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Alan Day

Contra Dances ?

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There has been a number of references to Contra dancing and Contra dance tunes on this site and I must confess I know nothing about it.Lisa has kindly sent me details of a Contra Dance site which gives me clues but without watching people dancing it is awkward to imagine what it is like.From the site description it sounds very much like some English Country dances,Square set or Circle dances, particularly progressive ones ,but looking at some of the pictures some of the dancers look as though they are dancing French style,Waltzes,Schottishes and Polkas.The description of looking ones partner in the eyes from the site reminds me of French Bourree dancing.The French dancing style is small delicate steps and their feet rarely lift of the ground except for Mazurkas but the site pictures show clearly English high lift of the feet.

What are the differences?

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My best way to describe contra dances for those more familiar with English Country is thus:

 

Think of the more vigorous English Country dances (not Playfords) like, oh, Morpeth Rant.

 

Contras are danced vigorously, one could even say boisterously, and are often done for 10-15 minutes per dance.

 

Most modern contra dances are done in improper formation, like Childgrove, and they are progressive, like the English longways.

 

Unlike English, it is rare for a specific tune to be used for a specific dance. I have danced contra to everything from jigged-up Mozart to Sousa marches.

 

Hope this helps :)

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Yeah, it's kinda like ECD on drugs. Much more lively (to use a diplomatic term). And not only does a dance not have a particular tune, but the tune will generally change a couple of times during the dance, so it doesn't get monotonous. The two dance forms are closely related, however, along with Scottish Country Dancing and, to a lesser extent, square dancing. Contra involves mostly longways sets, mostly duple minors (to use the ECD term), and mostly fairly simple dances. One very common feature is the "swing," where you take your partner or neighbor in ballroom hold (or some other close hold) and whirl each other about for a while. Lots of fun and lots of opportunities for flirting, but it's certainly not a slow, gentle type of thing.

 

The pictures you saw of what looked like waltzes, if they weren't swinging, were probably from people doing waltzes. That's frequently done at dance events, at least on this side of the pond, in all the genres above (with the possible exception of square dancing, which I don't do myself).

 

:)

Steven

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Rhomylly's description is good. I'd add several things.

 

There's a little crossover with traditional American square dancing. At a typical contra dance, they'll also do traditional squares and circles.

 

The music is almost always a mix. Some traditional Irish, Scottish, American, English, lots of French Canadian, and now many new tunes that have become standard on the contra dance circuit.

 

When I learned to contra dance 25 years ago (ineptly, I should add, although I still try), it was more sedate, and the music was more traditional; form was important in the dancing, and the music was largely limited to the tunes used for generations in New England (you almost never went to a dance and didn't hear Chorus Jig or Coleraine or Opera Reel)..

 

Today, an influx of young, swing-oriented dancers has changed both. That's evident at the Glen Echo weekly dance in Maryland -- 200 plus dancers every week, with many under 25, many dancing in an energetic and free-form style that New England traditionalists would hardly recognize. Wild swinging, clogging, leaping, etc. Obviously not much like French Bourree dancing.

 

The music has changed, too. Many more recently written tunes and swing-tinged tunes. Guitar players who don't know jazz chords are in real trouble. More jig-to-reel sets, which seem to encourage hyper-energetic dancing.

 

I don't know about other venues, but here, people play waltzes, schottisches, hambos, zwiefachers, etc. during break and after the dance, which could account for the other dancing you've seen.

 

I like playing some of the new stuff, but prefer the more stately traditional dancing (but maybe that's because I'm an old guy and can't keep up).

Edited by Jim Besser

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There appears, in a picture, to be a traditional hold when circling or are they swinging, where each person holds the others wrist making a little square in the middle.In England a right and left Star is with hands held farely high and swinging with one foot in the centre to pivot on and hands around backs.I have seen some dancers swing thier partners feet off the floor doing this, all good fun, but I have seen a woman knocked out cold by dancers being too stupid,(had to be a rugby players dance).

Do you have a caller, or is the dance announced and off you go(as in France)?

When you say swing dancers Jim ,are you refering to 30s 40s swing, a big revival here, or something else?

Thanks all for the info so far.

Al

Edited by Alan Day

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>Do you have a caller, or is the dance announced and off you go

 

Callers are the norm. Sometimes, a caller will announce an old chestnut that eveybody knows (Petronella, for example) and people dance it without instruction.

 

>When you say swing dancers Jim ,are you refering to 30s 40s

> swing, a big revival here, or something else?

 

Yes, exactly. Big revival here, too.

 

You're right about potential injuries from too-athletic dancing.

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Good descriptions, all. Alan, what you describe appears to be a right-hand (or left-hand) star.

 

Contra dancing, like much "folk music", has those who adhere to the old ways of doing things (here in New Hampshire, Dudley Laufman is a classic example- I learned from him!) and those who want to move and evolve with the times. I love both ways, and I'm thrilled to see so many young folks at the dances these days. I live in Nelson, where we claim to have the longest-continuing contra dance in the country, going over 200 years and stronger than ever. We tend to be rather more traditional here. Over the hills to the south, in Greenfield, MA, there's a weekly dance that's much more "groovy"- which is also lots of fun!

 

Alan, what are the links you've been visiting?

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What are the differences?

The differences between contras as danced in Boston, Richmond, Baltimore, Berkeley, Minneapolis, etc.?

... About like the differences between Bampton, Fieldtown, Sherbourne, etc. :)

 

I think you'll learn a lot if you read through this Topic, which even includes a rather long post from me. (Surprise? :D )

 

But to join Rhomylly in relating it to English Country Dancing:

.. New England contras have evolved from the English longways sets. They share many of the same common figures, though with variations in style. E.g., the hand-on-next-wrist is a common way to do a star, rather than hands-across. Contras tend to be more vigorous than Playford, more like Morpeth Rant or Nottingham Swing, but (at least where I danced most) smooth, not bouncy. Centrifugal force often comes into play, not just in a swing or X-hand turn, but with optional extra spins in figures like ladies chain, R-&-L through, and even do-si-do. There tends to be more physical contact, even between men. E.g., cast-off is generally done as a side-by-side unit with arms behind each others' backs, rather than with just a hand grip.

 

I mentioned "optional extra spins". In my experience, contra dancing is more mprovisational than English country dance or barn dances. Each dance has a basic pattern, but personal embellishments -- often extra turns, as in the woman spinning under a man's raised hand in place of a courtesy turn -- are frequently added and appreciated as long as they don't interfere with the movement of the other dancers. At any point in a given dance, different individuals may be doing different embellishments, while others are doing none. It is also imperative that no one force someone else to do an embellishment. (Ladies may twirl during a ladies' chain, but gents should never try to "twirl the lady".)

 

Very American in spirit, the coordination comes as much from the dancers paying attention to each (hence the need for eye contact, which in contra dancing does not carry the sexual significance it does in some cultures) as from them following the choreography. I think you'll find some of the same spirit in the music (mentioned with more detail in the above-referenced Topic).

 

Edited to fix a couple of proofreading errors.

Edited by JimLucas

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Lot's of interesting comments here about Contra and English Country Dance and similar dance forms.

 

We've got to be a bit careful, the terms are often used differently on each side of the Atlantic.

 

ECD in America is most often used in the way way we in England might say Playford or Playford-style. English Country Dance in England encompasses a wider spectrum of traditional and period dances and often strayes into Scottish, Irish, Welsh and American dances.

 

For "those in the know" we are seeing a segregation into Ceilidh and Social Dance and then the Social Dance is further divided into Playford (style), American (Contra and Square), Scottish and now also Contra Ceilidh and Zesty Contra. However for the ordinary punter the majority of PTA and wedding dances often under the title Barn Dance that I do are a complete mixture.

 

Take a look at the web sites of two of the major festivals in England, Sidmouth and Chippenham. They both have the classification as above. I'm playing with a band at both these festivals and we're placed firmly in the Social Dance area but this year we're also playing for an Anchor Garden Ceilidh at Sidmouth. That'll fool 'em.

 

Howard Mitchell

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Ah, Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom on a Friday night, Jim B. I miss it still.

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Wendy,(Animaterra)

The site Lisa kindly gave me was http://www.sbcds.org/contradance/whatis/

 

Many of the English dancers put in thier own ornamentation particularly the more experienced.

Are there any special steps or anything goes,within the framework of the dance.

It sounds as though a Jazz band is more suited to this type of dance than let us say a Folk dance band.Or the latter jazzed up?

I tell you what I would love to have a go at it.Sounds good to me.

 

I have done that dance gig Howard,apart from Late night extra, one of the best at Sidmouth(If it`s not raining).

Al

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I live in Nelson, where we claim to have the longest-continuing contra dance in the country, going over 200 years and stronger than ever. We tend to be rather more traditional here. Over the hills to the south, in Greenfield, MA, there's a weekly dance that's much more "groovy"- which is also lots of fun!

Greenfield, Mass., which Allison mentions, is a dance I go to often, especially the Friday nights (they also do Saturday nights). Contra dancing is great fun if you're single like me. Even better is the recent discovery that I am suddenly old enough that women who are my contemporaries want to dance with me! Not true twenty years ago when I was a young 'un. I guess the prospects for a man who can (sort of) dance get better and better as you age (something to look forward to), at least until your knees give out.

 

I hope to get to Sidmouth some day and see the mix that Howard speaks of.

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The Spanish Ballroom (sigh). Fifteen years ago I attended and sometimes played in the pick up band at Glen Echo. I had come from the West Coast where a "large" contra dance would have perhaps 50 to 60 people. What an amazing thing it was to see 200 or more dancing.

 

Edited to add: The Spanish Ballroom is/was one of the finest dance floors in existence. Just a wonderful room. Is it still there? I seem to remember it was to be renovated. Just to make this a little more interesting, what are each of your thoughts as to the fine dance venues you know of?

 

SUCH GOOD TIMES!!!

Edited by Daniel Bradbury

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Hi Alan,

 

It sounds as though a Jazz band is more suited to this type of dance than let us say a Folk dance band.Or the latter jazzed up?

 

Most of the music I have experienced has ranged from "folk band" to "folk band jazzed up". Contra musicians are often traditionally grounded but have wide ranging tastes, and delight in finding ways to bring music they enjoy into contra dancing. It helps the band to know something about traditional dance music, and to have dancers among the band members: a savvy caller and band will often compare notes before the dance to choose tunes that match figures in a given dance - for example, to lend some oomph to a balance that falls in a particular measure. Most common tunes would be 32 bar reels or jigs, polkas or marches - but any music that works with a given dance is fair game. Many of the tunes have Celtic, New England, Appalachian, or Quebecois roots or influences -- but you may hear anything from Prince William to Puttin' on the Ritz -- even in the same medley. A band may offer a faithful rendition of an old chestnut; then on the next dance, the lead players may take improvisational flight, returning to earth as the dance concludes. Jim is right on about regional variation - compared to the dances I used to play for in Minneapolis, there can be a "southern accent" to contra dances here.

 

Brian

Pompano Beach FL

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Yes, nothing like Glen Echo for dancers and musicians.

 

For those who don't know what we're talking about: this is an old amusement park outside Washington that was closed and turned over to the Park Service as a national park for the arts. But it's always been starved for funds.

 

It has a gorgeous 1920s vintage ballroom in a Spanish motif....for years, falling down, leaky, but completely restored to its original glory last year. They replicated the original decor and preserved the perfect, flexible wooden dance floor.

 

It's a genuine honor playing in such a venue. And as Daniel said, it's amazing seeing so many dancers -- up to 400, I think --going at it.

 

The infamous Open Band plays for the contra on the second friday of every month. If any c-netters are in the area, you should join us. We have a pretty good free reed section most months, although concertinas are in short supply.

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Thank you Jim for letting me know that the Spanish Ballroom lives on in resurected glory. I dearly loved the musty slightly run down style of the the old ballroom, but know it had to be either renovated or demolished. Thank God that the park service chose for it to live on.

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At a typical  contra dance, they'll  also do traditional squares and circles.

Not in these parts :) (Denver-Boulder area, Colorado) ... the contras are, well, strictly contras, except for a couple of waltzes and a hambo.

 

-- Michael Reid

(who played in Jim Besser's contra dance band when he lived in the East, and who also has fond memories of the Spanish Ballroom)

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We've got to be a bit careful, the terms are often used differently on each side of the Atlantic.
Or from city/town to city/town?

 

ECD in America is most often used in the way way we in England might say Playford or Playford-style.
Then that's a change from when I learned the term a generation ago. To me ECD has always included contemporary English dances, including the rowdier (barn dance?) types. The PLayford-style were known as... "Playford". But here in Denmark, they're all considered to be forms of "square dance", even those that are far from square. :unsure:

 

English Country Dance in England encompasses a wider spectrum of traditional and period dances and often strayes into Scottish, Irish, Welsh and American dances.
That's more what I remember... from America. Even one Dutch dance known as "Throw Your Wife Away". ;) (Henk, do you know that one?)

 

For "those in the know" we are seeing a segregation into Ceilidh and Social Dance...
Hmm. On the Irish side, I always thought "ceildh" dancing was "social" dancing, as opposed to the performance step dancing.

 

Language, even among musicians and dancers, has many dialects.

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