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Topic-icon Rhodri Davies - Contra Dance State of the Union

2 years 7 months ago #10 by Chris Turner
Chris Turner created the topic: Rhodri Davies - Contra Dance State of the Union
Rhodri Davies considers the Contra dance State of the Union: 2016

I became hooked on Contra dancing when I first went to Sidmouth Folk Festival in either 1986 or 1987. I became fascinated by the smooth transitions between moves and the way that what is at heart a fairly simple formation and restricted set of moves can be rearranged into so many sequences. That was in the days of morning workshops in the Ham marquee with callers like John Chapman and Joe Hodgson with bands like Arden Folk, Junction 24 (or Hoedown as they were then) and The Falconers. I have memories of the large marquee being packed with people, of dodging the tent poles and of the ‘Ham Shuffle’ to move everyone back up the slope. Oh and don't forget the cakes at the tea dances. What I don't remember is thinking of these dances by the name ‘contra’ - they were just ‘American dances’. Also, while there were clearly bands that where particularly at home in this ‘American’ style, festivals where using people who could play ‘American’ for the first workshop of the morning and switch to ‘Playford ‘for the second. The style of dancing then was different too: no spins in dosidos, always courtesy turns on the ladies chains, and as for a ‘Mad Robin’, that was either an enraged avian or a Playford dance, not a 4 bar contra move.

At that time, outside the festival events, I don't remember going to evenings exclusively of contras (and squares). I remember them being parts of otherwise mixed programmes. Perhaps my recollection is betraying me there, since I also remember travelling some distance for dances by JC, and collecting quite a few longways dances and squares from him, but I don't remember them being billed as evenings of exclusively contra dances at the time. Contrast that with the current situation with a number of ‘Contra’ dance series being billed and a choice of bands that specialise in playing only for this style. We also have regular visits from American callers and bands specialising in the one genre.

Of course, Contras as we know them today are a relatively new phenomenon in folk dancing. Whilst the roots of Contras go back centuries, they cannot claim the antiquity of Playford’s collection. The modern approach with equal activity for both couples, and the current style of dancing the moves really started taking hold in the 1970s and 1980s. The classic collection ‘Zesty Contras’ was published in 1983 and the Contra petronella move is recorded as having been invented in the early 1970s (see the publication ‘Cracking Chestnuts’).

One way to think about how this style has developed in the UK is to take the Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival (IVFDF), which is aimed at younger dancers, as a case study. I was chair of the festival when it was held in Manchester in 1994, and persuaded friends of mine from Seattle, caller Mike Richardson and Claude Ginsberg and Julie King of the band KGB, to come on a mini UK tour and appear at the festival. We held a Friday night event billed as an ‘American Dance with Real Americans’. That was scheduled against a ceilidh with All Blacked up and Martyn Harvey. As I recall the American dance went well, but the crowds were at the ceilidh. That was the first time in my experience of IVFDF that there was a specific American dance and the experiment was not repeated for a number of years, though there were a steady stream of Contra workshops at the festival. Then move forwards to 2004 when IVFDF Exeter booked Fiddling Around with me calling for a ‘Contra Ceilidh ‘. Fiddling Around were what I think of as one of the first specialist modern contra dance bands we had in this country and their arrangements and energy had a lot to do with moving contra dancing up a gear. They were also great to work with and I learned a lot from teaming up with them. I recall that IVFDF 2004 dance as a major success, and a contra dance has, in subsequent years, become a major part of the festival, drawing in significant numbers and challenging the ceilidhs for numeric supremacy. At the 2016 Warwick IVFDF there were, for the first time at IVFDF, contra dances on 2 nights, the first one in the memorable venue of Coventry Cathedral.

So where have we got to today? In my opinion Contra dancing is still as exciting and flowing as it was when I was first attracted to it. There are also plenty of new ideas being brought in, with a wealth of classic dances to be dipped into. Contra dance at festivals and specialist weeks, such as those at Halsway Manor, is going strong. There seem to be more Contra dance clubs than ever, though as with all clubs, running them at a profit is a challenge. Perhaps this is more of a challenge for Contra events than for some other folk dance clubs, since there is an expectation of live music (hooray!).

It is my observation that a number of dance styles started out with comparatively approachable simplicity, energy and enthusiasm, but as the adherents have got more sophisticated (and older) they have traded those initial values for a more sedate, cerebral complexity that has failed to draw in ‘fresh blood’ in sufficient quantities to renew the community. That is something that those of us fond of contras would do well to bear in mind.

That said, the style is still exciting younger, more energetic dancers, there are new generations of specialist contra dance bands springing into existence and plenty of callers younger than me who are interested in the style, so that I think it has the stamina to keep going for the foreseeable future.

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2 years 3 months ago #25 by Andrew Findlay
Andrew Findlay replied to the topic: Rhodri Davies - Contra Dance State of the Union
Rhod makes a good point about dance series evolving towards slower more complex styles. Organisers would do well to ponder the consequences of that choice - and it is a choice. If you adapt your dance events to retain your older dancers the series will eventually die. On the other hand, if you keep to the same level of energy and beginner-friendliness you will have to continually attract new dancers to replace the ones who age out.
The contra series that I am most familiar with (London Barndance, Alcester, Englefield Green) are holding to a fairly constant level of energy which I think is a good sign. Interestingly, they also have a wide age-range among the regular dancers but each series adapts to this in a different way.
London Barndance is the most 'public' of the three, and a lot of our younger dancers arrive in one-off groups. Our regulars are very accommodating, and many will happily dance with the beginners which gets them onto the floor quickly and gives them a good experience straight away. This does mean that callers have to be prepared to switch to a simpler programme if a big party turns up, but the glory of contra is that simple dances can still be very satisfying for more experienced dancers. A good example of this in action was the dance in October 2016 with Sue Rosen calling: we knew that a birthday party was coming but we did not know it would be 50 people... Everyone adapted well and had a great time so contra might have won some more supporters there.
Alcester Contras have a more stable audience, and the younger dancers mostly come from university dance clubs at Warwick and Coventry. This means that dances can be a little more complex, but the interesting thing is to watch the interaction of the different age-groups. Alcester has quite a high energy level but it also has a few long-standing dancers with creaky joints; the students quickly work out who will do the extra twirls and who needs a bit more care. Dancers who really cannot keep up tend to stop coming, but those who adapt so they are in the right place at the right time are happily incorporated.
The Englefield Green series has the lowest turnover of dancers, so the dances tend to be a bit more complex. That does not mean a lower energy level though, and most of us go home sweaty and well exercised. New dancers tend to arrive in small numbers so they are always surrounded by more experienced people.
Contra has another advantage which it shares to some extent with eCeilidh: most dancers change partners after every dance. This mixes up the age groups and the dance-ability groups so newcomers learn fast and long-standing dancers are kept on their toes. Long may it last!

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