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 ;-)

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