San Diego, CA

June 22, 2013

Band: The More the Merrier

(Community band)

Theme night: A Brief History of Contra Dance

  Dance Name Author Variants/comments
1 Jefferson and Liberty Traditional Original version
2 Lady Walpole's Reel Traditional Original and "modern" version
3 Texas Star Traditional Square with circle/swing break
4 IOCA Reel Al Smith  
5 Becket Reel Herbie Gaudreau  
6 Petronella Traditional all-active version
7 Bluemont Reel Warren Hofstra presumed original version
8 Bonny Jean Ted Sannella  
9 The Common Tern Larry Jennings  
10 The Reunion Gene Hubert  
11 Strutting to the Hilt Becky Hill  
12 Bicoastal Contra Pete Campbell  

This is an idea I'd been kicking around for a while -- doing a history of contra dance choreography. The idea grew in the execution to contra dance history in general. I broke all sorts of programming rules -- the only one I stuck with was the difficulty level curve. And like any good evening, I couldn't fit everything in.

I programmed in rough historical order to make the dancers feel what they were missing, so that the very first swing or the circle left 3/4 would have a real impact.

I talked on-mike a fair amount, though I did practice that the explanations to at least make the rambling succinct. It is likely that there are errors in the stuff below -- it's only my current understanding of contra dance. And if you have feedback, please email me.

  1. Jefferson and Liberty

    Original version, not the simplified one with a down-the-hall. It's:

    Jefferson and Liberty
    A1 Circle left, circle right
    A2 Star right, star left
    B1 Ones lead down, turn alone, return, cast
    B2 Right and left through (over and back, same-sex)

    I started by mentioning how English Country Dance came to the colonies. In Gerorge Washington's time there was a wave of dances written, but all in the English style with American names. In the mid 1800's there was a second wave of contra dances, but this time of a distinctly American choreography. With the common "lead down, return, cast off, and right and left through over and back," contras really became a separate form from ECD.

    (I skipped the whole triple minor issue. While important, I really couldn't start a beginner-friendly evening with a triple minor.)

    (My beginner's session was quite different as well. While I did teach the balance and swing, I mostly focused on progression via pass through, then taught circles, lead down, cast, and same-sex right and left through. Eventually leading up to the full "Jefferson and Liberty." No allemandes/do-si-dos/ladies chain.)

  2. Lady Walpole's Reel

    This was the introduction of the improper formation to include that brand new quadrille figure, the ladies chain. (I have no hard evidence to support this is why improper formations became popular. But the dance lists from that time look very suspicious.)

    I did this in two stages. First I taught:

    A1 Neighbor balance twice (step-swing balance)
       Neighbor two-hand turn
    A2 Ones lead down, turn alone, return, cast
    B1 Open ladies chain over and back
    B2 Right and left through over and back

    (It turns out the original version actually does have a half promenade, then a half right and left through. My mistake. Probably the first identified one of many from this program.)

    After six times through the music, I stopped the music. I then talked about how we were jumping ahead fifty years, when contra had been crushed by the fashionable waltz and polka, and only survived in the "backwards" rural area. But there the scandalous waltz position changed the two-hand turn into the swing, which would slowly graft its way into contra dance like kudzu. I then taught:

    A1 Neighbor balance (once)
       Neighbor swing, ending where it started with ones above the twos
    A2 Ones lead down, turn alone, return, cast
    B1 Ladies chain over and back with courtesy turn
    B2 (Half) promenade, (half) right and left through

    After a few times, I used Ralph Page prompts.

  3. Texas Star

    I briefly mentioned the Elizabeth Burchenal and Henry Ford attempts at revivals. (See pages 16-18 of the 2008 RPDLW syllabus.) Then I mentioned how Lloyd Shaw and his demo teams turned square dancing into a major fad in the 1940's and 1950's resulting in events that would have squares cover football fields. And people who only wanted to do squares, not contras, because they were boring, and how could you recover if you couldn't promenade home to a fixed spot?

    Texas Star was chosen as a representative all-moving square that helped start this fad wave, but more important was the break I used:

    Circle left, swing your corner, leave her on your right
    Circle left, swing your next corner, leave her on your right
    ...and so on

    This quick swing modification to swing all your corners would have great reprecussions later.

  4. IOCA Reel

    Later was roughly 1942, when this idea of leaving the woman on the right was first put into a contra dance, as a brand new way to progress. It's ever since defined contra dance choreography.

    I also used this slot to talk a little about Ralph Page, and his influence in keeping contra dance alive, back when modern square dance was pretty much the only game in town.

  5. Becket Reel

    Becket Reel (around 1959) was an obvious choice, just for the formation. But it was much more than that, one of many attempts by Herbie Gadreau to update contra dancing (for modern square dancers) to make it all-active and symmetrical. Since almost all the dances didn't have partner swings (you were married to your partner, so you already knew what swinging them was like), they weren't kept, and the lessons wouldn't be learned for another thirty years.

  6. Petronella

    This was my slot to talk about the Dudley Laufman phenomenon, where contra dancing truly became popular in the late 60's/early 70's, then followed by the great contra diaspora. I mentioned three things that we have him to thank for:

    I used the more modern version of Petronella that developed during the Dudley dances, and during the second tune set I tried to use the same words/cadence that appears on the Canterbury Contra Dance Orchestra cd.

    (Interestingly enough, one of this evening's "new" dancers there had been to a number of San Diego dances back in 1973, and had really enjoyed those. Unfortunately she left during the break, so I didn't get to see what she thought of what happened there-after.)

  7. Bluemont Reel

    There's multiple versions of this dance floating around, and it's not clear which is the original. The one I went with is:

    A1 Circle left 1, swing neighbor
    A2 Circle left 3/4, swing partner
    B1 Down the hall line of four, turn as couples, return
    B2 (Half) ladies chain, long lines forward and back

    (Tony Parkes notes its closer similarity to "IOCA Reel," making it more likely to be the ur-dance. I agree, and think it feels closer to what was being done at the time than the version in Zesty Contras.)

    Anyways, this was my chance to talk about fractions. I think this was the first dance to have the swing-circle 3/4-swing, thus allowing for two safe swings on the same side, in the same dance. Swings would become even more entrenched in contra, as the choreographic floodgates were released. I also pointed out that the courtesy turn was fractionalized, a fairly new development. (There wasn't room in the program for "The Nova Scotian," the first contra to have a ladies chain over but not back.)

  8. Bonny Jean

    (For instructions, see "Balance and Swing" or "Zesty Contras". I knew I had to include a Ted Sannella dance. The only question was which one. I went for this one partly for programming reasons, partly because of the impact the hey had.)

    This was my chance to talk about Ted Sannella, and the impact he had, as the chief carrier of the tradition after Ralph Page, and one of the two major modern choreographers. I skimped here because I didn't walk to talk forever. I mentioned how he created many new dances, changing some things yet working within the existing tradition, making things more active, trying other figures and concepts. "Bonny Jean" was the first hey in a modern contra, and in fact when I had people set up after the A1 wave (actives back-to-back in the middle), left hand to opposite-sex inactive, I said, "And you're now in position to do the first hey ever."

  9. The Common Tern

    I chose this dance for a couple of reasons, but primarily because of Larry Jennings' vision to make contra dance zesty. (I was tempted to use "The Last Gasp", but it's too hard outside of a dance camp workshop.) "The Common Tern" let me talk about zesty allemandes. I also mentioned Larry's contributions as an organizer, collector, and critic of contra dances and calling. And also that he developed new language like neighbor, to suit a more global teaching.

    (Up to this point I'd been using terms like "every other couple cross over", and "actives/inactives", and "the one below." With this dance I finally used neighbor, along with ones and twos, though I don't know if Larry's responsible for that part.)

  10. The Reunion

  11. Of course I had to include something by Gene Hubert. I mentioned he was the other major modern choreographer, who created and solidified the modern contra dance aesthetic. In the early 1980's he put out a book, "Dizzy Dances," which mostly consisted of "Centrifugal Hey" variants, quickly decided that they weren't active/interesting/appropriate enough, recalled the book, and created a new paradigm in his second book.

    (I could easily have also chosen "Centrifugal Hey," "The Nice Combination," or "The Summer of '84" for various reasons. But even amongst those heavy-hitters, "The Reunion" stands out. Before starting the dance, I said, "This was the dance that rocked the contra dance world.")

  12. Strutting to the Hilt

    (Instructions only found in the book Twirling Dervish and Other Contra Dances. Has a single file promenade the set, gypsy, and two swings.)

    After this, the story of contra choreography is mostly one of refinement, continuing to look at smooth transitions, with more and more dances with both neighbor and partner swings. And sometimes with new figures. A number of books were written by various choreographers -- Becky Hill amongst the better of them. This appeared in the early 1990's.

  13. Bicoastal Contra

    (Though the version I did started with a neighbor gypsy.) In the 2000's, Pete Campbell went to a dance in Canada where people were still doing dances primarily back from the 1950's and 1960's. This is the dance he wrote to show them how contra choreography has changed. It seemed like an appropriate end to the evening, to show how far things had changed.)

So what got left out? The whole story of triple minors got swept under the rug, because I couldn't start beginners with them on a regular evening. "The Nova Scotian," the first recognized dance with a half ladies chain figure, was a strong contendor. Something by Ralph Page -- probably "Crooked Stovepipe" or "Monadnock Reel." Tony Parkes's "Shadrack's Delight" with adapting an MWSD figure, plus a partner swing for all on the sides. I skipped Al Olson, wrapping him into Larry Jennings. (I felt a bit guilty about that, but most of his dances don't continue to get done, unlike Ted Sannella or Gene Hubert.) Steve Schnur deserved to be stuck in, leading an early push for all-active dances that Gene Hubert would pick up. Something else from the 2000's would have been nice, either Cary Ravitz's intricacy, Bob Isaacs's use of momentum, or Rick Mohr's distinctiveness. And some dance that used none of the old figures besides swing, but is still recognizably contra.

Which would probably make for an interesting six-hour workshop, if the dancers could survive. It'd also be fun to do this again sometime when the band was interested in researching/playing how the music changed over time, because that's another big story..

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