“I have no argument with folks doing this, I do regret that they call it contra dancing.”
“When you lose the flow [found in traditional music], you lose the very essence of the dance.”
“It looks like she borrowed from an older sister's closet and forgot she was performing in front of a discerning crowd-not some local nightclub.”
“There's nothing wrong with daring and sexy but let's be honest she crossed the line and in the photo looks like a woman working the streets.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog that I disagree with several of those sentiments, in both cases.
I recently saw the movie Midnight in Paris. (Very mild spoiler alert! Skip to next paragraph if you need to remain 100% spoiler-free.) One of the takeaways from that movie is that while we may romanticize some past era as The Golden Age, the people who lived in it thought of it as the modern day, just like we think of 2011 as the modern day. Someone in the year 2061 may well look at our time and think it extraordinary, whereas we just find it to be extra ordinary.
This is not to say by any stretch that there is no value in having hobbies that were more mainstream in a bygone era and are more niche now -- in fact, the entire idea of celebrating folklife in many ways revolves around keeping traditional arts and culture alive. But that’s just it: the tradition is a living one, picked up and carried into the future by present-day people. When people were playing concert piano and going to contra dances back in the day, they were wearing clothes and dancing to music that fit into that era and its social norms. Going back to the musical example, Mozart was seen in the mid-to-late 18th century the same way many see rock stars now. In Vienna in his day, the fashion-forward thing to do was wear tails and a powdered wig, and men were the only ones who performed concert piano so women’s fashion trends were irrelevant (but were equally ridiculous by today’s standards). For better or worse, these days society tells us that the fashion-forward thing for young women to do is wear a rather avant-garde short, brightly-colored tube dress with heels.
Back in the day, going to the barn dance was the popular analog of going to the local club -- people went and mingled and swapped tales of the latest happenings in their (and others’) lives and dance and listen to music by talented musicians. At the time, there was no radio, so the neighbors who had musical talents formed the house band. If we wanted to go completely back to those times, we could certainly eliminate the microphones and sound systems that many bands use, and certainly we could stop importing bands from around the country and only use bands and callers from within a fifty mile radius. Of course, that would mean that Nils Fredland of New Hampshire would never make his way down to Glen Echo; the Syncopaths would never venture out of their neck of the woods in California; and the Dancing Fool weekend out in Washington State couldn’t have Elixir playing since they’re based in New England. And none of them could make recordings of their music, since that technology is a modern invention as well. I think most of us can agree that the folk-dance world would be poorer if those trends were abolished.
But I don’t think people are actually looking to capture exactly what folk dance was like way back when. Rather, they’re seeking to continue it, and the naysayers to crossover contra are looking to do so in ways that exclusively capture former sensibilities instead of incorporating more obviously contemporary ones. As modern people with modern sensibilities, some of those characteristics are working their way in. Composers re-arrange traditional pieces and write original ones, and frequently segue between the two to the steady beat of dancers’ footsteps in a contra hall. Truth be told, modern compositions with traditional instruments and inflections are just as anachronistic as modern compositions with nontraditional ones.
You can argue the aesthetics of it all you want (back in the day I’m sure there were people for whom jigs and reels sounded like nails on a chalkboard), but the evolution is part of what sustains people’s interest.
To use a more modern and more recent example than folk dance, let’s take the modern pop queen of reinvention who -- love her or loathe her -- has managed to keep people’s attention for most of the last thirty years: Madonna. (Yeah, I never thought I would be mentioning her on this blog, either. But I have a point. I promise.) She has gone from being the bleached-and-permed blond Material Girl to being a born-again hippie child who did yoga religiously and studied the Kabbalah (mid-90’s) to embracing a more openly provocative and electronic influence, and has covered several identities in between. I may be much more of a fan of mid-90’s Madonna than I am of 2011 Madonna, but that does not mean that I’m going to try and stop others from going to see her live (and in her current evolution) the next time she rolls into town. I may host a listening party for her 1998 album Ray of Light and privately comment that I wish she’d evolve more in that direction again since I personally prefer that aesthetic to her more recent work; however, I’m also going to respect that somehow she’s managed to keep the international public eye for not only her allotted 15 minutes, but many times over that. In a society with a collective case of untreated ADD and amnesia, that is rather impressive.
Contra dancing, to my mind, has followed a similar (though overall slower) trajectory; people add to the tradition all the time and adapt it to modern sensibilities. Since the 1970’s there has been a folk resurgence in the U.S. and the tradition has been revived and had things added to it. Some additions are more based in traditional pieces and others seek to incorporate contemporary additions of electronics or -- gasp! -- mixed tracks by DJs. But the choreography and the community and the appreciation for both traditional and modern twists on the concept remain essentially intact, much as the appreciation for decently played classical piano remains intact (though I’ll acknowledge the genre faces several publicity problems at this point in time; I had never heard of Yuja Wang before that article ran in the Post, so maybe the clubwear scandal has fulfilled the purpose of bringing lay people’s attention to her art the way many mainstream 24-year-old female musicians have). These factors connect current contra enthusiasts to others who have come before and many who will come after. Meanwhile, I’m headed off to find more audio of Ms. Wang’s playing online.