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June 28th, 2011

Techno Contra and Phrasing

Over the past three years, techno contra [1] has been expanding. I recently found someone who was (among other things) interviewing traditional dance callers who had called techno contras. Reading those interviews, one thing that jumped out was that they all talked about phrasing:

The most difficult thing, says Anna [Rain], was calling dances the first time through. "There's no tune, no melody to follow. I had to actively count to eight [over and over] and think about the next call. It was really hard." This really surprised her when she "couldn't find the square of the tune, couldn't find the phrasing." She says she would get halfway through and suddenly realize she had to re-find the place in the music. To compensate, she says she figured the best thing was to get the dancers moving together with each other, regardless if the dance figures are square with the music. -- Contra Syncretist

And:

Gaye [Fifer] found that "the biggest difference for me [from calling a traditional contra] is that I can't navigate as well by the phrasing of the music.... Both time I called, the DJ spent a little time with me, listening to the music [and] hearing how it fit the dance.... I don't always hear phrases of 8 [beats] in the techno music, but was able to feel the rhythm of the music and the moves -- Contra Syncretist

And:

I believe [the organizers] did a good job putting together tracks that maintained a steady beat, and they sent me the tracks ahead of time so I could listen and get a feel for what to expect. Even so, there is definitely very little distinct phrasing, and it is not necessarily in 8-count phrases, so it still does not fit the phrasing of contra dancing. What I did was try to feel where the phrasing was and extend swings or shorten them in order to start the next move in some semblance of being in time with the music.

...

I would say that from the calling perspective, the music does not have structure, so you have to let go of your usual calling structure. I watched the dancers to see how quickly they were moving to the music and tried to give the next call when they were ready for it, rather than using the music to guide when to give the calls. It's a strange switch, when you're used to calling in phrased timing (although, ironically, similar in that one tiny respect to calling old-time squares, if they play a crooked tune, or if the dance figure is longer or shorter than the tune). -- Diane Silver via Contra Syncretist

And:

I really key into musical/rhythmic phrases. Lately I've I learned that when I call I am really tied to the 8 or 16 count musical phrase, unlike some square dance callers who are more keyed into the 2 or 4 count phrase. This little 'handicap' of mine makes it harder for me to call to alternative music. (This insight was brought to light during a couple of conversations with callers Will Mentor and Pat Tognoni.) So even if I'm concentrating on ignoring the music and just calling to the beat, I get distracted by whatever musical phrase that I hear, and want to get tied back into that, even if it ends up being crooked. ... I realized I'm a caller who depends on my innate sense of where the tune is to keep track of where I am in the dance, and so it makes it trickier if I can't do that. -- Chrissy Fowler via Contra Syncretist

Some people are working on finding techno music that is more phrased:

I was acutely aware from my first exposure to techno contra that there are some unique challenges involved in selecting club music that is not only intensely fun to listen and move to but also highly dancable. Most club music is not particularly phrased and not set at an ideal tempo for folk dancing, and we had observed how this fact sometimes resulted in chaos on the dance floor. We made it one of our missions to optimize the mating of dances and carefully chosen musical selections, and we know that there would be some trial and error involved. -- Brian Hamshar via Contra Syncretist

And:

I asked [DJ Improper] what it meant that the music had to be "square" for figure dancing for him to be able to use it: "When you dance in a club, you freestyle", he says. "But when you do a figure dance [like contra], you need to do certain moves at specific times. This must be reflected in the music. It's important for dancers to be able to tell where they are in the dance. I try to pick music with 'a sense of purpose:' the music can't really get too loose for very long, or else people will lose their place. -- Contra Syncretist

Apparently dj improper does this well:

Perry [Shafran] had several compliments for the resident dJ improper: "I think that Jeremiah does a great job in making it not too different for callers. As you know, he takes the techno music and makes it square for contra dances. The fact that Jeremiah knows contra and knows what it takes to make music for contra dancing is very important for this dance. ..." Contra Syncretist

Another approach, and I think the only band doing this (yet?) is double apex, is to combine sequencing, samples, and live music to create something that works well for contra dancing. Both band members have been playing traditional contra dances for years, and they have a good understanding of what is dancible.

I'm not sure what the future is here: double apex's approach gives music I really enjoy dancing to, but it takes a huge amount of preparation in advance of the dance. My bet is on technology, though: the amount of training, equipment, and effort required to modify existing music on the fly is going to go down, and as it does it will become easier for musicians, dancers, and callers to adjust their favorite music to suit contra dancing.


[1] someone who knows more about this sort of music would argue against calling all this electronic music 'techno', but "techno contra" is what I've heard people call this hybrid dance form.

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