In contra dancing you get a new partner after each set of dances. During the set, you and your partner dance with another couple for a round -- one pair being the active couple. Then the pairs move along a line to dance with other couples. "So you get to dance with everybody in the room," says Martha Wild. "It's very social."
Callers at contra events ease newcomers into the dancing with simpler dances. In square dancing, a close relative of contra, "novices feel bad because they see that the square is having trouble on account of their awkwardness," observes Wild. "But in contra they are looking worried and nervous at first, but then smiling in a very short time."
Wild chairs the contra dancing committee for San Diego Folk Heritage. The organization sponsors weekly contra dances, including one this Christmas night. "People will have eaten and opened their gifts already," says Wild. SDSU associate professor of dance Graham Hempel will do the calling to live music.
At a contra dance, the caller might only give dancers initial instructions and call for a short time before allowing them to dance on their own. Dancers commonly walk in unison or around each other. They might also use the "buzz step," which Wild describes as "right foot down, left foot back a little, then down on right and up on left. It can create an up-and-down motion," she says, "and if you're doing the swing, you can work up a good speed. Sometimes it feels like you're stationary and the room is spinning."
The website www.sdfolkheritage.org describes a number of other contra "figures" (movements of the dancers relative to each other) including do si do, a back-and-forth passing of partners by each other; the hey, making loops to the partner's side and back; and the allemande, which requires a full-palmed grip of the partner's hand. Calls are made for allemande lefts or allemande rights, depending on which hands the dancers will use. In regard to the swing, the website advises: "If you're using a 'buzz step,' don't bob up and down -- try to keep it smooth and level." It recommends lots of eye contact and "giving weight" during the dances. Giving weight is the technique of pulling against your partner in a balanced way to create a greater sense of moving together.
The best music for accompanying contra dancing, according to Wild, "has 32 bars, which allows for 64 steps and for the dancers to move on to the next couple after completing 4 to 8 figures."
Dave Allen plays fiddle and accordion for the band Au Contraire, which will accompany the dancing on Christmas night. "I sometimes also 'do feet,' meaning pounding out the rhythm with my shoes," he says. Au Contraire draws on Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian (Québécois) music and on a Celtic-influenced New England style. Occasionally they play the southern-Appalachian "old timey," whose beat is conducive to contra dancing. To create its beat, "old timey uses the 'clawhammer' style of banjo playing called 'frailing,'" says Allen. "It gets its percussive sounds from hitting the strings with the backs of the fingertips."
As a complement to dancing and calling locally, Professor Hempel has been doing research into the history of contra dancing in the U.S. It grew out of English country dancing in colonial times and may have derived its name from French corruptions of the word 'country,' according to Hempel. "During the Revolutionary War," he says, "things British became unpopular and people wanted to create dance styles that were strictly American. It got worse after the War of 1812." George Washington danced an English style that grew out of favor. "But then people remembered liking it, and it came back later as a contra dance called the Virginia reel.
"Somewhere along the line, the contras stopped being done in the South but were preserved in New England," says Hempel. In "Growth of Contra Dance," an article published in Folk Dance Scene earlier this year, Hempel refers to the growth of "improper" contra dance sets. In these, the man and the woman in the active couples exchange places. "By the mid-19th Century," writes Hempel, "the preference was for improper dances. Around 1900 the longway set continues to hang on in New England, but squares start to move west and south." Today most contra dancing is done in improper sets, he says.
Even in New England, contras lost popularity in the early part of the 20th Century. Nevertheless, Henry Ford published the book Good Morning in 1926, recommending, among other things, fifteen contra dances. "Ford attempted," writes Hempel, "to influence his workers to engage in the wholesome 'dances of our northern peoples,' instead of those 'immoral' dances of the dance halls."-- Joe Deegan
Trinity United Methodist Church
Saturday, December 25
8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
3030 Thorn Street