[SCA-Dance] Suggestions Wanted

David Learmonth david.a.learmonth at gmail.com
Sun Apr 24 19:25:17 EDT 2011

Just to expedite things, it sounds like Katherine's message might have only
gone to me (tied up in moderator land for the SCA list it seems).  So here
it is below.  (sorry if people get it multiple times!)

On Sun, Apr 24, 2011 at 2:33 PM, Catherine Dean <catherinedean at gmail.com>wrote:

> 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
> movement.
> 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):
> Chirintana
> 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
> Trenchmore
> 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
> dancers).
> 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!
> Katherine
> Catherine E. Dean
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