on. Last – don’t forget the SINGLE PEOPLE. There are lots of church and other singles groups- whose members are just LOOKING for this type of thing to meet other people on a non-commitment, non-threatening basis, to get away from the bar scene.
And don’t restrict your groups to marrieds only! At the contra groups, married & singles dance happily together, changing partners with the rest of them. Teens and 20ish dance with older adults (and each other of course) all the time! So get out there - dance with those college kids – at MIT , Brown, and the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield, MA- and the various contra dance groups all over, such as the Thursday night dance at the Cambridge, MA VFW. They too have a large contingent of teens nowadays. . (see handouts, websites). Find from this how to start your own fun-level group to build that pool of potential, enthusiastic, permanent dancers!!!
1. Complexity: The less complex, the easier it is for new people to come in and learn by doing, learn by dancing with experienced dancers, as partners, or in the same set.
2. Even at a low level, (15 basics) new people AND EXPERIENCED DANCERS TOO, can find full enjoyment. Almost no one of the experienced dancers comes up to the caller and asks for more challenging dances. And these people include college students and professors too! They’re already having too much fun otherwise, to ask for challenge. This could be done just as effectively with Square Dancing as with Contra!
3. Dancers enjoy having the feeling that THEY KNOW HOW A DANCE GOES!! Examples of requests that I get: Singing Squares – classics like Smoke on the Water, Alabama Jubilee, Nelly Bly, On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Dip and Dive. Many of these are on my new CD, which you can buy after this meeting - Also some favorite patter dances such as Sally Goodin and Texas Star. HAVE A REPERTOIRE OF FAVORITE DANCES!
4. People love live music!! You can easily charge $6, $8 , $10, for a dance, especially if you have a great band. It’s STILL cheaper than the movies!
5. Change Partners: Good idea for welcoming new people, and teaching them. Meeting new people of all ages.
6. Important: Have a policy of making EVERY DANCE accessible to new dancers!
7. BASICS: Teach basics only as needed to DO AN ACTUAL DANCE, not as an end in themselves. They will remember a great dance, but rarely come up and request a “basic”.
8. We need to create a large reservoir of dancers who may only know 15 basics, but they know them thoroughly. They also believe firmly that Square and Contra dancing are FUN. (Often said “the most fun you can have with your clothes on”) If there were hundreds of these people sprinkled all through the area, there would be many of them much more likely to try MWSD, and in any case, they would be spreading a good word about both Square and Contra dancing! This will take a long time, and be a lot of work, but work that can be fun, and you can get paid for it! It’s well worth the effort!, no matter HOW long it takes!