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The changing dynamic of contra

May 11th, 2012
contra

For most of it's history, contra dance hasn't had leading or following. There were variations [1] but anyone could initiate them. When people deviated from the dance as called, it was collaborative. Starting in the 1980s [2], however, an alternate style started to spread where (a) there were more variations and (b) the gent was expected to lead them and the lady follow them. This isn't a new dynamic, it's what you have in swing and many other couple dances, but it was new to contra.

Just as improper is now normal, when new dancers learn to dance [3] they see this lead-follow dynamic as the default. At dinner last night I asked whether contra was lead-follow. My mother and sister responded at the same time, saying 'no' and 'yes' respectively. My mother danced the most in the 1970s, though she's continued dancing occasionally since, while my sister had peak exposure to contra in the 2000s. My sister (and I) see the dance as being essentially lead-follow, with good leads making substitutions all over the place, while my mother (and father) see it as maybe having maybe a little bit of a lead-follow relationship in the swing.

To dancers entering the scene now, older gents who don't lead anything or ladies who don't want to follow don't seem to be very good dancers. What makes a good dancer has changed. Swinging smoothly, being right on the music, giving good weight, and remembering the choregraphy are still valued, but they have become somewhat less important as being a good lead or good follow has become more central.

If we had had youtube in 1970, I wonder what would have been their equivalent of the Friday Flourish videos? Something about learning new balance footwork?

(This is kind of a continuation of the discussion on lead and follow.)

Update 2012-12-30:

In a discussion on potential alternate terms for roles in contra some people wrote things that I think do a good job of illustrating how some people think of the dance as obviously lead-follow while others think that's not how it goes at all.
Update 2012-01-02:
The discussion migrated to the SharedWeight caller's listserv:


[1] At least: swing hold, twos joining in on petronellas, clapping in petronellas, twirling on courtesy turns.

[2] Not totally clear on dates; anyone who was around then want to help out?

[3] In Boston. I'm not so sure about the rest of the country. My impression is that big dance communities with frequent dances are almost entirely switched to this style but the older style persists more elsewhere.

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