[SCA-Dance] Suggestions Wanted

Catherine Dean catherinedean at gmail.com
Sun Apr 24 14:33:19 EDT 2011

Greetings all,

I just wanted to weigh in on this since I am both a long-time Renaissance
dancer and an extremely active contra dancer.  I've also been involved with
our local English Country Dance group.  Note that Contra styles differ
regionally and I'm not 100% sure where you're located so I'll note that I am
in Virginia, where there is definitely a more "Mountain" feel to the dancing
vs. say New England which in my experience is a bit more rigid.

I'm actually surprised to hear that one group is organizing (successfully)
both ECD and Contra dances but not surprised to hear that there is some
frustration on the part of established Contra folk.  We don't see much
crossover at all between our local Contra dance and our local ECD group.
People seem to really prefer one or the other, even if they do other forms
of dance as well (Scottish is popular here, as are swing and waltz).

Anyway, I see a couple key differences that are worth emphasizing:

1) Contra is a kinetic experience.  As both Darius and Urraca have noted,
staying exactly on beat is not considered essential to the enjoyment of the
dance, at least as long as everyone is progressing properly and is not too
late for figures where they meet other dancers in the line.  Rather, it is
the enjoyment of the movement itself, in harmony with the music and the
other dancers in the room that matters.  As I say to our newbies: "As long
as you end the dance on your feet and with a smile on your face you've done
it right."

2) Contra is a LIVING form and improvisation is a key part of the
experience.  Unlike much historic dance where virtuosity is shown through
mastery of steps and precision of movement or Modern ECD where it is often
shown through ability to perform complex and novel figures flawlessly and
smoothly, virtuosity in Contra Dance is shown through individual or group
variations such as altering the choreography during heys or swings,
inserting figures or movement from other dance forms at will (swing dance
moves, flat foot or clogging steps, even belly dance), switching dance roles
during the dance with a partner or others in the line, or adding
individualistic movements, twirls, yelps, wiggles, or embellishments that
increase the difficulty or personalize the dance.  The expectation is that
nothing is set in stone and everything is open to interpretation.  Being
yelled at for doing something "wrong" is a non-issue in Contra because
nothing is "wrong" as long as you don't throw off the other dancers.

3): Contra dancers don't know very many figures.  Learning new ones is not
usually necessary once you've danced for a few months and the basic figures
can be covered in 30-60 minutes of instruction.  The more complex figures of
English Country (particularly the types of dances that have been
choreographed over the last 20-30 years) require a whole different mindset
which contra dancers may or may not possess or find interesting.  I think
this is why a lot of contra dancers (at least in my neck of the woods) also
dislike traditional square dancing.  Too many figures to teach, not enough

4) Contra dancing is typically up tempo (as you note) and is almost always
performed to live music.  There is plenty of time to figure out the dance as
you go through it and having time to appreciate and enjoy ("bliss out to")
the musicians once the dance is mastered is part of the fun.  ECD is often
more sedate and is very often performed to shorter recorded music (not sure
if you have live music, but even so I've observed that ECD bands play
shorter tunes than Contra bands).  It is more important to learn the dance
during the walk through (or to know it in advance) since there is less time
to master it during the dance and the payoff is in enjoying the dance much
more than the music.

5) "Flow" is often an important concept in Modern ECD, so that you are
timing the beginning and ending of figures and your movement through them in
such a way as to be constantly in graceful and fluid motion vs. the sharp
staccato nature of many contra moves where you have to hit a strong downbeat
at a key point in a figure and then can move at will from there (i.e. in a
balance and swing--hitting the balance in time with the rest of the room is
important, the rest of the swing has a lot more room for interpretation).
Both styles of dance can be performed "on the beat" but they can be very
disorienting to people used to the other way of interacting with the music.

6) The swing is the most important and usually favorite figure in contra
dance.  Without it you're just going to lose some people because they like
the speed and contact.

OK, so after that long-winded treatise I'll actually answer your question.
I would focus on dances that are choreographically simple (and build on one
another), that are lively, and that incorporate an element of improvisation
for those who wish to play around (but don't require it).  Use GREAT music
(something like Wulgemut or another really high energy recording).  Don't be
offended if some people just don't like it.  A lot of people find that they
really just prefer one type of dance in the end and that's fine.

The dances that come to mind for me are (not all ECD, if you're open to
other dances):
The "Pinwheel dance" portion of Caccia d'Amore (ditto--I think this would be
a real hit and a good mixer/warm-up)
Tangle branle
Half Hannigan
Black Nag
Grimstock (I think the multiple versions of heys would be a big hit)
Gathering Peascods (I think Jenny Plucked Pears might make people a little
self-conscious but GP should go over well)
Picking of Sticks (be prepared for a little chaos but I think the sheepskin
hey and switching places would go over well)
Whirligig (a little choreographically complex but the stars (hands across),
hey, and cross and cast will all be very familiar figures for contra

In general look for dances with stars, crossing, half figure 8s, and heys
(contra dancers do them for 4 but they should get the hang of heys for 3
quickly) as core figures.  I think most of the figures in the 17th century
repertoire will be ok--it's really the later dances where complexity becomes
a real issue.

Enough from me!  Good luck!

Catherine E. Dean
Historically Inspired Designs
Handmade Jewelry and Accessories for History Lovers

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