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Unphrased sections of contras

August 20th, 2012
contra, calling

A the contra on Thursday Diane Silver called several dances with unphrased sections. In most contra dances nearly everything aligns with phrase boundaries. Imagine a dance like:

A1(8)Long Lines
(8)Ladies Chain
A2(8)Star Left 3/4
(8)New neighbor dosido
B1(4)First neighbor balance
(12)First neighbor swing
...
Each of those figures will be danced in the number of beats marked (mostly "(8)"). Some, like the lines and balance, precisely fit the time allotted. Others, like the dosido, chain, and swing, the dancers will adjust to make sure they end the figure with the music. In yet other cases, like the transition from the star to the dosido, the dancers will generally flow smoothly from one to the next, not worrying about whether they're early or late. The dance segment above, which I just made up off the top of my head, probably isn'y very good to dance, because the dancers have to do too much adjusting in the dosido. I suspect they'll start it "early" because they're coming out of the star, and a dosido 1x really only needs about six beats, which gets them there 2-4 beats early for the balance. The balance has to start on time, so the dancers will slow down their dosido to match, with lots of extra spins, but may not be able to easily slow it down enough.

Despite these complexities, nearly all contra dances match pretty tightly to the phrase, with lots of movements that start or end with a section of music. In square dancing outside New England, or in Modern Western Square Dancing, however, you dance entirely to the beat, completely ignoring phrase boundaries. In a phrased square, like a traditional New England square, a call of "into the middle" would wait for the next phrase boundary to begin, while I understand that in unphrased dancing it would begin as soon as the dancers were in position.

Contra dance has a figure that comfortably and reliably realigns people with the phrase, however. That is the swing. If you tell dancers to swing they will start as soon as they are in position, and continue until the end of the phrase. [1] This allows an easy transition from an unphrased section to a phrased one. I remember two dances from Thursday that took advantage of this:

A(32)Keeping hands joined in a ring the whole time, people on the left side of the set (As) make an arch and the people on the right (Bs) go under. Then the Bs make an arch and pass over the As. There's some amount of unwrapping, but I don't remember exactly. Then everyone circles left three places, passes through across the set, and swings their partner
As people are still figuring this out, they'll do it slowly, with a short swing at the end, but as people get more practiced at it they speed up the changes dramatically and the swing gets quite long. It does throw the dancers a little bit, not having the musical signal when to start something and when to end it, and at firstw some try leaving in extra time before the circle to make it start with the beginning of the A2, but people realize they don't need to and the dance picks up.

Another dance started like this:

A(32)Neighbor aleman right, gents pass left to cross the set, partner aleman left, gents pass left to cross the set, neigbor right, gents cross, partner left, gents cross, neigbor swing.
The gents just bounce back and forth between the ladies at whatever timing feels natural, eating up whatever time is left in the A2 with the neighbor swing.

Sometime I want to call one of these sorts of dances with an unphrased A part and well-phrased B part to a similar tune. But I don't know any such tunes because for nearly all contra dances you want clear phrasing in both the A part and B part.


[1] Specifically, the end of an A1, A2, B1, or B2. There is a weaker phrase marker in most tunes halfway through each of these four sections, and yet a weaker one a quarter of the way through. While most figures can match up with these weaker boundaries, contra dancers will keep swinging until the end of a 16-beat section. (The swing didn't used to be special this way, and once an older dance tripped me up when I didn't realize it would be confusing to modern dancers.)

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