Squares, Contras, Phrasing

November 12th, 2011
contra, dance, music
Last night I played for an old time square dance. We were in a barn [1], and I spent most of the night on octave fiddle. Playing old time tunes, some of them crooked [2], for dancers who were dancing to the beat of the music felt very weird to me. In the contra and square dancing I'm used to, the dancers dance to the phrase. Dancing to the phrase, if you're supposed to chain across you do it when the music tells you to, but if you're dancing to the beat you do it whenever you're ready.

A lot of what I've been working on lately as a musician is playing to support the dancers. In contra dancing, this means choosing appropriate tunes and then playing them in a way that emphasizes the different parts of the dance. For repeated petronellas you'd want short (four beat) chunks while for a full hey you'd want something with a less chunky feel. You want the dancers to know when to do different things without thinking about it. For a contra dance this isn't so hard, because a given part of the dance will always match up with the same part of the music. For the unphrased squares last night, though, this wasn't true at all. I pretty much just played with the band and ignored the dancers, which really felt wrong to me.


[1] Uneven floor, too cold, choosing between too much and too little lighting (they chose the latter), but a lot of fun.

[2] A crooked tune has an unexpected number of beats. Most tunes have sixty four beats, divided into four sections of sixteen beats. A tune with a different number of sections or different length sections isn't usually considered crooked, as long as every section is a multiple of eight.

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