How Complicated Does This Need to Be?

I’ve written elsewhere about the push toward ever-more-complex choreography on the contra and square dance floor. The short story is that the number of figures one might expect to meet today in a few nights of dancing has nearly doubled from the early 1970s when I started. Some of the push comes from those avid dancers whom Ralph Sweet, writing in the 1960s and referring to ardent modern Western square dancers, dubbed the “overactive 10%.” That’s a whole separate discussion, but some of the responsibility certainly falls on the shoulders of callers, present company included.

We callers spend so much time with dances, looking through our ever-growing stack of cards, that we’re hyper-alert to a new wrinkle: “Ooh, this is different. It’ll be fun!” And so we introduce a different figure, in much the same way that MWSD callers of an earlier generation created such a vast complex of dance moves that CALLERLAB was created to bring order to chaos.

The last few summers, I’ve had some opportunities to counter that trend.

I’ve had opportunities to call in small towns that have been reviving their own traditions, holding outdoor street dances where the asphalt pavement is covered with a carpet of whole oats—organic ball bearings!—to provide some extra glide. Closer to home, I made some conscious decisions when I was asked to call for dances at the East Thetford Pavilion. I thought about it in terms of staying true to the venue, which was built as a square dance hall, so I wanted to include more traditional squares in the programs than I would at, say, a Northern Spy dance. I also wanted a program that included more simple dances, material that could be danced by a wide range of ages and by people who were casual dancers, and sure enough, those Pavilion dances now attract a much wider spectrum of folks than you’d see at a typical contra dance these days.

I spend a lot of time working on the Square Dance History Project, and lately I’ve been reading a lot about a hotbed of square dance activity, Texas in the 1940s. An article called “The Good Old Days,” written by dance historian Olcutt Sanders and published in Foot ‘n’ Fiddle magazine in 1949, recently spoke to me.

“As you unwound yourself from the mazes of the latest square dance concoction introduced at your club meeting, did your ever wonder how people ever got along without the inventive genius of today’s callers? Did dancers of an earlier generation actually keep coming back for more even without a new trick or twist introduced frequently during the evening?

“It looks as if they did, not only in Texas but all around the country. And we can make some fairly good guesses as to why they got along with a limited repertoire of relatively simple calls. First, they probably danced less frequently than most square dancers today and thus they did not experience the familiarity that breeds contempt for repeated figures. Second, they lived in a generally less complicated era; the insistence on novelty was not as strongly felt in any aspect of life, including recreation. Third, social patterns centered more in persons, and the opportunities for personal contact were fewer in many situations; whereas formerly one went to a dance to be with most of one’s friends, it is often the case today that one goes to a dance with many persons who have little in common except a love of dancing.”

One of the changes that I’m proudest about in the long Northern Spy run was bringing back the potluck dessert break. It led to a longer break with far more socializing taking place—nothing like good food to get folks to linger with others—and helped strengthen the social ties in our community. In part, I think it’s those personal connections that have been so vital in moving the local Norwich dances forward, as a dozen or so individuals have come together to do the necessary work.