In this issue
of the OTH we have combined the "Dance Beat" and "Issues"
columns to reflect the concern that many dancers and musicians
alike feel regarding current trends within the dance community.
Phil Jamison is the editor of the OTH "Dance Beat"
column, and is an active musician, dancer, and caller. He is
a member of the Green Grass Cloggers and makes his home in Asheville,
With the resurgence of interest in old-time
music and dance in the 1970s, new community dances began to
appear across the country. These were not like the old, local
ones held at VFW's and grange halls, but they often started
up in college towns, cities, and other places where groups of
people interested in old-time music got together. For many people,
old-time music and dance fit right in with other folk music
tastes, back-to-the-land ideals and interest in the old-time
ways. Old-time music and other varieties of traditional music
went hand-in-hand with homemade bread, food co-ops, and thoughts
of log cabins and living off the land.
When there was a dance, local musicians would
come out to dance as well as play, and there was a general sense
of a community of people who were having fun and who enjoyed
being together. The dances called were mostly traditional squares,
except in New England where contras were a regional style. (In
a contra dance, the dancers stand in lines opposite partners,
as opposed to a square formation.) Over the years things have
changed. The biggest change has been in peoples' attitudes toward
dancing, and this has appeared in many different manifestations.
Contras are still the popular dance form in New England, but
now "contra-mania" has swept across the rest the country
and in most places has just about completely taken over, to
the exclusion of squares. The music that is used to accompany
contra dances, usually Northern fiddle styles with piano back-up,
has replaced the Southern stringband sound at many dances. Attendance
at dance events is increasing and new weekly dances are springing
up all over. That may seem encouraging, except that many old-time
musicians and dancers have been alienated by the contra invasion
on their scene, so they no longer attend. Many dances now have
a strict New England contra dance orientation and square dance
musicians and callers are no longer welcome. Gone, also, is
a large part of the cooperative community spirit that existed
ten years ago, replaced by a different attitude on the dance
In my travels around the country this past
summer, I mentioned this to a number of people to see what extent
it was a nationwide phenomenon. Every place I went I was besieged
by veteran old-time musicians, callers, and dancers who had
more than a few words to say about the situation. What is contra-mania
all about and how has it affected the old-time music and dance
Before I come down on contras, I should say
that I enjoy dancing them, especially when they are mixed in
among squares, circles, and couple dances in the course of an
evening. I also call some contras, having learned my first ones
out of self-defense when I found that I could not call at certain
dances as strictly a square caller.
What is contra-mania? Has your local dance succumbed to it yet?
Here is the test: Step up to the caller's microphone and say,
"Find a partner for the next dance." Then look out
over the dance floor. Are people forming squares with an occasional
hand raised where another couple is needed, or are they all
lined up like iron filings as if the floor had instantly became
a magnetic field?
Through the years, as contras have taken over,
I've wondered what their big attraction was. Perhaps they are
the result of people's search for novelty and an alternative
to squares. Or, maybe they are a superior dance form. They do
have certain advantages over squares.
From a caller's point of view, contras are
easier to call than squares. The constant vigilance of a square
caller is not needed. Once the dance is started, the caller
can cease calling and let the dancers continue on their own.
The timing of the prompting is important, but it is more straightforward
and simpler than square calling. Square calling depends more
on a caller's personal style, which may take years to develop.
The timing of squares is not always spelled out by the phrasing
of the music, but is left up to the caller's instincts. In contrast,
contras can literally be read right out of a book and called.
Collections of recently composed and other favorite contras
are available in print, enabling new callers to develop huge
repertoires of dances almost overnight. New callers are not
exposed to many square callers, and squares are not as accessible
in print, so they are not as familiar with them.
Because of the variable length of contra lines,
contra callers never have to coax dancers out onto the floor
to fill out a definite number of couples as required for a square.
Basically, contra callers are in demand and
popular with the swelling numbers of people at dances. The demands
and desires of dancers certainly influence a caller's choice
of dance and there are a number of reasons why dancers like
contras. For some of the newer dancers, that is all they have
seen and all they know. The predictable, repetitious nature
of contras can be appealing. Dancers like to be able to continue
on their own after a few times through without continuous prompting.
The repetition with the phrasing of the music allows dancers
to become mesmerized by the movement as in waltzes and other
couple dances. Dancers seem to prefer the long sets now in style
so that they can dance with as many other people as possible.
Due to the lengthened sets, contras in which everyone is active
have become popular so that no one has to wait their turn to
dance. Finally, some dancers dislike squares because they have
had a boring or bad experience with them in the past. It is
a challenge for callers to develop into good square callers
when they're never given the chance or encouragement to call
Contra-mania has many implications for those
of us involved in old-time music. Many old-time musicians who
play southern-style dance music have become alienated from community
dances due to the preference for contra dance music. Contras
require a more restrained and controlled music than squares
- more regularly phrased, like marching music. Contra dances
and Northern fiddle tunes are a good match. In the past, I have
seen old-time musicians turned off by inflexible musical demands
and lack of understanding on the part of some contra callers.
When allowed to play, some old-time musicians feel that they
are required to bridle raw energy and spirit of their music
to match the tamer tempo of the contra figures. The need to
conform to this required tempo and tune structure has driven
many fine musicians away.
A musician suggested to me that the Northern
music usually used for contras is cleaner, friendlier, and "more
palatable to Yuppie ears" than the less tame Southern old-time
string band sound. Is it closer to new age" music?
There are problems on the dance floor, too. Many veteran dancers
who prefer squares and southern music have been alienated by
the fanaticism of avid contra dancers. To some people it is
merely a question of taste in music and dance, but in many places
the relaxed spirit of the square dance seems to have been replaced
by an intense competitive feeling. This has a detrimental effect
on community spirit and especially affects newcomers. At large
dances, newcomers and out-of-town visitors find it difficult
to get a partner to dance with. They are often ignored and passed
over by the "in" crowd who don't want to risk being
stuck with a novice partner, who perhaps can't swing well. Often
those who are the most obnoxious in this respect are those who
recently overcame the newcorner stigma themselves.
It's like a pecking order. When a dance is
announced, all experienced dancers rush to get an experienced
partner and then crowd into the set in the middle of the floor.
Bob Dalsemer calls this condition "Center Set Syndrome."
In the rush, newcomers get passed over, left to dance with other
novices in a side set. It is hard for them to gain experience,
being isolated from the seasoned dancers, until they realize
the importance of being in the center set and push to get there
themselves. Center Set Syndrome creates a snobbish clique that
effectively blocks out many newcomers and makes them feel left
out of the exclusive set.
Newcomers will often also find that the regulars
have booked themselves two or three dancing partners in advance.
These habits may have come from an eagerness to dance, but the
unfriendly message to newcomers is quite different. With the
formation of long contra lines, a single dance may last 20 or
30 minutes which adds to the time pressure of finding a dance
partner. It's a long wait until the next dance. With these concerns
people don't take time to talk and socialize except during the
break. This is a far cry from the enthusiastic community spirit
and relaxed atmosphere of dances 10 years ago.
So why are so many people into contra dancing
these days? Some like the exercise and physical challenge. They
love it when the music is slightly too fast for the figures
and they have to run to keep up. They charge down the hall and
back, losing all sense of the timing of the music and the grace
of contra dancing. Other people come to dances to socialize.
It's a good, safe alternative to singles bars. In a long contra
line, you get to dance with huge numbers of people without fear
of commitment, due to the brevity of the interactions. Many
dancers use swings as an opportunity to flirt safely, though
not subtly. These superficial looks can be confusing or distressing,
especially to newcomers. Notice that very few couples attend
dances. I hope some people still come out to dance because they
actually love old-time music, though I'm afraid that they're
a minority these days. The folk music boom is over and most
contra dancers could care less about traditional music or the
traditions of the dance.
I don't feel that contra-mania is the cause
of all this, though perhaps it didn't help. It is more of a
symptom or an indicator of a trend. As a caller, I have been
forced to call more contras if I want an audience. It is not
that uncommon for callers to hear "boos" from the
dance floor at the suggestion of doing more than just a token
square in an evening.
A consumer attitude has developed at dances
that separates the musicians from the dancers and hurts community
spirit in general. Musicians who used to attend weekly dances,
no longer feel like a part of the community and now only show
up if hired to play. This same split carries over to many weekend
and week-long dance events. The dancers have become consumers
and they want to be entertained. Their demands often include,
"Show me something new that I've never seen before."
Musicians and callers are forced to resort to gimmicks to keep
I would like to see more squares called and
danced. Dare to be square! They have enormous potential that
is not being used. The spontaneity of patter calling in squares
can make them fun and less serious than contras. With the caller's
ability to alter a dance at will, the caller, musicians, and
dancers all function together as one organism. The caller remains
involved throughout the dance as a link between the musicians
and the dancers. The music can be less structured and livelier,
reflecting the excitement of the often unpredictable calls.
Because of this freer form, dancers remain attentive and more
tuned in to the calls and music. While it can be exhilarating
in a contra dance to become mesmerized by the figures on the
dance floor, it excludes the caller and musicians, except as
While long contra lines may appear to unify all the dancers
on the floor, I feel that they do not bring people together
individually as well as squares or shorter contra sets. Dancers
in the long lines do get to interact with more people, but each
contact is short and superficial. Squares and short contra sets
allow dancers, even newcomers, more time dancing with a more
intimate group. Due to their shorter length, time-wise, everyone
has more chances during an evening to get into dance sets and
this reduces the frantic fear of getting stuck on the sidelines
for 30 minutes during a long dance. Maybe there is a reason
why, traditionally, contra sets included only six to eight couples.
With the experienced dancers split into many smaller sets, a
phenomenon like Center Set Syndrome does not occur.
Many dancers approach dancing from an academic
point of view rather than the heart. This is not surprising
since many are college educated, but it restricts them, and
they get more concerned with the intellectual challenge of the
dances than just the uninhibited joy of dancing. They dance
to the called figures, but not to the feel and the beat of the
music. They become uncomfortable if they aren't kept moving
at all times and they have a fear of being inactive. In traditional,
visiting-couple squares, as well as traditional contras, dancers
spend part of their time being inactive, waiting for their turn
to do the figures. Fear of being inactive may just be another
aspect of the fast pace of the modern world, or as I have suggested,
it may come from a too-intellectual approach to dancing. Dancers
prefer contras in which everyone is active, in order to avoid
being inactive as in a traditional square or contra. A parallel
situation, though I doubt many contra dancers would want to
identify with it, is western club-style square dancing, where
everyone is kept active, and the figures are so complicated
dancers are required to take lessons to dance: Dancing from
the head, not the heart.
Maybe we need workshops to teach people the
art of inactivity. Aside from serving an important function
in the dance, being inactive is a great time to shuffle your
feet to the music, swing your partner an extra time, listen
to and enjoy the music, or, believe-it-or-not, simply enjoy
watching other people dance.
I have seen the old-time music and dance scene
grow and change in the last decade and I wonder what it will
be like 10 years from now. One of the main purposes of old-time
music has always been dancing. The dance scene is booming, but
I would like to see it include the old-time music scene once
again. They need to remain related and reinforce each other.
A stronger community will emerge when dancers can get away from
a consumer orientation and musicians can feel like more than
Dance callers need to be responsible to the
desires of the musicians, as well as the dancers, and be a link
between the two. Don't be a slave to contra-mania, but dare
to call squares and get some of the southern style old-time
musicians involved again. I've always thought that if the music
is "just right," and really moves the dancers, the
figures become secondary. Dances don't always have to be complicated,
challenging, or new. Give dancers the chance to loosen up with
fun and simple dances.
I urge dancers to have an open attitude. Try
squares as well as contras, and be open to the old and familiar
as well as the novel. Relax and enjoy being inactive at times
and let the music move your feet. Take off your "thinking
cap?" once in a while and dance from the heart as well
as the head. Don't take the music for granted, but enjoy it
as much as the complexity of the dance figures. I would hate
to see live music become replaced by records as has happened
in western club-style square dancing. And let's welcome newcomers.
Remember, we were all there once, too. Dance with them and help
them become better dancers through interaction. This will also
help the spirit at your community dance.
Old-time musicians need to get out to the dances
and be heard. Learn to be a good dance musician by working with
the caller and knowing the appropriate dance tunes in your repertoire.
It's different than just jamming at home, but it can be just
as satisfying. Make them want to get out on the floor and "shake
a leg." Try dancing when you aren't playing. The dance
crowd will listen more when you do play, and it will give you
a better understanding of how dances work and how your music
I am aware that some of the comments and observations
presented here do not apply everywhere and certainly not to
everyone involved in the music and dance scene. I hope that
old-time music and dance continue to thrive and that traditional
square dancing can exist alongside contra dancing to the benefit
of both. Traditional music and dance are important, not just
because they are old and have historic value, but because they
are alive and fun and fill a social need. Community dances will
remain strong and vital if we learn to understand each other
and come to them with an open attitude, and especially if the
dancers, callers, and old-time musicians can come together as
one strong community again. Now, find a partner for the next
Thanks to Bob Dalsemer and the multitude of
other callers, musicians, and dancers who lent me their ears
and ideas while I was thinking about all this -