Explaining Traditional Squares and Contras to MWSD folks

January, 2002

Modern Western square dancing (MWSD) is organized very differently from Traditional Squares and Contras (Trad). Most of us are so familiar with MWSD and the myriad ways in which it works, that it is hard to imagine other possibilities. Based on my experience as a dancer in both communities, I want to expose you to another way of thinking and organizing, and the dancing it engenders.

The approach taken is to describe the Trad scene from 3 points of view: that of a newcomer entering a dance for the first time, that of a long-time dancer in the community, and an overall view of how this activity is organized and how it compares to MWSD. Note that any MWSDer who attends a contra dance for the first time will have a similar experience to the newcomer's story, although most of the actual dance figures would be familiar.

Perhaps a friend of yours is a contra dancer and has dragged you to your first dance, or maybe you saw the listing in the calendar section of the newspaper or on a flyer in the local library, or maybe you just walked by the dance venue, heard the music, saw a blur of color and stopped in to watch for a few minutes. Somehow you have arrived at the dance.

You've been reassured by your friends or by the fliers that beginners are welcome, that all the steps will be taught, and that no partner is necessary. You've also been advised to wear comfortable clothing, but other than that, there is no dress code.

You pay your admission ($6 to $8 per person), notice something about clean shoes (and ignore it because you don't really know what they are talking about), and stand around the back of the hall wondering what you have gotten yourself into. Everything seems pretty disorganized, except the person who took your money. There are some musicians on the stage, there are groups of dancers standing around talking, someone is trying to show her partner how to waltz, and lots of people are changing their shoes. Although there is a wide range of ages, high school kids to folks in their 70's, most of the dancers seem to be in their 30's or 40's.

At some dances, the caller will hold a "new dancer" workshop for about 15 minutes before the dance. This is often done in a circle in the middle of the room and the following calls and ideas are covered: take one step for each beat of music, the music and the movements are in 8-beat phrases and you should adjust your dancing to match, circling (including how to feel connected), stars, allemandes (including how to feel connected), balance, swing (including how to support yourself, be connected to your partner, and not get dizzy), and ladies chain. Sometimes, the structure of a contra set is described (proper, improper, hands 4, ones cross over), terms used during the dance are defined (partner, neighbor, up the set, down the set, progression), and what to do when you reach the top of bottom of the set. Let's assume that at this dance either the caller doesn't run a workshop, or you arrived late (say after the first dance) and missed the explanations. At some point, someone may notice that you are new (the door tender or another dancer) and may offer to introduce you to some basic steps. Often dancers who bring beginners explain a few basics while the band is warming up.

The band starts (perhaps just the fiddle), and some people get up and do a couples dance, such as a polka. You don't know what to do so you just hang out in the back of the hall and watch. Four minutes later, the band stops, the caller says line up for a contra, there is lots of milling around and a surge towards the front center of the hall. Some guy asks you to dance, you say that you don't know what you are doing, and he says not to worry and takes your hand and you reluctantly head towards the front and join on at the end of the only contra set that is forming.

The caller says: "Hands four; Ones cross over." No one seems to be paying much attention, but people are forming two long lines down the hall. Your partner leads you to one line, and stands across from you in another. He then introduces himself (by first name) and you do the same. Soon you are in a circle of 4 and the people seem friendly. Whenever you look at them, they seem ready to acknowledge you.

The caller says: "Face Your Neighbor; Balance And Swing". Your neighbor starts to do something with your hand and you say that you are new at this. He quickly says to do this and put that hand there and do something else and soon you do a swing and are facing your partner in the other line. There is more instruction that doesn't make a lot of sense to you and you get moved around. Some stuff is easy like circling left and stars, and some is nonsense like Ladies Chain. However, people guide you along and nothing bad happens.

The caller says to "go back one place to where you learned the dance", people move you back to where you started, there is a slight pause and the band begins to play, the caller starts calling out commands, and your neighbor is doing that balance and swing move with you again. You are off and dancing, it is all very confusing, but nothing bad seems to be happening. It seems that you are doing the stuff you just walked through, except faster and with music. Just when you have done it once, you are facing someone you have never see before and the caller says to balance and swing again. Like an amusement park ride, you are off and going for the next time around. Like an amusement park ride, it seems like it will never end. However, you are getting the hang of it — it after all, it is in a repeating pattern.

Each new neighbor approaches the swing thing differently. Some go slow, some fast, some walk and some do a fancier step. It doesn't matter because you are off in a different direction in a few seconds. Ten minutes later (it felt longer) the music stops, your partner thanks you and tells you you did great. All are applauding, perhaps for the band and perhaps for themselves, and suddenly there is a whoosh of people moving around. As you start walking somewhere, perhaps to sit down and catch your breath, a new person asks you to dance. You explain that this is your first time and you don't know ... but he cuts you off and says that it fine and you should dance again. The whole scenario repeats itself: hi, my name is ..., a walkthru with some things you understand and some you don't: go back home, slight pause, dance it with lively music and this new dance pattern, applause, quick thanks, and whoosh.

Looking back on the evening, you danced 8 dances, sat a few out, sweated a lot, danced a free form waltz at the end when someone asked you to and you admitted that you could waltz, had some lemonade at the long break in the middle, heard and forgot 10 guys names, and met a few nice people. You noticed a table covered with flyers advertising other dances all over the area. You had no idea it was so popular or happening in so many places. Maybe you will come back next week. For sure, you will dress differently: most of the women were wearing flowing skirts and dresses of various lengths and short sleeves. Some were sporting bright, fun outfits while others looked more conservative. Hardly anyone was wearing any makeup, and you did not notice any perfume. The men had on pants and T-shirts or short sleeved shirts. Some men were even wearing shorts.

If you attended a large dance (100+ people), you may have felt a bit overwhelmed at the break, as the event seemed to lack structure. Perhaps someone took you aside and showed you a better way of doing the swing. You could tell you were moving well, but boy, did it make you dizzy! Chances are someone took the time to ask how you were doing and to tell you about other dances in the area. If you attended a smaller dance, the regulars made a point of introducing themselves and encouraging you to keep attending.

If you come back, you will find that the whole experience feels familiar and that some dance moves are becoming easier. Even the swing is fun and no longer makes you dizzy. You will feel more comfortable asking people to dance and socializing.

As an experienced dancer you enter the hall and see that the special musician tonight is Keith. This is great because the regular band is always jazzed up when there is an extra musician and you have several of Keith's CDs and really like his playing and the dance tunes he has written. The caller doesn't look familiar to you which probably means she's from out of town.

You change your shoes and notice that the usual crowd is arriving. You don't know all of them, but you do know many by their first names. Without any appreciable effort, the evening comes together and starts with a Norwegian polka and as soon as it is over you make eye contact with a lady sitting on the side and ask her to dance.

The typical evening consists mostly of contra dances, perhaps with a pair of squares in each half (if the caller does squares — they are harder to call, not all dancers like them, and not all callers have the skill). Each contra will take about 2 minutes to teach and 10 minutes to dance (squares vary depending on whether 1 or 2 will be done in a tip. Square figures are always taught). There is a short pause after each dance as people applaud, thank their partner, find a new partner, and join on the end of a contra line or find a square that needs them. After an hour and a half of dancing, there is a 20-minute break. Each half starts with a couples dance (polka, hambo or schottishe) and ends with a waltz. Everyone changes partners after each dance, and typically doesn't dance with the same person twice. Sometimes people reserve the last dance of each half with a special partner, a spouse or girlfriend, for example.

The dances are all walked through once. If things aren't going well, or the pattern is particularly challenging, a dance may be walked through again. Occasionally the caller will do a dance without a walkthru. Occasionally the caller will do a contra medley — a dance in which the caller starts off with a no-walk-thru contra, lets it run a few times, then seamlessly changes to another no-walk-thru contra, perhaps followed by yet a third change in sequence. The changes are often synchronized with a change in tune by the band, which provides an extra surge of energy. In all the dances, the caller prompts the first few repetitions, and then gradually fades out, allowing the dancers to appreciate the music, the dance, and their partners and neighbors.

You are used to and enjoy the direct eye contact that good dancers use with each other.

You know 25% of the people at the dance and recognize 80%. There are a few who are obviously experienced dancers but new to this venue, and yet others who are clearly new to dancing. You make a point of asking several of the newcomers to dance.

Several times throughout the evening, you are aware of how the dancers, the choreography, and the music all mesh together. It is exciting to feel and hear all the feet of the dancers synchronize for particular moves: the 4 steps forward and 4 steps back on a Forward and Back sounding like a precision drill team, or the satisfying percussion of everyone doing a Balance together. At other times, the choreography and music may engender ultra smooth dancing with one move flowing into the next. You may not have any percussive moves in this kind of dance, but you do feel everyone moving together in rhythm just the same.

If the music is exceptionally good, the dancers respond with loud and pointed applause. At least once during the evening, the caller reminds the dancers how great the band is tonight, and at one point, the caller will introduce each band member. Usually a band member will remember to introduce the caller.

The entire evening seems to just happen. Although the caller appears to be in charge of the evening, everything seems very relaxed. It is obvious that various people have a role in running the dance: in opening and closing the hall, counting the money, cleaning up, but there doesn't seem to be much formality in their behavior. If there are announcements, they are brief and to the point. Occasionally someone is solicited to sweep the floor, make lemonade, or take gate (usually in return for a free admission). At the end, the entire hall acknowledges the band and caller with applause. Some personally thank the band and caller, but it is not a ritual. As folks change their shoes, there is more socializing and saying of goodbyes. People drift out and within 30 minutes, the hall is put to bed, the caller and band are paid, the sound system is stored, the trash taken out, and the hall is locked up.

As a habitual Trad dancer, you attend this dance every week, you often drive for an hour or more to attend other dances on the weekends, and you attend dance camps and festivals. In addition, you may play an instrument in a dance band, collect CDs from all the good bands, do other forms of dance including English Country Dance, Scottish Country Dance, International Folk Dance, or do morris, longsword or other English ritual dancing, or be a member of a performance dance troupe.

The enjoyment you get being an experienced contra dancer includes some selection of:

How is the Traditional Square and Contra dance community organized? From the MWSD point of view, it isn't!

The dances are not run by clubs, the callers aren't trained by official caller coaches, there isn't a dance program of legal calls to teach and use, there is no national organization of contra callers or dance leaders, and the closest there is to a formal dress code is "bring clean shoes". So, how does it happen?

Some dances are run by a band. They book the hall and hire the caller. Some dances are run by a caller who books the hall and hires musicians. Finally, some dances are run by a single person (a dance organizer) or a small committee. Some small committees are part of larger organizations.

This community is not without organizations. In New England there are the New England Folk Festival Association (NEFFA), the Country Dance Society, Boston Centre (CDS), and the Folk Arts Center of New England (FAC). Though national in scope, the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) is based in New England. All these organizations run various dances, dance series, festivals, leadership seminars, and dance camps, and provide funding for other dance series.

From the MWSD organizational perspective, one would expect contra callers to be members of The International Association of Contra Dance Leaders (Contralab). A quick review of its membership roster shows that almost none of the callers of the style of dances described here are members.

What is lacking, compared to MWSD, is all the rules and regulations and organizations and organizations of organizations. There are no lists, no lessons, no dress code, no dancer mobility issue, and no levels. The last is not quite true as there are occasional Challenging Contras or "for experienced dancers only" dances. However, most in the community know that these are special treats and not something to turn into a regular thing lest the dancers move too far from their roots and exclude beginners.

Instead of growing by moving up the levels, traditional dancers grow by becoming better dancers or branching out into other, related dance forms. There is an amazing amount of depth available in non-performance group dancing.

This way of organizing has been very successful. These dances are for the most part very successful, with new series sprouting up all over the place. While some areas are feeling a slight decline in numbers or are noticing that they don't have an influx of new folks, other areas such as Boston boast a Thursday dance with 300+ people in attendance, including a fair representation of college students.

A few words about the music. The music varies from region to region. "New England " style music, which is played by bands all over the country, has its roots in Irish, Scottish and French Canadian fiddle music. The traditional tunes are still played, but musicians have been writing new tunes in this style for years, so the repertoire has grown. When played for contra dancing, these tunes can be jigs, reels, or marches, and usually musicians will play a medley of two or three tunes for each dance. The wide variety means the music can directly influence the feel of a particular contra.

"Old Time" or southern music had its roots mostly in Irish and Scottish music, but was subsequently influenced by the musicians of Appalachia. This music is all reels, and musicians usually play one tune per contra, and in contrast to the northern style, play this one tune in the same fashion all the way through. Old time music is popular for callers who like 50's style or driving squares.

Many northern-style bands can play a few old time tunes, but old time bands usually play only southern-style music. All of the music for contras consists of 32 bars, divided into AABB format. Tunes played for southern and western-style squares can be of varying length, but for the most part these tunes are in 4 bar phrases.

In both styles of music, there are usually between 3 and 5 musicians, at least one of whom plays fiddle. New England bands tend to feature piano players, while old-time bands work only with guitar and bass players. The New England style also lends itself to all kinds of instruments, such as accordion, winds and percussion. Old-time is usually only string instruments.

Some groups of musicians form bands that have a name, put out CDs, develop a reputation and a following. There are many evenings at which the music is provided by an informal group of musicians, all of whom are talented, some of whom may have done gigs together, but in this combination, they aren't an established band. This is also fine.

There are occasional large community bands which have 15 to 40 members, each of whom is in a different point in his musical career. Usually the purpose of these bands is to encourage musicians of all levels to learn how to play for dances. In some areas of the country, the only way to get live music for a contra dance is to start one of these community bands. It is quite an experience to be able to dance in front of such a large band.

Newer musicians can learn their craft at slow jam sessions (organized for that purpose), and by sitting in (with no microphone) with those bands that allow and encourage sit-ins. Joining one of the community bands is another way to learn.

Often one or more musicians in a band will also become a caller. Now when they travel they are a self-contained unit, and the caller can be much more familiar with the band's repertoire. This knowledge is especially important with singing squares because the band needs to learn a particular tune or arrangement. There are a few musicians who can both play music and call at the same time.

In the 1970's, when contra dancing was experiencing a revival, its music had a more traditional sound. The instruments carrying the melody played straight melody, while the piano player played a square 'boom-chuck' on the piano. The beat was very distinct and there wasn't much variation in rhythm or harmony. In that sense, old-time southern music has stayed much closer to its roots, with the exception of a few experimental bands.

Like everything else, contra dance music has evolved and incorporated other musical influences. Different bands form and then might push the envelope. At least in New England, the music today is quite different from the old days (with the exception of the community bands, in which it is easier to learn by playing in a more straightforward manner). There is a common repertoire of older tunes that almost every musician starts out with, but most formalized bands eventually begin to express themselves in their own unique way.

A few words on contra callers. While MWSD calls such callers prompters, they refer to themselves as callers. Unlike MWSD callers, contra callers are not viewed as the hired entertainment. They don't bring "showmanship" to the dance in the same way that a MWSD caller does, although personality is an important factor in the popularity of a caller. They must have good stage presence in order to command the hall and keep the evening flowing. They program the evening by choosing dances, teaching them (usually by walking them through once), offering pointers on style when appropriate, and giving the band suggestions as to what music would be appropriate for the next dance. They start and stop the band, and prompt the dance the first few times through. Just because a caller has stopped prompting does not mean he has stopped paying attention. He is watching the dancers to make sure they are still with the music, and he is listening to the music to make sure it is still with the dance. He may come in and prompt again as necessary, and he may communicate with the band. The caller is clearly in charge of the evening, and is able to facilitate the dance in a low-key, non-MC-like fashion. What comes across is a blend of the caller's personality and that of the band. Another interesting note is that there are as many female contra callers as male callers.

The typical evening of Traditional Squares and Contras has evolved. Traditional contras (e.g. Chorus Jig, Hulls Victory, Rory O'More) are still done within an evening's program, but overall, the choreography has moved beyond the early patterns, just as in MWSD. Not all of the traditional dances were simple in choreography, but they were danced to a much slower tempo and involved only half the dancers in a set at a time. Yet, even though it is a living tradition (i.e. growing and changing) many callers make a point of including more traditional dances on occasion so they can give a bit of history to the dancers.

Today, there are almost no dance series based mainly on traditional squares — contras have taken over. Squares require more acute listening during the entire length of the dance. Contras are popular because you encounter a greater number of people in a single dance and, once the repeating pattern has been mastered, you can let your mind go and enjoy a unique kinesthetic experience enhanced by the energy of live music. Squares have also lost favor because people became bored with southern visiting couple dances (lots of standing around as the other couples do the visiting) and New England Quadrilles (staid music, simplistic figures). However, 50's western squares are very popular, with their innovative (to contra dancers) moves and faster pace. These do require good square dance calling skills.

A few words about choreography and dance style. Except for hashed breaks in the squares, all the choreography in Trad consists of pre-choreographed dances. There are new dances being written all the time. The typical dance is improper (all start with normal facing couples), contains both a partner swing and a neighbor swing, and has both couples performing the same moves together, making it an equal opportunity dance. All contras are 32 bars in length. Contemporary choreography is distinct in that it involves most of the dancers most of the time, although there are still dances being written in which one couple has more action than the other.

Nowadays we also see a lot more of the choreographic action taking place outside of the original minor set of 4 people (e.g. pass through the original couple, do something with the next couple, and return to the original). Good dances have a theme or story line that makes them distinct. This could be a twist on an existing call, such as circle left then slide left along the line with your partner; or a unique action such as dosado your neighbor, pull by the right, pull by left with the next, balance the next, box the gnat, grand right and left back to original neighbor for a swing); or an interesting transition: star left and with this neighbor allemande left. It should also be noted that all good contra dances have flow: the order of figures makes kinesthetic sense. This allows the dancers to memorize the pattern easily and focus on their partners and neighbors, as well as the music.

Sometimes a new move will be invented or borrowed from English Country Dancing or MWSD. In a few cases this move becomes a staple in contra dancing (e.g. Hey For 4 or Square Thru).

While the dance style is not formally taught or enforced, and while there are many styling differences, contra dancing does have its own style. Just as in MWSD, a simple walking step is used although the dancing is more aerobic because the swings are longer, are done with a buzz step, and occur more frequently. Many other figures like circles and allemandes are danced more firmly so that the dancers feel a real connection to each other. This, along with matching the moves to the precise phrase of the music, takes energy and creates a zesty dance style. However, the degree to which a dancer expends energy depends on how vigorously he decides to dance and how fast the music is. The tempo is slightly slower than MWSD (110-120 BPM vs. 126-132 for MWSD), which may be deceptive when comparing the two styles, since Contra dancers cover a greater distance when progressing up and down a contra line.

Anyone can come in off the street, with no partner, no concerns about dress code. Minimal instruction is needed to get going. Live music, especially in New England, is a big draw. There is just a short list of figures to learn, with lots of repetition within each dance. There are lots of angels. Once you get the figures down, it becomes less of a mental challenge and more of a kinesthetic experience (and again, live music is key here).

Credits: Clark Baker authored the initial text. Lisa Greenleaf contributed the sections on music and choreography. Miriam Baker and Lisa Greenleaf provided valuable comments on initial drafts. Lisa Greenleaf edited the final text.

Revised: $Date: 2009/09/03 16:12:38 $

Free counters provided by Andale.