Contras? Squares?

Members of the governing board of Country Dance and Song Society recently had an e-mail exchange about how to boost attendance at some of our summer camp weeks. Among other topics, we talked about how American dances might best be incorporated into other programs. One energetic and thoughtful young dancer ended his post with this comment: “For young American-only dancers, the key to enthusiasm is to have age peers enthusiastically interested in whatever is being danced. We all know this. My point is that “[contras and squares] vs English” is not the right grouping with regard to enthusiasm, but rather “contras vs [squares or English].”

Another mentioned that people tend not to like what they don’t know and don’t feel comfortable with: “It’s worth noting that people’s objections to other dance forms may not be what they say it is. Our approach to thinking about it long term should take this into account, in addition, short-term, to thinking about meeting their currently expressed needs.”

I tried to add a historical dimension to the conversation:

* In the contracentric world with which many of us are familiar, it’s sometimes hard to remember that contras have not always been the be-all and end-all dance experience. Within our very own CDSS ranks, contras are very much a dance-come-lately form. At Pinewoods in the early 1970s, Dudley Laufman was hired to be on staff and that raised more than a few eyebrows. Dudley’s teaching led to run-ins with Marshall Barron and Ginny Shimer from the get-go, but program director Jim Morrison held his ground and contras gained a foothold within the CDSS world. A few years later, in 1977, CDSS its first separate American Dance & Music Week, late in the history of the organization. People sometimes need to think big picture and do things that buck current trends.

* In the 1970s, there were many series that included both English and American dances on the same programs. A friend who started dancing then in New York City told me that it was several years before she realized, “Oh, these long dances are English country dances and these other ones are American contras.” The separation into two different camps is, in part, a reflection of the growth of interest in country dancing. We now have enough people that a given community might be able to devote a regular evening to each style.

* In the 1950s, some well-respected leaders made efforts to introduce contras into the rapidly-expanding square dance movement. (Please keep in mind that traditional squares were far more central to American social life than contras have ever been, and that modern square dancing—MWSD, club squares, whatever name you call it—similarly involved vast numbers, estimated at 15-30 million participants in all.) As early as 1952, the well-known modern square dance caller Al Brundage co-authored Contras Are Fun, but they didn’t really catch on among square dancers. Contras were seen as both complicated and boring– I mean, you did the same thing over and over again… what fun could that be?

* Don Armstrong, who had started out as a square dance contra, became well known for contras, and he brought a lot of them as he became influential within the Lloyd Shaw Foundation, but that organization only touched a small percentage of the burgeoning number of square dancers. It took a different group of people than the established square dancers to embrace contras. In deed, some would argue that one of the things that appealed to these new contra enthusiasts was precisely that this was a different from from that of the previous generation.

* There certainly are many contra dancers today who don’t like squares. In a nicely-symmetrical repeat of the 1950s experience, I think it helpful to keep in mind that there is also a rapidly-growing number of young dancers today who love squares and have either never heard of contras or who have absolutely no interest in contras. The last decade has seen the rise of squares-only events in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and numerous points in the East. And unlike the enthusiasm within the contra world for more complex squares—think of the extraordinary squares that a caller such as Lisa Greenleaf, Kathy Anderson, Tony Parkes, or Bill Litchman—might add to a program, these new square series are drawing large crowd with very simple dances, many of them drawing on southern Appalachian figures, with young musicians playing energetic tunes.

* Looking back even farther, longways dances and square dances have gone in and out of favor for some 300 years. In New England in the late 18th and early 19th century, it was contra contra contra on the country dance floor; by mid-century and beyond, the fashion had shifted in most locations to quadrilles, and so the pendulum keeps swinging. Myself, as dancers at my events know well, I prefer a mix of both forms.

Addendum, April, 2015: I recently discovered a 1998 essay by my buddy, caller Carol Ormand, “Why I Call Squares.” Carol makes a compelling case. Dare To Be Square!