The major thing about these lines that a lot of people don’t understand is that at their heart they operate like other contra dances; you still have pairs progressing through the lines, and you still have people dancing the figures more or less as called -- it’s just that your role (and your partner) may change as you go through the line. The appeal and the challenge of this sort of exercise is to be able to change roles quickly and still complete the dance where you find yourself, and preferably on time. To my mind, the Platonic ideal of such a line operates smoothly enough that if I wanted to, I could take a partner, dance the whole thing straight, and still be able to make it up and back with my partner, meeting hands where I expect them, even as people switch roles and partners all around us.
“Chaos works best when progression continues to work,” agrees New York City dancer Sam Kleinman. “If you try to be too regular about chaos partner switching, you can end up in this echo chamber where you get stuck more or less standing still and as you swap and move partners. The dance matters too. Some dances are worse for chaos sets. Too complicated or a moment with some sort of precise timing and it all feels like mush.... The things that make conventional contras fun -- good flow, nice tension, smooth choreographic tone -- make good chaos sets, and I think it's easy to lose sight of that.”
Steven Roth says, “The thing I love about chaos lines is that it is one of the.few times when shenanigans on your part can greatly increase the enjoyment of the other dancers around you. I really enjoy having to be on my toes for the entire dance, because I can never be sure whose hand will be coming at me next, or even where I myself will be in the set from one moment to the next. It’s a wonderful exercise in adapting to changing conditions in the dance in real time with little-to-no preparation. That’s what I am trying to provide for the other dancers around me, and it’s what I go in hoping that they are trying to provide for me.”
Steven continues, however, that there still needs to be some order: “Still, there has to be some kind logic to everything you do -- swapping partners by changing a ladies’ chain into a right-and-left-through or adding a single ricochet into a hey. When you start playing around with the dance in order to add chaos, you have to do it in such a way that you are clearly communicating where everyone in your set needs to be in order for the dance to continue to work. Just as shenanigans can add to the dance, shenanigans can also really, really mess people up because you no longer have the crutch of knowing that everyone is trying to dance the exact same dance as you. If you make a change and the other people in your set don’t understand what you’re trying to do, you can end up with a situation where three (or even four!) people are trying to progress in the same direction at the same time, which means that the next couple behind you gets stuck trying to do the dance without a complete couple coming at them. Just like that, you just intruded on their fun and that’s not fair.”
Some people even argue that “chaos line” is a misnomer entirely. Brian Hamshar mentions an alternative: “There was a movement at FootFall to refer to it as a ‘shenanigans line,’ and I really like it. It sounds very playful and is way more accurate.... Maybe if no one calls it ‘chaos’ anymore, callers who are not as familiar will feel better about it, and maybe we won't have a repeat of people jumping out of the line!”
Aimee Steussy adds, “My biggest problem with using the term ‘chaos’ is that people tend to take that as, ‘woohoo, we’re going to mess up the line!’ But there is a point where you can’t have much...I mean, yes, play, yes, have fun, yes, switch! Yes, trade in each square, yes, trade back and forth along the line! Just make sure that the people you’re doing it with know you’re doing it, ‘cause you can’t surprise them.... The fun part is, you do the figure, and you’re on time for everybody else -- your shenanigans, your mucking about, whatever, is within the structure of the dance.... Make it so that it works. If you don’t get to where you’re supposed to be, you can throw someone else off, who might be just joining the dance, who’s really enthusiastic, but can get really lost really quickly. If you mess up, laugh, get over it, it’s a quick apology, get going, but still try to stay within the structure to some degree.”
So it seems that the things that you really need for a chaos/shenanigans/wild/whatever line are as follows:
- The ability to dance the dance straight through, at least once. “Chaos sets are not an excuse for dancers to ignore the dance as written,” says Steven. That said, Sam adds the following: “You can't be strict about Doing The Dance Right, and the adage that I've stolen from [fellow dancer] Becky Wright is ‘better never than late.’ If you have to skip a figure to get where you need to be on time, that's better than rushing to make sure you get every movement in.”
- Sam adds, “Though you shouldn't use it all the time, being able to write dances on the fly is a good skill, just because those abilities make it possible to fix things when they go awry, or change partners with grace. But like I said, that can create too much entropy and not in the fun way.”
- Communication. As Aimee points out, “You’ve got to have a hand signal, eye signal, something, that goes, ‘now!’ Because if you do it and they’re not ready for it, you could mess up the line...and that’s not the fun part.”
- Interestingly enough, some measure of order. There is actually a logic to good chaos lines; a California twirl can turn into a balance in and out, a long line going forward and back can turn into a roll-away with a half sashay on the way back, or a California twirl can be turned 90 degrees to swap you with the neighbor behind you.
- The ability to roll with it. Sometimes that means looking for your new partner two or three sets down the line if your partner suddenly leaves and no one’s there to take their place right away. ”It’s like those improv games you might play in a theatre class. You have to be able to say ‘Yes’ to everything that the other people in your set are doing and find a way to go with it and build on it. The moment you try to dig your heels in and say ‘No, the dance doesn’t go that way,’ you have started working against the very purpose of the chaos line.”
I welcome your thoughts -- do you love this sort of exercise? Do you loathe it? What makes it work or not work, in your opinion? Is “chaos line” an inappropriate term? What should we call it instead? Sound off in the comments!
Particular thanks go to the dancers who took the time to share their thoughts for this article!
Update, October 28, 2011, 12:48 A.M.: Someone appears to be continuing this discussion over in teh Forum