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Models Of Contra Dance

May 7th, 2011
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There are several different ways contra dance fits and has fit into our society. The way I'm most familiar with, the thursday night scout house style weekly dance is only one of several. Each fits some kind of niche, but they're often pretty different from each other (this is my categorization; feel free to suggest fixes):

Modern Urban Contra (MUC) is a sometimes derogatory name for the kind of dance I've done most. Generally less than 5% or so of the dancers haven't danced before, but nearly everyone learned by coming in with no experience at some point. These dances are usually weekly, and sometimes an area has multiple weekly dances. The callers and band generally have day jobs, usually ones unrelated to music and dance. Music is live, callers drop out. Booking ahead is common. Many dancers move between dance communities and dancers from different areas see each other at festivals. Nearly all dances are equal turn duple minors and include a partner swing. Few chestnuts. Squares are looked down on. Whole set dances are *really* looked down on.

Modern Rural Contra (MUR) is a name I just made up. These are dances like MUC ones, but in areas with only enough dancers to support a monthly dance or so. These dance communities are generally smaller, often have a house band or caller, and the dancer's level of experience is usually lower. The number of newcomers is often higher and is very variable. Partner swings are not always required in each dance. Some of these places, especially in NH and VT, dance a lot of chestnuts. Occasionally whole set dances. Squares are more common, partly as a way to deal with very small turnouts. Almost always live music.

Schools sometimes bring in a callers to run dances and teach kids about "their traditional folk dance". Some work with live music, others with recorded. A few people make a living calling traditional dances at schools, but this has become harder recently, possibly because of No Child Left Behind and an increased focus on test performance. At these events callers generally choose to do a very wide variety of formations and styles, including whole set dances. The kids have generally not danced before.

Parties, including weddings, birthday parties, etc, often gather a lot of people who've never danced before. Dances are simple, callers need to be very good, and meeting the desires of a range of stake-holders is tricky. Especially with something like a wedding of MUC dancers who have a lot of non-dancing guests (balancing desires of the couple and their dance friends for a MUC style dance with 'real' contra dances against what will be fun for their other guests. Some callers make a living calling parties. Callers generally don't drop out.

Junkets or house parties, where people get together to jam and some people dance. Traditionally part of our folk culture, but now pretty much restricted to parties attended by MUC musicians and callers. Squares are more common due to space constraints, which can require MUC dancers to overcome their dislike. Generally there's no amplification and the callers and musicians are unpaid.

Simple Outdoor Dances, where people dance outdoors in a public space. Some dance groups use these for recruiting. These are usually free because of logistical constraints, though sometimes the performers are paid by a dance organization or grant. There may or may not be amplification. Dances can range from party-style to MUC style.

For Profit Regular Dances are uncommon now, but at one point were as common as the MUC and MUR dances. Often organized by a caller, these were generally popular enough that everyone involved in performing could make a living at it. Recorded music and changing tastes mostly killed these off in the sixties.

There are other ways to structure a dance community, these are just the ones I can recall seeing recently. The main reason I'm thinking about these is a conversation I had at the bida board retreat back in october about money and contra dance. We were mostly thinking about MUC style dances, as that's pretty much what bida runs. One of the people I was talking to believes that it would be good for contra dances to pay their performers well enough that people can afford to make a living. Most professional musicians are paid several hundred dollars a night, while most musicians playing for a MUC dance get much less. They were saying that it makes no sense that contra dance compensation has barely increased since the 70s despite inflation, and that if one tours one often loses money. Contra dancers are used to paying $5-$9 for a night of dancing to live music and a caller, while swing dancers might pay $15 for a night with recorded music and more for live music.

At the time I had the opposite view: musicians and callers in theory deserve to be paid no more than dancers deserve to be paid. The divide in the community between performers and dancers is harmful. Dancers should call or play, and performers should dance. Many more people should learn to run sound and organize dances. My ideal dance is one where everyone who wants to play plays, everyone who wants to call calls, and people move between the stage and the floor. The davis square dances I help organize are an attempt at this. Part of my learning how to call, play, organize, and run sound is wanting to be able to facilitate this sort of thing by doing whatever is needed. Most people involved in MUC are so because they enjoy it, and I don't think distinguishing between a really good dancer and a really good musician is helpful in that context.

Over time my perspective has expanded some. I still think that the previous paragraph applies to MUC, but I now better see the need for the performer/dancer divide in other contexts. It takes longer to become an adequate caller or musician than to become an adequate dancer. So any kind of event where the performer(s) are coming in to a school or something full of people who've never done anything with contra dance before is going to require a divide.

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