The changing dynamic of contra

May 11th, 2012
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.
  • "what's the problem with lead and follow?" link
  • "One person suggests routes and ways to move around the floor, and the other decides which suggestions to take, and how fast to go" link
  • "I'm confused by Danner's 'navigators' and 'drivers' thing since he seems to be assuming that one person decides what to do. In a contra dance? No! Couples dance, yes, but in a contra each dancer moves independently some of the time and equally (allemande, do-si-do) most of the rest. There's really no 'leading' in contra--hardly even any different movement for roles except in swinging and courtesy turn. 'Driver' and 'navigator' are meaningless, even misleading in contra." link
  • "Nix the leader/follower: Contra is NOT a lead-follow dance. We both know the pattern and where we're going - what's to lead? I lead & follow in other types of dance, and Contra does not feel like that at all. Also men who think they are leading me in contra tend to be uncomfortable to dance with." link
  • "90% of my enjoyment of contra dancing comes from exploring and leading new connections through a dance, feeling what moves can be connected smoothly, and having fun with those connections and my partner. My lead is where my creativity can be shown. It sounds like you would rather if I dance mechanically to what the caller says, and while I like a lot of callers, I'll be damned if I am going to do everything they tell me and only what they tell me." link
Update 2012-01-02:
The discussion migrated to the SharedWeight caller's listserv:
  • "Why don't the terms 'lead' and 'follow' suffice? Is there just too much residual baggage there? Because to me, it seems like the most accurate pair of terms."
  • "In my experience, there just isn't a leader and follower dynamic in contradancing. Not the way that there is in other forms of partnered dance. Or that there historically may have been in contra or its related genres. It does seem that some women dancers depend on leadership from the gent role, and some men dancers feel pressure to direct the non-gent role dancers. But I don't think there's any lead/follow component inherent in the contra dance form."
  • "Anyone who has learned ballroom/couple dances (waltz, foxtrot, swing,tango) understands what the lead/follow roles are. Contra dancing is not lead/follow."

[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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