[SCA-Dance] Suggestions Wanted

Aaron Elkiss aelkiss at umich.edu
Mon Apr 25 11:45:17 EDT 2011

Some notes from the field in Ann Arbor, from one who has both danced &
played period & modern English as well as contras:

We have very active English & Contra communities. In general, nearly
everyone that dances English will also do contra with varying levels
of enthusiasm. Some contra dancers will not dance English, viewing it
(I think) as slow or boring, but I think most are willing to do it.
Most contra dancers don't mind the occasional square. There are
occasional events with a mix of English, contras, squares, and other
dances, and these are successful events here. There is not a huge
overlap in musicians that play for English and contras. Those that do
tend to be the more accomplished musicians.

In general any musician that will play for English is good at sight
reading and ought to be able to handle most 16th century and later
repertoire if you can give them music, an idea of the tempo, and a
little bit of time to prepare (that is to say, try not to spring it on
them the night of the dance). The Barnes books do have most of the
better-known 1651 Playford dances. The one thing I can't emphasize
enough with this is that it's crucial to give the musicians an idea of
the tempo you want, because it's rarely obvious from the
transcriptions, and musicians with "modern" instincts will often get
the wrong idea. Things with tempo changes are probably in general not
a good fit for either the musicians or dancers in this community.

Both English and contra dancers here tend to emphasize some things
that tend to get a bit underemphasized in the SCA:

One is connecting with your partner, both physically & visually. With
English the visual connection is much more important since most of the
dances minimize partner contact. What that means is paying attention
to your partner and using body language to clearly indicate where you
are going, where you expect your partner to go, and when you expect
them to do it. Contra dancers are perhaps less used to needing to do
that, since figures tend to have more physical connection and are
usually (but by no means always) simpler.

The other is the idea of "flow" - figures should take up exactly as
much time and space as the music specifies -- and this is true for
both English & contra. Contra dancers here do in general tend to dance
on top of the music, but the figures often allow a little bit more
room for "slop" which may make it seem like the dancers are not always
dancing to the music. If it's done well (in my opinion), the figures
should flow right into each other and there may not be a clear
distinction between the end of one figure and the beginning of the

I think it's definitely possible to introduce English dances to an
audience that primarily dances contra, but the dances they'll enjoy
are probably as idiosyncratic as the dancers. Some might want to stick
to uptempo duple minor longways, others might enjoy one of the simpler
squares (Hyde Park or something). I'd probably avoid any of the
waltz-time stuff that tends to be a big part of the modern English
repertoire or anything with really complex figures (which really
depends on the caller more than anything else -- if you can explain it
to a newbie in 30 seconds or less, it isn't complex.). In general I
think anything that's fairly upbeat and where the momentum of the
figures carries you from one to the next would work well.

Finally, if you are interested, I can put you in touch with some of
the callers around here; I think they could probably provide you with
a good list of English dances that contra dancers might like. Let me
know if you're interested.


On Sun, Apr 24, 2011 at 6:22 PM, Scot and Michelle Henry
<cshenry at peoplepc.com> wrote:
> Thanks for all the information.  Just to add to the information I provided -
> the group does have different live bands for all Saturdays.  I'm not sure if
> the bands play both styles.  As a non-musician, I did ask how I would know
> whether or not the band would know the music and she mentioned a Barnes
> book.  I'm assuming that means if it's ECD, they should have it.  So, I'm
> not sure I could introduce anything that is not ECD.  We plan to chat more
> through email, so I'll know more later.
> Since I've only done ECD three times outside the SCA and haven't looked at
> later period ECDs, I'm not sure how much change actually occurs over the
> years.  However, except for the 1/2 night that we did SCA dances, the other
> dances seem like they could have a definite end after one time through the
> dance, but we have danced them for an extended period of time like the
> contra dances.  We did a dance last night that seemed to fit the pattern of
> Black Nag where each couple takes a turn leading the dance once through, but
> we ended up leading three times each (nine times through the dance).  So, I
> could potentially just modify several of our dances to include more repeats.
> I have also considered showing them more flourishes and actually discussing
> how to lead within the set to help people get where they need to be without
> feeling the need to yell at them.  I think that knowing they can
> personalize/add to the dance a bit may help.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: sca-dance-bounces+cshenry=ev1.net at sca-dance.org
> [mailto:sca-dance-bounces+cshenry=ev1.net at sca-dance.org] On Behalf Of
> Catherine Dean
> Sent: Sunday, April 24, 2011 1:33 PM
> To: David Learmonth
> Cc: sca-dance
> Subject: Re: [SCA-Dance] Suggestions Wanted
> 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
> Historically Inspired Designs
> Handmade Jewelry and Accessories for History Lovers
> http://www.historicallyinspired.com
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