One of the things I love about my job is that I often learn about things I never thought I would ever even come across or have the opportunity to know about – or know that I already know a bit about…(this could get confusing!) One of these things is American Contra Dance, but as we will very soon be welcoming some real Americans (yes, you heard me correctly, REAL Americans) to Halsway Manor for the American Contra Dance Weekend, I thought I had better brush up on my skills – not so much my skills, but more my knowledge of contra-dance. It won’t do to know nothing and whilst I am brushing up on my knowledge, I thought you might like to know a bit about it as well… Most of it has been gained from various parts of the internet, including but not exclusively Wikipedia so please feel free to correct me if I have got something wrong. I will remove erroneous content immediately, or better still, hope that it might generate some fresh discussion.
My favourite definition of American Contra Dance is this: ‘Contra dancing is social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music‘. I could very well end this blog right here, after all, what more could we possibly want? That definition came from the Santa Barbara Contra Dance Society where they encourage you to simply find a place that does Contra Dancing, go there, see what they do, join in, have fun, meet new people, and then come back and read the rest of their definition as they warn that there is danger in simply reading the definition and making up your mind from that, about whether you will enjoy it or not! I think it is a great definition as in the same way, that is exactly what a Ceilidh or folk dance is. It is all about the dancing and making new friends and about family, community and connecting.
For a more in depth definition of Contra Dance I have come up with this, taken from a variety of sites. Let’s start with the history of Contra Dance. At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dancers creating a mix of choreographies from around this period that use both English country dance steps and French court dance steps. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. Over time the English hybrid dances spread to far away colonies and took the French form of the name which later came to be associated mostly with American folk dances, especially in New England now often referred to as either Contra Dance or New England Folk dance.
Contra dances were fashionable in the United States until the early to mid-19th century, until the square dances took over, though these apparently only lasted til the late 19th century when they became passée and were no longer de riguer(lots of french going on here today!), though the tradition was kept up in some rural areas. It was not until around 1930’s and 40’s that Contra Dances appeared in small towns and widely scattered parts of North east North America such as Ohio and northern New England, though the tradition was not revived properly until the 50’s and 60’s – according to Wiki!
So what actually happens at a Contra Dance? This is for all you guys out there that could, would, maybe could, might like (and should definitely) give it ago at some point, so that when you do, you might feel a little more at ease about what will happen…
According to the Boise Contra Dance Society, Contra uses many of the same traditional moves found in square dancing and sometimes if you go to a Contra Dance, you might even get to do a bit of square dancing too. There are about 8 basic moves, and 10 advanced moves. So with only 12 basic moves, learning contra dance is as simple as walking and smiling; Yet the near-infinite arrangements provide challenge and variety for even the most experienced of dancers. Additionally, the caller walks through each dance prior to starting up the music, and then provides helpful prompts while the band is playing. I am not sure if this youtube will help or hinder – all I can say is they look like they are having a lot of fun!
According to the Santa Barbara Contra Dance Society: ‘The caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances. A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear (I like the choice of the word APPEAR, here, as I for one, might not even APPEAR) to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone’.
What I have deemed from my research is that people of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome to the dances. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination and people from all walks of life are encouraged to come together and make friends. There is no alcohol or smoking allowed at most places as it is all about the music, the socialising and the dancing and often children as young as 7 can join in.
There seems to be quite a few names for the Contra Dance and including the following: Contra Dance, an Old-Time Contra Dance, an Old-Time Country Dance, a Barn Dance, or similar. Most contra dance events will include a few dances of other kinds: traditional squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dances as well. When I think of Contra or a Barn Dance I always think of the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the barn dance they had in that… it did not end that well, but the choreography was incredible!
And just because I can’t resist, here is the youtube video of that dance from one of my most favourite films…
– don’t worry though you will not be expected to be able to perform like this! There is not much Contra Dance going on here!
One of the most amusing things I have learnt is that Contra Dancers make eye contact whenever possible, as it adds to the connecting between people and that of the dance and also helps to reduce dizziness during the swing! Some people may find it a little uncomfortable, but here is a good piece of advice from Santa Barbara on why you should give eye contact a try: ‘You might get used to it and even like it. Remember: they’re gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because they want to make the connection, and they don’t want to throw up on you!’. Wise words indeed.
I mustn’t of course leave out the musical aspect…
The most common contra dance repertoire is rooted in the Anglo-Celtic tradition as it developed in North America. Irish, Scottish,French Canadian, and Old-time tunes are common. I have also heard that some sometimes the musicians play Bluegrass. Tunes used for a contra dance are nearly always “square” 64-beat tunes and until the 1970s it was traditional to play a single tune for the duration of a contra dance (about 5 to 10 minutes). Since then, contra dance musicians have typically played tunes in sets of two or three related (and sometimes contrasting) tunes.
And here’s a bit of interesting Wiki fact for you – ‘In recent years, younger contra dancers have begun establishing “crossover contra” or “techno contra” – contra dancing to techno, hip-hop, and other modern forms of music. While challenging for DJs and callers, the fusion of contra patterns with moves from hip-hop, tango, and other forms of dance has made this form of contra dance a rising trend since 2008; it has become especially prevalent in Asheville, NC, but regular techno contra dance series are spreading up the East Coast to locales such as Charlottesville, VA, Washington, DC, Amherst, MA, and Greenfield, MA, with one-time or annual events cropping up in locations further West, including California and Washington state.’
I wonder if that will ever spread to Halsway Manor, Somerset…I’m already liking the idea of a techno-ceilidh or techno-contra fusion… very 21st Century!! In the meantime, we are very much looking forward to a wonderful week of contra dancing with an all-star line-up from the USA of caller Sue Rosen with Bruce Rosen on piano and George Wilson on fiddle, from 20th to 25th May 2013. The week is hosted by Meg Winters who helps everyone to feel at home, the mornings are for dance and music workshops, the afternoons are free to explore West Somerset and the Quantocks, the evenings are for dancing!
Don’t forget that this is a very popular event and not one that happens very often, so make sure you book early to avoid disappointment!
Christina At Halsway