Saturday, January 21, 2012

Contra Dancing

When I was a teen, I learned to contra dance. Then I didn't, for many years, while my kids grew up. Not out of any negative feelings, or even that I wasn't interested, but mostly, we were simply too busy doing other things.

For New Year's Eve of 2010/2011, we learned about a contra dance, and my daughter and I decided to go. Interestingly, it was run by the very same people who ran the dances way back when I used to go.

We had a great time. This group sponsors a dance nearly every Friday, and we have been back for most of those. It's a great social event, good exercise for a few hours a week, and I really enjoy the atmosphere. Everyone is so happy! The age range is from around 7 to over 70. The people are very friendly, and welcoming to newcomers. There have been a few relationships that started there. The music (always live!) is provided from bands that include the "house band," which is whoever wants to sit in that night, to regionally or nationally known contra bands. And the dancing is pure fun!  What's not to like?

And yes. Sometimes the guys wear skirts, too. We're not so picky about gender roles.

On top of all that, or maybe underneath it, is something about contras that I find particularly appealing.

Beautiful, interwoven patterns. Set to music, which is also beautiful, interwoven patterns.

The dances themselves are usually set up as eight sets of movements, each taking eight beats. That entire set is repeated several times, for however long the music lasts (or is made to last). The dance is designed so that at the end of each set of movements, the people have "progressed" so that each couple is now dancing with a different couple. Most dances are arranged so that the dance movements themselves are done in groups of two couples.

So we have pairs of couples, dancing eight sets of eight-beat movements, and at the end of each set, having moved to a different spot so that all the pairs have changed. Rinse and repeat. Are we having fun yet? Yes. Yes, we are.

Add to this the variety of movement patterns. Some are similar to (and have the same or similar names as) square dance patterns. Swing your partner, do-si-do. Others are different, and probably less familiar. Box the gnat, roll away with a half sashay, hey for four.  All are fairly simple, and easily learned. And you get to practice them several times over for the entire dance. By the end, almost everyone is an expert.

Sometimes, groups of four combine temporarily for groups of eight, and very occasionally, a dance is done in groups of six.  Add to this that the music often changes during the dance, becoming more intense as the dance continues, so that there are really three different tunes played for one dance.

Is anyone keeping track of the variations here? I didn't think so.

All of that is fascinating to contemplate mathematically, but don't forget, it's fun to do and beautiful to watch. Everyone in the room has a slightly different position in the dance and they all weave together just so, so that it all works out perfectly. If you had to take each person and describe exactly what steps they are to take, in what order, at what time, and which direction they move in etc, it would be nearly impossible to coordinate a room of dancers. But with an understanding of all these separate steps and patterns, it's fairly simple for a caller to walk everyone through the dance cycle once or twice, and then have dozens of people dance it easily.

To get some idea, watch this video made at a local dance. It features one of my favorite bands, the Great Bear Trio, with Sarah Van Norstrand calling.

For what it's worth, I know most of those people now, and the band is a homeschooling family.

If you click on the link to see other videos by the same person, he has a lot of contra videos posted. Thanks, Ben!

There are contra dances all over the place. If you'd like some help finding a local group, let me know.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see mention of skirts. I LOVE Texas! But I think it will be the last State in the Union in which Contra dance groups stop obstructing men in skirts. A local group told me they wouldn't restrict me from wearing a skirt, but they asked ME to restrict myself! See---they asked me to commit a civil rights violation against myself! And told me they have an annual out of the way meeting where I could wear a skirt, and directly implied this would shield my skirt wearing with their group from public view! It reminds me of many news stories I've researched such as "School Orders Girl In Slacks Isolated," New York Times, December 16, 1947, page 35. Can't we do better than repeat the same errors of discrimination today?