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Contra: Looking Back 25 Years

June 4th, 2013
contra

I just finished reading American Folklore revival: a study of an old-time music and dance community, John Bealle's 1988 PhD thesis. It's about the Bloomington Indiana contra dance community. While the social setup it describes is 25 years old, it's striking how little has changed. For example:

It is because the twirl has become institutionalized as a symbol of intensification and because it is both optional and coordinative that it can command such significance. Dancers prize the intensity of the experience—so called "good dancing"—but the twirl has been so extensively identified with that purpose that it is sometimes employed for its ability to designate good dancing than to actually produce that experience. Thus those who identify good dancing with flamboyant moves—a class represented by the twirl—are thought to miss the more subtle features of the dance, particularly those that involve practiced attentiveness to each dancer's individual features. The twirl is particularly suited to this purpose because it is led and followed by individuals—anything other than the cooperation of both dancers will be noticed as a violation not simply of dance ettiquite but of the social category of the individual. This situation is aggravated but not caused by its relation to gender differentiation—particularly since the practice of men leading, a negotiated issue in this move, is mirrored both as a sex role feature of other dance forms and a political issue in mainstream life.
Reading the description of their dance setup it felt very familiar throughout, enough that I mostly noticed the things that have changed:
[The dance] is usually repeated until each couple in the line has been the active couple (usually the more interesting role) at least a few times through.
Now dances are nearly always equal-turn, so you don't run dances longer for longer lines. (Though you do run them sorter if you have short enough lines that people will start running into the same neighbors repeatedly.) Or:
Pianists such as Peter Barnes have developed signature formulae, in his case an extention of the V-chord beyond what is implied by the melody and to the end of the phrase.
This is now extremely common. Resolving at the end of the phrase is something I would only do now when deliberately affecting an older style.
The most prominent exception is the problem of beginners. Beginners are welcome, but too many compromise the quality of the dance. Bloomington discourages publicity in order to keep the number of newcomers manageable.
I can't think of any dance series that does this now. Even dances that are doing quite well with attendance aren't so overwhelmed that they're trying to limit it.
New England dance books and callers generally honor a practice by which dances have a related reccomended tune chosen by an authoritative source. [footnote: A significant departure from what I see as regional practices is the mini lecture on music in Jennings' Zesty Contras in which he encourages callers to sacrifice specific tune requirements to the musicians' strengths and desires.]
The surrounding text makes it clear that they're not talking about "chestnuts" like Chorus Jig that have their own traditional tune but instead more recently composed dances that have started to have a tune attached presumably one that fits them well.
Unline Sacred Harp, morris is so far removed from its source that contact with the source cultures is highly unlikely. It is safe to say that few if any Bloomington dancers have ever seen any of the remaining English teams though some may have seen videotapes of their performances. The fact that it comes from "the Cotswalds" of southern England has become a cliche.
A large fraction of morris dancers I know have now been to England at some point, and some English dancers have come to ales here. I'm not sure what caused this change. Email? Cheaper airfare? And as for seeing videotapes, youtube is everywhere now.

Some other segments that caught my attention, mostly not describing changes over time:

The stage was often crowded and issued at times a decidedly chaotic sound. Musical exclusion mechanisms were developed and were presumed to have developed in which some musicians could actually cause others to leave the stage. The most widely known mechanism, even outside Bloomington, consisted of changing keys frequently to frustrate unpopular banjo players.
Yikes.
In Bloomington and other contra dance communities, asking and being asked to dance does not carry the great social import that wider society attributes to it. A dance with a particular partner is expected to be fun or at least charitable, and both postures are advanced with facility and sincerity. Thus one rarely turns down a dance when asked, and if having done so, one should and usually does sit out that dance as common excuses prescribe.

If a dancer is already obligated for the current dance, he or she can agree to dance "the next one" or "the one after". If the waiting list for a dancer gets too long, there is often a momemnt of comic relief which makes note of the dancer's inequitable popularity. There is also a danger of forgetting an obligation as well as confusion over what actually counts as a dance, and such can cause offense to the neglected partner. Women are not only allowed and encouraged to ask men to dance but do so in equal or greater proportion. This practice is thought ot contrast with that in other social dance forms. Particularly if there are unequal numbers, women dance with one another and in increasing numbers men are doing so as well. Occasionally, men and women switch roles in a dance. Rarely, more often at spececial dances, men wear skirts.

I had thought of these as ways the current community was changing. I wonder how much it just gives the appearance of flux while not actually having changed much in 25 years. It's interesting how it talks about booking as completely normal.
On the dance floor, ettiquite, particularly regarding relations between men and women dancers, is in constant negotiation. Undoubtedly the most potent symbol for this negotiation is the twirl. A number of the contra figures easily afford the unstructured moment for the man to optionally twirl the woman under his arm, sometimes more than once. Thus "to twirl or not to twirl" becomes an issue loaded with import. Callers lecture on it. Articles in newsletters are cut out and pasted to the wall. Some women attempt to fit as many twirls as possible into the short time available; others complain about men dancers who "nearly rip their arm off trying to twirl." Men are ware of those who will and those who won't; women know those who are excessively demanding. Both discuss how the movement intrudes into the flow of the dance or how there simply isn't time for it. Men who dance the women's part execute exaggerated twirls, enjoying for the moment one of the more salient aspects of being a woman dancer; women who dance with them complain of their uncompromising demand to be twirled when dancing as women.

It is because the twirl has become institutionalized as a symbol of intensification and because it is both optional and coordinative that it can command such significance. Dancers prize the intensity of the experience—so called "good dancing"—but the twirl has been so extensively identified with that purpose that it is sometimes employed for its ability to designate good dancing than to actually produce that experience. Thus those who identify good dancing with flamboyant moves—a class represented by the twirl—are thought to miss the more subtle features of the dance, particularly those that involve practiced attentiveness to each dancer's individual features. The twirl is particularly suited to this purpose because it is led and followed by individuals—anything other than the cooperation of both dancers will be noticed as a violation not simply of dance ettiquite but of the social category of the individual. This situation is aggravated but not caused by its relation to gender differentiation—particularly since the practice of men leading, a negotiated issue in this move, is birrored both as a sex role feature of other dance forms and a political issue in mainstream life.

I am led to this conclusion that gender is not the deciding feature by observation that identical issues are negotated among same gender dancers. The cast around, for instance, is a figure sometimes executed exclusively by men. This figure appears, for instance, after the actives return up the contra set to the waiting inactives. At that point, the actives split, each going around the same-set [sic] inactives toward the outside of the set. Actives are "assisted" in this :cast-around" or "cast off" by the inactives and they "wheel around" side-by-side with inside hands around one another's waist as if the spoke of a wheel.

In executing this cast around, men occasionally intensify the experience by going around twice. They must vigorously rush to get around in time for the next figure, resulting in an experience that for its duration relinquishes much of its connectino with the flow of the dance. This is usually initiated with determination by one of the two men, and an aggreement to proceed with the experiment usually indicates that both will judge it successful. Like the twirl, however, if it is too excessively or too aggressively employed, it is thought to symbolize and not produce the experience. Similarly, if its perpetrators become associated with such excess, they can be accused of impropriety.

The degree to which dancers are willing to disengage themselves from the flow of the dance and the degree to which improvisation imposes on other dancers' experience limit other experiments as well. Inactive couples will swing when they should be standing idle. Particularly playful couples will import jitterbug moves into a dance. Some will affect mock accidents, stepping on toes, or running into poles. During figures that call for movement up or down a contra set when there isn't enough room to do so, dancers will continue onto the stage, out into the hall, into the other set, or even outdoors. Occasionally in a contra, a group of four will actually begin making up their own dance, calling different figures than those issued from the stage. Protests are far less common than the behavior itself—it is inappropriate only if if it results in running into or too frequently invadinh the space of other dancers. Or it can, if it becomes stereotyped, be considered tritie and gauche: a once popular practice in sets of four of making a cloverleaf rather than a circle-four is regarded now by some as no more than a half-hearted attempt at improvisation and has, in some circles, come into disfavor.

Again, this makes me wonder if what I see as change is not actual change.
During the summer, particularly during the hottest months, after dance swimming will invariably be suggested. If enough are interested, a group of anywhere from five to fifteen will go to a local swimming hole. Swimming is never publically announced the way other events are; while it is in no way meant to be exclusive, it is also a "backstage" event, one whoese accessibility is not asserted. Thus the event is promoted by asking individuals if thewy want to go. New dancers, if they appear as if they might be interest [sic] in such an activity, are made aware of, if not invited to, the swim.

The ambiguous accessibility of swimming partly reflects its flaunted disregard for mainstream recreational practice. Swimmers follow a dark and sometimes treacherous path through the woods and participate clothed or not in what is for the majority skinny-dipping. Participation in such a group, particularly if wholeharted involvement is expressed during the encounter, can be a particularly effective way fot a newcomer to gain entry into the group. As an extension of the ideological departure of the larger group from the mainstream, swimming allows newcomer to more quickly become iconically tied to the group by estabilishing ideological similarity. As ideological iconisity, swimming offers participants an opportunity to establish an illusion of consensus on a variety of mainstream principles. And although a vague irreverence is perhaps a predominant posture, particular views are only occasionally specified. As symbol, swimming establishes continuity (by allusion to sexuality as well as by being in the same place) between the physical similarity of wetness and nakedness (removal of clothing = removal of difference) and the ideological similarity that establishes the mistique of the event. The efficacy of swimming as a performative, bringing one into the group by the mere act of participating in it, is increased if the swimmers appear together with wet hair later at the bar. In each case iconic affilliation is established through the physical similarity of wetness and nakedness, and the indexical tie to the group by being together as a group and by the suggestion of sexuality.

The iconic and indexical import of nakedness is related not only to entry into the group but, of course, definition of the group as well. Iconically, it divests the group of artificially imposed categories (represented by clothing) thus restoring the facility of the individual for self-definition. Indexically, it establishes the group as a medium of communication more intimate, more limited by cultural facade, than available in mainstream life.

It's weird seeing after-dance swimming written about in such an academic way.

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