Friday, December 21, 2012

It's GOOD for you!

There is an ongoing debate among callers about calling "Chestnuts" (old traditional contra dances) and other formations of dances like proper dances, triplets, squares, etc.  In most contra dance communities that I am familiar with, these dances are not really appreciated and can cause grumblings and outright revolts among the dancers. It sometimes seems like callers are the nannies forcing cod liver oil down the throats of reluctant children (the dancers) telling them, "But it's GOOD for you!"

I agree that these old dances can be good for us.  They broaden our perspective and our skills and gets us outside the box that is modern contra dance.  They also remind us of the history and the evolution of the dance form over centuries.

In colonial America, there were no air conditioned halls, no sound systems, and people wore a lot more clothing than they do these days.  A dance as rigorous as a modern day contra would have caused these folks to pass out from heat stroke!  The dances in the old days often involved one couple doing a figure while the other couple watched, sometimes these dances were fairly balanced with the ones and the twos getting an equal amount of time to dance while the others watched, but some were quite uneven - such as "Chorus Jig" where the twos hardly participate at all.  Modern contra dancers chaff at all this "standing around."  I know that in New England, Chorus Jig is revered, but in the dance communities in the rest of the country that came to be in the 1950s and 1960s, it is not revered and can even be abhorred.

The first time I danced Chorus Jig, I was partnered with a new dancer and we were starting the dance at the bottom of the hall as 2s.  My partner kept asking, "Why aren't we getting to dance?" I know that in many communities, the 2s sneak swings, but my policy is to not put extra moves, twirls, etc at new dancers.  Perhaps I should have in this circumstance.  The dance ended about the time we got to the top.  Afterward I tried to explain to her that this was an old traditional dance from early American times.  She wasn't impressed and neither was I.

I play recorders and crumhorns in a Renaissance ensemble, Musica Vera.  We always get a good audience for our concerts and audience members comment on how they enjoy hearing the old music and instruments that they rarely get the chance to experience.  But I don't know of anyone who has gone home and thrown out all their modern recordings in exchange for recordings of early music.

I understand that this music and these instruments are obsolete for good reason!  Music and instruments have evolved.  Are our "chestnut" contra dances obsolete for good reason?  Should we be making the effort to keep them alive as Musica Vera does with Renaissance and even Medieval music?

And is it the responsibility of the caller to make the dancers happy, or to give them what's "good" for them?  I have wondered how to balance the need to expose our dancers to a wider variety of dances and the need to keep them happy and coming back for more contra dancing!

I appreciate a caller who dishes out the chestnuts in teaspoon-fulls rather than by the gallon.  Give me no more than one chestnut or alternate formation in each half of the dance.  Recently I attended a dance where there were three uneven dances and two squares called back-to-back.  There were several complaints from dancers especially about the two squares called back-to-back.  I know that callers do this because it takes longer to set up squares than it does a contra, so it saves time to do the two back-to-back, but if someone sits out the first square, getting into the second one is quite difficult so the person ends up sitting out two dances.  At this event, the two squares took over 20 minutes to teach and dance.  One man complained that he drove two hours to get to the dance and sat out most of the second half due to the two squares back-to-back.

I also look at each dance and see how much teaching is going to be involved.  I want no more than 2 dances an evening that will require in-depth teaching.  I'm looking for that perfect balance between introducing new (or old in regards to chestnuts) concepts, and letting the dancers enjoy the process they already know.

Callers need to be gentle in dishing out the chestnuts, squares, triplets and in-depth teaching, and dancers need to remember that contra dancing is a complaint-free zone.  It won't kill us to do a chestnut now and again, and we might even find the fun in them that people long ago did.  I even succeeded in dancing Chorus Jig without complaining the last time it was called in my community ;-)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

One Night Stand Dances

When I was a fairly new contra dancer, I was at a festival of some sort where it was advertised that there would be a contra dance.  I was thrilled!  I went to the event expecting what I had experienced at our local contra dance. What a disappointment!  The caller called "lame" dances like the Virginia Reel and circle mixers.  I was so busy complaining that I didn't notice that everyone else was having a blast!

Here I am all these years later calling "one-night-stands" (where the majority of the dancers have never contra danced and may never do it again) and yep, the Virginia Reel.  The first ONS dance I called was in Sept 2011 for a wedding.  I had heard horror stories about weddings where everyone was drunk or no one would get up on the floor and dance.  This dance was being held at the home of the bride's family on their tennis court.  I was imagining all sorts of awful scenarios, but I knew the band and had worked with them before and I had asked caller friends for help and I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

A great piece of advice I was given was to "get them dancing as quickly as possible" which was spot-on.  I chose to open with Glowworm Mixer which is a dance so simple that it can literally be taught in 30 seconds and anyone can jump in at any time.  I had about 10 folks willing to dance when we started, but people standing around were joining in when they saw how easy it was.  Because it was so simple, I asked the band to play a really lively fun tune so it wouldn't get monotonous too soon.

I soon had 40 to 50 people eagerly awaiting the next dance.  All ages were dancing. Grandmas were dancing with children and the young adults were having the best time of all.

Another piece of advice is to NOT call dances that progress like a contra dance.  The progression is the place where newcomers are going to get tripped up and it just takes too long to explain it.  Without the experienced dancer to take the newbie by the hand and lead her to the next couple, progressions are just too confusing.

I lined them up in a long ways set and did Galopede and then got them in squares to do Nine-Pin Reel.  I didn't worry about teaching them to swing, I let them do elbow-swings or two-hand turns or whatever they wanted.  I called a dance I wrote called A House Divided where I let the Gator fans and the Seminoles fans "compete" in the dance.  I concentrated on silly and fun and the dancers had a ball.  I have had two invitations to call other events from people who attended that first ONS dance. I consider that a success.

I had not been calling very long at all when I was invited to call a contra dance in another town.  I was told that they didn't hold an introductory workshop because the beginners never showed up until halfway through the night anyway, and that I'd have experienced dancers for the first few dances.  When I got on the stage to call the first dance, I asked "How many of you have never contra danced before?"  35 hands went up!  There were only about 10 experienced dancers.  So I ended up doing an introductory workshop anyway.  If I had that evening to do over, I would instead treat it like a ONS dance.  I would get them dancing quickly and not move into contra dances until more experienced dancers arrived.

I've been in other situations where a third or half of the dancers are experienced contra dancers and the rest are newbies.  This can be a bigger challenge to call than a ONS dance, because you want to please the experienced dancers, but make it accessible to non-dancers.  In this situation, I count on the good-will of my experienced dancers.  I hope they won't be like I was the first time I went to a ONS dance!  I actually called a dance like this last week.  I put in several super easy contras, but also several circle mixers, and of course, the Virginia Reel.  In my experience, you need 2 -3 experienced dancers for each newcomer in order to do a contra dance. My experienced dancers were extremely gracious, asking the newcomers to dance and smiling through the old chestnuts they hadn't danced since 3rd grade.

There is a reason why contra dance is learned in community.  There is a reason you can't go to Arthur Murray studio and take contra dance lessons.  I knew someone who tried to teach contra dance lessons for a community summer class but it didn't work well.  It is just not something that can be learned outside the parameters of the contra dance community.  It takes a village to hold a contra dance! 

Dances mentioned in this post:
Virginia Reel (Did you know this dance was Henry Ford's favorite?)
Proper Longways Set (shorter lines work best)
A1 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Partner Right Allemande
A2 - Partner Left Allemande, Partner 2-Hand Turn
B1 - Partner Do-si-do, Head Couple Sashay down the set and back
B2 - Virginia Reel (head couple R elbow turn with each other, L elbow turn with next person opposite gender, R elbow turn with each other, L elbow turn with NEXT person opposite gender, all the way to the bottom of the set.  Head couple sashay back up the set, separate from partner and everyone follows the head person of their gender to the bottom.  Head couple makes an arch and everyone else comes through.  New head couple at the top of the hall.

Note:  B2 is never finished in one phrase of the music.  Let them take as long as it takes and as they come back up the hall at the very end, the wait and clap and I start them on whatever phrase of the music starts next.  I don't try to make it start exactly at A1.

Glowworm Mixer
Circle Mixer
A1 - As a couple, Promenade four steps, face your partner and back away 4 steps, look at the person to the left of your partner, take four step to that new partner, right elbow turn (or right allemande) four steps, end in promenade position and the dance begins again here.  The dance is only 16 beats so four times through the dance is one time through the tune.

Proper Longways Set (shorter lines work best)
A1 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Long Lines Forward and pass your partner to swap sides of the set. (I demonstrate how to do a half-gypsy rather than just walking past.  They always hoot at that one!)
A2 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Long Lines Forward and pass your partner to swap sides of the set.
B1 - Partner Do-si-do, Partner Swing
B2 - All make a tunnel while the head couple goes through to the bottom.  New head couple.

Nine-Pin Reel
Square Dance + one extra person in the middle - the Nine-Pin
A1 - Head couples Circle Left around the Nine-Pin, Head couples Circle Right around the Nine-Pin
A2 - Side couples Circle Left around the Nine-Pin, Side couples Circle Right around the Nine-Pin
B1 - Nine-pin swings one person in any couple while his or her partner goes to the center.  Nine-pin swings one person in any other couple while his or her partner goes to the center.  Nine-pin does this with all four couples and then joins the four in the center where they circle Left until caller says "BREAK"
B2 - Five people in the center scramble to swing someone - the one left without a partner is the Nine-pin the next time through (but being the Nine-Pin is such fun that no one is disappointed to be the Nine-Pin!)

A House Divided You've seen those car tags that say "A House Divided" and has one side in the colors of a particular sports team and the other side another team, implying that one member of the couple is for one team and the other member is for a different team.
Proper Longways Set
A1 - In a huge oval, Circle Left then back by the Right
A2 - Partner Left Allemande, Partner Right Allemande
B1 - Top couple Sashay down the set and back to the top
B2 - Top couple "Peel the Banana" (couple separates and goes down the outside with the rest of their line following them, BUT the leader must make some action that those following must imitate.  For example, the leader of one side might be a Florida Gators fan and do the "Gator Chomp" while the leader of the other side might be a Florida State fan and do the "Tomahawk Chop."  Or if they are not sports fans, they can flap their arms like they're flying, or hop like a rabbit or whatever they want to do.) When the head couple reaches the bottom, they make an arch and everyone comes up through the arch, making a new head couple and the dance begins again here.