Specifically, I want to address my viewpoint on a common complaint about this whole crossover contra thing, that somehow crossover contra "isn't really contra dancing" because it uses non-traditional music.
Some contra dancers are very much in it for the (traditional) music. Contra dances are a rather rare chance to regularly see and dance to (usually) live music in a place where the popular culture is unchoreographed dance to recorded music. Several people would happily give up the dance itself if only for a reason to sit and listen to a live music group, and I've known injured dancers to come to dances and essentially treat them as concerts. And that is of course their right. But, as David Eisner observed in a comment over on the Americana and roots music blog No Depression, an event strictly meant to be a concert simply doesn't draw the same crowd as the dances do. A dance is a different animal that is not ruled entirely by the music. (Also, while the live music is great, if my local contra dance was regularly conducted to traditional recorded music -- which is regularly the case in some places -- I'd very likely still go.)
Other contra dancers come for the dance itself -- be it the actual choreography or the cardiovascular exercise derived from it. I know several social dancers, and not just the contra dancers, who are in it because dancing is a heck of a lot more fun than heading for a gym. I'll grant that: I'll admit that I dropped a noticeable amount of weight and have kept it off since I started contra dancing, and it's a nice side benefit for me. And for some of those same people, the best part of the dance is smoothly gliding from one move, precisely as written, to another move, as written. Okay, go ahead, have fun.
But others -- me included -- come into this for a third reason: the community, or to my mind more importantly, the dancers themselves. These are, by and large, people I know or who are friends-of-friends. They've been "vetted," so to speak, to get rid of the vast majority of the creepers and the meat-market types that I have experienced in the club scene. Techno contra, while an event with admission, ends up feeling like a party where you go dancing with your friends with some cool lighting effects and glowsticks.
To my mind, this is a vast improvement over some alcohol-soaked venue where you maybe know a handful of people and have to keep your purse securely fastened to your body at all times (since if you leave it or your drink alone, it will likely not be in the same condition when you return). I have lost and not found exactly one item at a dance in four-plus years of contra. In both traditional and crossover contra, I've got a caller telling me the basic idea of what to do and everybody is basically doing it (I would think my opinion on flourishes would be pretty clear by now), which means that everybody is busy with the choreography rather than obviously "sizing up" all of the other dancers. I, for one, love the lights and the glowsticks, I just don't love the aforementioned baggage that generally comes with it in the club scene. For me, crossover contra feels like the good parts of the clubbing experience imported into the folkie community.
In the dance form, regardless of the music involved, anybody can dance with anybody -- more importantly, just about everybody will dance with everybody at some point in the evening -- and it creates a really soft landing for newbies, even if they don't get the steps 100% right. This was the main reason I came back to contra dancing the first time and it's a large part of why I keep coming back years later. And whether I'm swinging with someone to the music of Contrazz or Ke$ha, this will still be the case.
The three factors combine to make the contra dance experience what it is (be it traditional or otherwise), and clearly, changing one factor will change the experience. Many of the people I've talked to have described the nexus of the three forming a "sweet spot" that they aim for in evaluating and crafting contra events. Some events do this with more success than others, but to me the common factor in determining how well it went seems to be the dancers' reactions. Some complain of the lack of a "human element" in crossover contra, but to my mind these people are overlooking one of the biggest human elements in the whole endeavor.
Fortunately, I live in an area where I can go to either variety -- and frequently attend both. I don't see that changing and I really don't see crossover taking anything away from traditional contra, merely adding a different element to the mix.
Ryan Holman is the primary blogger and most of the brains behind ContraSyncretist.com. She is based in the Glen Echo dance community, is a member of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, and can regularly be found at both the Friday Night Dance and Contra Sonic dance series.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!