Thoughts on Dancing the Whole Dance: Positional Calling for Contra

June 2nd, 2023
calling, contra
After yesterday's post on my experience dancing to positional calling, Louise Siddons recommended I read her booklet, Dancing the Whole Dance: Positional Calling for Contra. Overall I like the it: it gives a good explanation of how to call positionally, with a lot of examples handling specific situations, and a lot of advice seemed like it would fix the confusing and frustrating situations from the weekend. I'm very glad the book exists: if people are going to be trying positional calling it's key to have this kind of clear resource.

I do still have trouble imagining someone calling this way without being much more wordy than when using role terms. For example, consider Chart Guthrie's duple improper dance, "Hey in the Barn":

A1 (16) Neighbor balance and swing
A2 (8) Robins chain
(8) Half hey
B1 (16) Partner balance and swing
B2 (8) Robins chain
(8) Half hey to new neighbors

The book gives an example walkthrough of:

Take hands four; face your neighbor. Neighbor, balance and swing; end facing across and stay connected! Notice your next neighbor—they'll be important later! Two of you have a right hand free. [Demonstrate the chain if necessary.] Across the set, right-hand chain to your partner, and take that forward momentum into half a hey, those two passing right shoulder to start. [Demonstrate the hey if necessary; note that for those who crossed the set in the chain, it's the same track.] Meet your partner on the other side: balance and swing; end facing across and stay connected! Across the set, right-hand chain—it's the same two who chained before; this time it's to your neighbor. And those two are right back in for half a hey—and look for that next neighbor—remember them? Meet this new neighbor: balance and swing.

Compare to how I might call this at a Larks/Robins dance:

Take hands four from the top. Neighbor, balance and swing. [Demonstrate the chain if necessary.] Robins chain. [Demonstrate the hey if necessary.] Robins pass right shoulders, half a hey. On the other side of the set, with your partner, balance and swing. Robins chain. Robins pass right, half a hey. Out of the hey meet your new neighbor: balance and swing.

This is still a bit on the wordy end: with more experienced dancers I wouldn't need many of the positional notes, but the positional example likely also would be tightened up in that case.

Or consider Andrea Nettleton's Becket dance, Homeward Bound:

A1 (2) Slide left
(8) Robins allemande right 1.5
(6) Neighbor swing
A2 (8) Long lines forward and back
(8) Larks allemande left 1.5
B1 (8) Balance the ring, Petronella
(8) Balance the ring, Petronella
B2 (16) Partner balance and Swing

The book gives an example walkthrough:

You're with your partner on the side of the set. Face your neighbors across, and with your partner—you're holding hands—slide a couple of steps to the right. We're going to start the walkthrough from here. The dance begins with a slide left into an allemande right for two in the middle of the set. You're connected to your partner so only one of you has a right hand free, and as you slide left you flow into that right-hand allemande with the one coming toward you. Turn once and a half and swing the neighbor waiting for you on the side. End that swing facing across; stay connected. One of you has a left hand free; you'll need it in a moment, but first long lines go forward and back. Now, just two of you in the middle, allemande left once and a half in the middle and fall back into a ring of four. Balance the ring and Petronella spin one place to the right. Balance again and spin to the right. With your partner, balance and swing. End facing across, connected, ready to slide left to new neighbors.

With Larks/Robins I'd call this as:

Take hands four and circle one place to the right; this is a Becket dance. [Wait for chicken noises to subside.] Robins allemande right. [beat] Go once and a half, to your neighbor; swing. Long lines forward and back. Larks allemande left. [beat] Go once and a half, to form a ring. Balance the ring. As in Petronella, spin or step one place to the right. Balance again. Spin to the right. With your partner, balance and swing. In the dance you'd slide left to new neighbors, but let's dance it from here.

The difference here is larger than it looks: the walkthrough can't go any faster than it takes to walk the dance. If you're sufficiently concise the dancers the dancers don't have to stop for you to explain things, and the walkthrough feels smooth and fluid. You can even do it to music, as a rolling start, if you're confident you won't have to stop for clarification or a demo. The role term versions rarely require the dancers to wait and internalize instructions, while the positional versions often do.

If I found positional calling very compelling for other reasons, I could potentially overlook the verbosity. But picking up the book as a big fan of gender-free role-based (Larks/Robins) calling, however, the question I had bouncing around my head the whole time was "how is this an improvement over Larks/Robins"? Initially I was frustrated by the short dismissal of this approach:

While alternative role terms such as 'larks and robins' avoid the problem of being discriminatory and exclusionary (and certainly reduce the prevalence of gendered commentary on the dance floor, which can be as alienating as anything a caller says!) they have limited utility when no one can tell, by looking, who is what. (p4)

While I would have enjoyed a more explicit treatment, the reasons for preferring a positional approach are there, just as background throughout the book instead of concentrated in one section. For example:

role-based calling teaches us to think of ourselves as individuals interacting with people, rather than as part of a set describing a pattern. (p7)

Whenever we use role terms, we reinforce the misconception that the structure of a contra dance is two people, partnered, dancing with a series of other couples. (p8)

I don't think I see how using role terms has this effect, but even if they did I wouldn't see that as a bad thing. Yes, in most dances your attention is on people physically near you as opposed to on the set as a whole; I don't see an issue with that?

Where I start to really disagree, though, is on the idea that there being two distinct roles is a problem with the dance:

Flourishes are a critical element of contra dancing, and when we eliminate gendered assumptions about them from our teaching and calling we open this aspect of dancing up more fully to all participants. ... One way to celebrate it is to offer flourishes that can be led by all the dancers on the floor—especially if they enhance the flow of the dance.

In a world in which the Lark/Gent/Lead/Left-hand role is for men and the Robin/Lady/Follow/Right-hand role is for women, then I definitely agree that having the roles be very different is an issue. But as we settle into a new norm in which there are still two roles but it's widely accepted and common for anyone to dance either role, including switching during the dance, I don't see a compelling reason to push for the roles to be more similar to each other.

In fact, I would go the other way: as someone who enjoys dancing both roles and at a typical evening ends up in both about half the time, I dance them very differently and especially enjoy when others embrace that asymmetry. Just as we take turns talking instead of everyone talking simultaneously, explicitly passing the lead back and forth by trading off roles allows the communication of much more interesting ideas. And since dance is made up of motions instead of words, agreement on who's currently "talking" makes the dance a lot safer. This trading is facilitated by the role-specific hand positions, Larks with palms up and Robins with palms down (which is strangely absent from the "Rules versus roles" section), where people signal to others (and remind themselves) which role they're dancing.

While the author does encourage swapping (p8) they also recommend phrasing like "the dancers who just crossed the set keep moving forward to go through the middle first", "right-hand chain—it's the same two who chained before. And those two are right back in for half a hey", or "the same people who started the hey pull by left in the chain". These phrasings work poorly with swapping: they tell your neighbors they they can rely on you to dance a single role throughout the dance.

I do appreciate that the book is deeper than a how-to manual, getting into how the author sees contra dancing today, and how the form could grow and change in the future: I think it would be less coherent without that underlying vision. Unfortunately it's a vision of a dance that gives up a lot of what I enjoy about the dance today without bringing much to replace it. While, as I've said a few times, I see the potential for skillful positional calling to allow callers to step around arguments over role terms, for communities that are already using Larks/Robins I don't see a benefit.

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