Changing Contra Choreography

adapted from an e-mail to a fellow caller, 2005

Dancing with Dudley in the early to mid-1970s, I remember doing a lot of traditional material—that's when I learned Rory O'More and Chorus Jig and Lady of the Lake and Sackett's Harbor and Petronella and Lady Walpole's Reel and Money Musk and other standards. Other material included some compositions by Ralph Page and then, toward the end of the 1970s, some new compositions started making the rounds, dances by Tony Parkes and by Ted Sannella. Sandy Bradley came through New England on several occasions with her lively personality and all these great western squares, which certainly got our attention.

Programs were much more relaxed through the 1970s... an individual dance would end and there might be five minutes of visiting and standing around before we lined up for the next dance, unlike today's norm of dance dance dance.

Of course, the figures then were simpler. The Nova Scotian was one dance that had upset the contra world, with its ladies chain over only—scandalous! (Ralph Page published it in Northern Junket in 1970, but he got the figures from Maurice Hennigar at a dance camp in Ontario in 1955.) In general, the overall trend has been for more and more activity crammed into a musical phrase. Instead of two figures taking up 16 beats, it's increasingly common to see three figures, with even simple things like a right hand turn being squeezed from eight steps to six and to four.

Dance complexity really started to take off with Gene Hubert's dances coming into common usage, say around 1983 here in New England. (That year is also when Zesty Contras was published—many of the dances there of course are the ones that formed the basis of the repertoire leading up to that point. It's fascinating to me how many programs today feature dances composed exclusively since then.)

Around that time is when I started seeing hey for four cropping up a lot, followed a few years later by the gypsy. At the end of that decade is when I'd date the "gypsy meltdown" starting to turn up.

When I think of the choreography of the 1990s, "Circle left 3/4 and swing partner" comes to mind. I frequently joke that you couldn't write a dance in that decade that didn't include that combination. Petronella twirls cropped up a lot in the last decade as a hot modern move, although Ted Sannella included that as part of Fiddleheads in 1983, yet another example of his being ahead of his time. (David Smukler has been tracking dances with Petronella twirls, and the number shown on his website is now well over 100.*) The Rory O'More balance and pass by is also being used a lot now and being danced by folks who have never encountered the original.

Petronella itself was revamped in the early to mid-1970s, when Donny Parkhurst, Inga Thompson, Tara Garland, and Glenn Towle—under the influence of having danced Roxburgh Castle at Pinewoods—decided to incorporate everyone turning single into the Petronella twirls. (Dudley Laufman promptly dubbed the new version Citronella.) Dudley writes, "Ted Sannella said I shouldn't have allowed it. I said Ted, you just didn't tell those kids what to do. If I had, I would have been out of business." Up until that point, it was the big showcase dance for everyone to demonstrate their fancy balance steps, and in workshop settings it's still fun to ask folks to do that. In addition to showcasing your own repertoire of steps, the inactives can learn a lot by watching the active couples strut their stuff.

Overall trends: used to be, back in early to mid 80s, that you needed to take a LOT of time walking people through a hey for four, simply because the figure was so unfamiliar. No hand contact, everyone moving... it was easy for folks to go off in strange directions. Now, it takes about the same amount of time to teach a right and left over and back, especially if the dance is proper, with men acting as a unit and women acting as a unit.

"Down the center" seems to be disappearing from the dance lexicon—down the center four in line just doesn't have enough pizazz for current tastes, I suppose, plus it's hard to do in a crowded center set. And actives only down the center, which in the 1970s was one of the hot moves, is virtually extinct. Used to be, that was the time when you got to show off—clogging, shuffling, strutting your way down the center, fancy footwork, all eyes on you and your partner. Instead of turn alone, you could turn as a couple and then do a rollaway to end up on the correct side for the next figure, and that was pretty hot stuff. Of course if you were standing in line while this was going on you weren't just standing still—you'd clog in place, or squeeze in a swing with someone behind you in the next line, or talk with your partner (what a concept!), or tease the caller and the band, or gossip about who was dancing with whom. With today's fast-paced choreography, some of that has been lost. Footwork, in particular... no time to work on your clogging in place if you're always moving.

In much the same way that MWSD started to speed up the action, contras now expect dancers to fit more motion into the same number of beats, or, put another way, a figure that used to take X beats now might be X-2 or even X/2 beats. When that happened in MWSD, dancers started being trained to move to the beats, not to the musical phrase, and that could happen with contras, too. Simple moves, such as long lines forward and back, where the whole hall moves as a unit, are less frequent in new choreography, so we're slowly losing that sense of all dancing together. Similarly, the disappearance of singing squares—a common repertoire shared by most of the dancers on the floor—leads to a decrease in the community "we're all in this together" feeling. For that matter, many series now discourage squares of any sort, or triplets, which is a loss; these set dances promote a great community feeling, something that's missing from the relative anonymity of long contra lines.

The last ten years have seen the introduction of even more figures and more complexity: MWSD's "pass the ocean" now crops up frequently in contras as "pass thru to an ocean wave," and we start seeing the use of "square thru," also adapted from modern squares. Contras have thrived in part because of their ability to import and adapt figures from other traditions and they'll continue to do so. My concern at this point is that the dancing may become so complex that it will lost the simplicity that kept it alive and accessible for several centuries, and that contras may end up going the MWSD route to extinction.


* Update August 2019: According to the Caller's Box database, the number of dances now with the Petronella twirl is 878.

* Additional update, February 19, 2021: The number is now 1,105

David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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