Age Segregation at Contras

January 1st, 2012
bida, contra
About a month ago, I wrote about set seregation at the Concord Scout House:
The dancers self segregate primarily by age, with the younger dancers mostly wanting to dance in the set on the right, next to the fireplace. When there are a lot of younger dancers, this set can have twice as many dancers as the center set. Back when I was going to the Scout House three times a week I liked this division because it meant I could dance with my friends all night. Now that I dance a few times a month and am into organizing and calling I think this is a bad thing for a dance and I work (with the rest of the bida organizers) to keep any of our sets from developing a distinctive character.
Dancing there last night and thinking about it with some friends from out of town, I think it's more complicated than this. In most of our society we segregate by age. We have some spheres that are more intergenerational (church, work) and others that are less (school, athletics). If in contra dance you were to completely ignore age in partners and neighbors, dancing with everyone, that would be the far intergenerational end of this continuum.

My understanding of most dance communities is that people tend to partner preferentially with similar aged people but not split off into different lines. Having a young people's line is one of the ways Concord is different. Another way Concord is different, though, is that it has lots of young people. If you travel around the country going to contra dances, most have very few people under thirty. How much of the wider age range of Concord is due to yonger dancers being able to come and dance mostly with each other?

Young dancers, especially high schoolers, can be pretty insular. When I was a high school junior I wrote, of going to NEFFA with lots of cousins my age, that:

when we go into the main halls to contra-dance, we have enough people that each of us can have a partner and no one has to dance with the sketchy old-folks
Looking through the early (2006) archives of the BACC mailing list I found another dancer, a college freshman, who wrote:
The percentage chance that you are a creepy old person is approximately equal to the percentage of your hair that has.. shifted in its natural color (for some people, it is important to note that no longer growing is equivalent to graying for this purpose).
The same dancer also wrote:
The teens on the dance floor like to dance the way *they* like to dance. Some of them will ask older dancers to dance, and some prefer to form a teen set when possible. If you would like to come dance in the teen set, we would love to have you, but there will be energy, twirling, spinning, and loud rhythmic balancing (which always gets a cheer, I might add). If you do not want that as part of your dancing, when we form a set, stay away.

My impression is that as people get into their twenties they stop thinking of older dancers as creepy and weird, but often do still feel that older and younger people dance differently and so it's good to be separate. Another dancer, late twenties, wrote:

A lot of the time, probably the majority of the time, my friends and I choose to dance in the "teen" line for the energy. We like to dance lively - the dance is the most fun way to get exercise and I like to make good use of it. I wonder how many of the older-than-us dancers who don't know us individually think we're teens or college students, though, since dancing, after all, tends to keep us all looking young :).

Though I favor the teen line, I really enjoy dancing with folks of all ages, and as a rule appreciate being asked to dance regardless of if I know someone or not. If I think a dance is going to be slow, I am especially open to dancing with anyone and in a non-teen line since I don't know if I'll even be wanting to add lots of flair. Sometimes I just want to appreciate the quiet elegance and the simple flow. If I think a dance will be fast and intense, I often prefer to dance with someone I know - whether of my cohort or not - so I'll know they share the same desire for intensity in that dance.


It's much more a line of creepiness than of age. Maybe some of the younger dancers are overly wary (possibly burned once and not wanting to be burned again), because with a few exceptions now and then we're a very low-creep-factor community. As a general guideline: If you're an older dancer approaching a younger dancer, whether as a potential partner or just in the course of moving down the line, be a little more sensitive than usual to personal space boundaries. As someone who fended off my share of creepy men especially as a teen, the lack of respect for personal space was the single hugest factor for me to put someone on the stay-away-from shortlist. As a younger adult now, I find I get verging-toward-creepy behavior more frequently from men my own age than from the quite gentlemanly older men I've danced with

Some older dancers wrote about dancing in that line too:
Teens: I *love* having the teenagers at the dance! I'm an oldster (just turned 50 yesterday!) but I choose the "kids' set" whenever I can. They're great dancers with enormous enthusiasm. One of their best features is that they're having fun and they show it by *smiling*. I like all the flourishes. Staying on beat and being ready for the next move on time matters a lot to me and mostly the teen line does this.
While I didn't see anyone posting this sentiment to the group, I did see references to survey responses (that are no longer on line) in which people talked about avoiding the kids because of roughness.

This is not a new thing. Looking back further in archives, I found the recollections of someone who danced in the 1950s:

The younger people liked to dance with more gusto. Their sets swung harder, the men sometimes swinging the girl off her feet, yet knowing he could catch her if she slipped. The women also knew how to make it harder for someone to swing them off their feet if they didn't want it, unless they were extremely light. If there happened to be a man who the girls felt wasn't strong enough to catch them or was being an unwanted showoff, they would enlist the help of "Erma", a rugged woman who could hold her own. She would swing the man off his feet, which hurt only his ego. Problem solved.


The young people still danced in time to the music, but put more energy into it. They knew to keep their set in place so as not to disrupt other dancers. It was so exhilarating to have a set with partners who could dance hard and fast.


People of all ages came to the dances. The "elderly" couples stayed in their own sets, as they didn't dance as fast or hard as some of the others. And they preferred not to have strangers join their sets

These are square sets they're talking about, but it's mostly the same idea. You have segregation by energy level, and people who want to dance with others they know.

Which puts me back into the undecided camp. Is splitting up by age traditional, and the idea that everyone should dance together a weird modern thing? It took dancing for years, and growing older, for me to stop caring much about the age of my neighbors and to start partnering (at all) outside my age cohort. My impression is this is a change most young dancers go through if they keep dancing. Should I be trying to speed this change by discouraging the formation of sets with distinct personalities at BIDA dances? Is it even a helpful change?

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